Our sense of smell is the one most strongly linked to our memories, so there is no wonder why we will sometimes find ourselves transported back in time by a certain aroma in the air. There is a certain moment when a very light rain over a field will transport me back to a trip to Ireland, where I stood in a light mist and looking over a field so green that you would think it wasn’t possible. In a department store, the sudden whiff of newly shipped merchandise will bring me straight back to being six years old, and shopping for back-to-school clothes in Sears. Newly mown grass has me thinking about the years when my Dad was a landscaper, and I would play in the woods until he had finished mowing one lawn, and the smell of grass would fill the van as we got in to make our way to the next customer’s lawn.
Some of the strongest scent memories I have remind me of happy childhood days spent with my Nana. She was a sweet, nurturing woman born in 1899 to the son and daughter of German immigrants. I was the youngest daughter of her youngest daughter, and to my mind she doted on me especially. By the time I was spending my summers and after school hours at her home, it was a well-lived in older house, with a very damp basement that I was not allowed to explore. With what I know about my adult propensity toward allergic reactions to all kinds of mold, mildew and the like, that decree probably was a life-saving one.
As a result, a strange assortment of aromas will send me right back into my Nana’s house, a small child again. The back bedroom with the twin beds and their clean yet worn chenille bedspreads was my room to nap in, and certain sachets or perfumes will remind me of the collection of strange powder puff jars and perfumes collected on the dresser from that room. She lived close to a small airport, and the sound of a small plane going overhead on a sunny summer afternoon reminds me of happily dozing in that bedroom on otherwise very quiet days.
On certain nights, when my father would be later than usual coming to pick my mother and me up after work, Nana would make us dinner. She cooked in a completely different style than my father, cooking pork chops in brown gravy with long slices of onion, and red cabbage was a frequent visitor to the dinner table. She cooked ham with little cloves pressed into it, and made cakes from scratch, sometimes coconut or fresh oranges mixed into the icing and the cake itself. Her kitchen always smelled wonderful, like you would be fed and loved there. Orange cake and red cabbage in particular still send me right back to that kitchen, with the cute hand-painted pink page-boy collar trim along the edges of the ceiling.
Anyone who knows of my extreme fondness for coffee would not be surprised that my first forays into the wonderful world of caffeine were when I was three or four. My mother and Nana would sit at a tiny wrought iron café set in an alcove of the kitchen, drinking freeze-dried instant coffee for hours. It smelled so good, and they drank so much of it, that I would campaign to have some with them. Eventually, I was brought into their café society, and drank instant coffee with tons of milk and sugar at the little table set. Opening up a jar of Sanka or store brand instant coffee makes me smile and dream of sitting back at that little table, looking out the window over the tiny garden in the back yard. In truth, it was probably really crappy coffee, but it seemed heavenly to me then, and a lifelong affair with coffee was born.
Antique stores and old attics have that certain musty, undisturbed cupboard smell that abounded in Nana’s house. When I am missing her most acutely, I will go to what is more fashionably called a vintage store today, and move things around, hoping to catch a glimpse of something that she might have had in her house. I am constantly in search of dishes in her particular little pretty flowered pattern, and just might faint if I ever come across any – my personal antique holy grail. Amid the familiarity of old musty doilies and dusty ceramics made in Occupied Japan, I feel close to Nana and remember feeling safe, loved and happy in her house. I’m grateful for the strong link those certain smells have to my tender memories of the woman who meant so much to me, and when I need a little comforting, there’s nothing like some lily of the valley toilet water or a freshly laundered old chenille blanket to bring me back to simpler times, and ease my troubled soul.