Thursday, May 07, 2009

Lilacs in the Rain Just Before Dawn

Perhaps because of my discovery of Facebook some time ago, I've spent the last few months thinking a lot about memories and how they help create who we become. I've made some marvelous connections with old, cherished friends who helped mold me into the person I am; friends whose ideas, laughter, borrowed courage, and love are still a part of me. I've been able to send some long overdue thankyous to a few of these important people. Such connections have given me roots, even though I've spent much of the last fifteen years feeling like a perpetual transplant.

Very early this morning, I had a memory that sprang from a smell rather than a person. A smell that I only enjoy for a week or two each spring, but it is a smell that whispers the promise of warmer weather, birthday gifts and change: the heady scent of lilac caught me in full force as I delivered a newspaper to somebody's porch. It had been raining, so the scent was particularly pronounced, and sure enough, just a few feet to my right was an enormous tree in full blossom. How lovely and surprising to smell it before I could even see it.

There is a lot of scientific research about the connection between memories and smells, but there is still much about the mechanism of the linking that remains unknown. Like most things to do with the brain, neurologists have barely scratched the surface for how it all works. I'm just glad that it does. Lilacs remind me of growing up in Utah because there was an enormous hedge of them on the border between our house and our neighbor's house when I was a child. They bloomed every spring right around the time of my birthday and mother's day. Their lovely scent makes me think of old-fashioned things, a grandfather I have only a single memory of, and the promised renewal of life each spring.

When Plantboy and I hadn't been married long he unpacked a box that contained several books from his mission. They were warped and water stained. The mildew-smell coming from the box was strong, though the books had long dried out. Plantboy grinned and inhaled deeply, "Ah! It smells just like Brazil!" Even bad smells, when attached to fond memories, can make us smile.

I have other favorite smells.

I smelled wisteria for the first time on my mission. It doesn't grow in Utah, but in Australia many people put it on arbors in their yards where it blooms prolifically in September and October. It was intoxicating to walk under these trellises on the way to knock on a door. It was a companion from New Zealand who identified it for me. I have since seen its popularity in both Oregon and Texas, but it always reminds me of Australia.

Eucalyptus reminds me of Australia too. There are tons of eucalyptus trees in the great south land--they call them gum trees. Just before the rain, the change in pressure causes the oils in the leaves to be released, filling the air with the most amazing smell. But watch out for the rain: as soon as you smell the gum trees it is too late to run for cover.

Fresh-mowed grass reminds me of hard-work and order. Mowing lawns was the first chore I could get more than a few cents for. Mowed lawns are so tidy and organized. Even the most beautiful yards look shabby when the lawns get over-long. The only scent that says summertime to me more than cut grass is grape taffy. I think the grape taffy must be a holdover from all of the ballgames we watched my dad play in when I was a child.

There was (and maybe still is?) a patch of wild roses in one of the beds near the east fountain at the Houston Temple. Most roses people want in their gardens are bred for huge blooms and lovely colors, but their wild cousins aren't much to look at. They were wild and thorny with tiny flowers and lots of leaves. But the smell? Oh. Wow. If you are lucky, you can find wild roses while you are hiking, and wild rose hips make the most interesting and fragrant ice cream you have ever eaten.

Before all you allergy-prone people start sneezing from just reading about all the outside smells that I love, there are inside smells I love too.

Cinnamon and cloves make me think of Christmastime, even more than the smell of pine. I also think of Christmas when I smell my mother's gingerbread--full of yummy spices and molasses. It is the coziest smell in the world.

Any decadent thing baking my oven--cakes, cookies, sweetbread and the like--reminds me of good times. You don't bake treats unless there is money and time for a little bit of frivolity, or an important event coming up.

When my house is freshly cleaned and there is a combination of lemon and disinfectant in the air, I feel so organized and together. I am reminded of Saturday mornings as a kid when we'd all work together in the house for a couple of hours to have the house spic and span before we started each new week.

Then there are the people smells! Now, granted, many of the people smells are not so great, and we go to great lengths to cover them up, but here are a few I love.

When I thought of baby smells before I had children, I mostly thought of Baby Magic lotion or Johnson's baby oil. When my own firstborn turned out to have such sensitive skin that no products whatsoever could be used on his skin, I realized that he had a luscious scent all of his own. Just a good, clean, baby smell. I could smell it the strongest around the soft spot on his gorgeous little head and it made me want to bury my head in his neck and and just kiss him all the time. Baby number two didn't have this smell so much, but baby number three did.

As for covering up smells . . . when I met Plantboy he wore an Abercrombie and Fitch cologne called "Woods." Hubba-hubba. At the time, Eternity was so popular among college and high school guys alike that I felt like that sickly sweet aroma was nearly constantly in my nostrils. Plantboy's chosen cologne was so much more subtle and earthy. Also, he didn't bathe in it, which is helpful. (He recently found an Axe brand shower gel that smells similar. He said he is planning on writing the company to get his money back for false advertising, however. Apparently he expected to see dozens of panting women just outside the bathroom when he finished showering with it, as per the commercials.)

Remember in the mid-90's when all those Victoria's Secret lotions came out? The classics--Pear, Vanilla, Tranquil Breezes--you remember. My second year in college, everyone went crazy with this stuff. The boys would sit in class, hardly able to concentrate on a word being said. A friend turned to Pocohantas one day in class and nearly yelled, "You two smell good enough to eat! You're driving me crazy!" I still can't use any vanilla lotion without thinking about that comment. But sometimes, driving her man crazy is just what a girl needs. Maybe it is time to get back out the vanilla lotion and make more unforgettable moments . . .


Sunnie said...

this is so true with smells. it's so funny how it works! there used to be this vanilla smell that would remind me of a trip i took with friends in high school. it's so strange that the trigger works almost automatically.

Jenny said...

Aroma is a very strong trigger. Wysteria is one that I love--makes me think romantical thoughts. But hello, GRAPE TAFFY?? umm, I think we were seriously soul sisters in another life. Freshly ironed linens is one of my favorite indoor scents... that, and linens right off the clothesline and then the smell of rain on the pavement... I guess there are many. Freshly baked bread. That's enough.

chicagosapps said...

That's funny I was thinking of/smelling lilacs today too. They always remind me of my Mom, who loves them and would cut a fresh bunch every day and put them all around the house. They don't have any lilacs in the desert now, she says that's the thing she misses the most, our big lilac tree.

Princess Consuela Bananahammock said...

I had a smell-memory moment earlier today, only it wasn't quite so pleasant. Let's just say that something in my friend's car reminded me of my most recent hospital visit and I didn't want to remember THAT part of it.

But the smell of Gardenias does it for me. And freshly laundered clothes. I also loved the scent of the gum trees in Australia--it reminded me of my childhood growing up in San Diego! So yeah, I know what you mean. :)

Melanie said...

Sounds like your birthday is coming up (so is mine) - Happy Birthday!

It's true, smell has such a close connection to memory. Of course, now that I try to think of some examples I can't. The various smells of a city always seem to remind me of my mission in Argentina or my study abroad trip to Europe.

chris w said...

It's funny that memory came back to you this week while delivering papers. One of my favorite smell/memory experiences was a house on MY paper route that had cedar shingles on the front porch and every time it rained I was taken back to a family camping trip to a cabin in Yellowstone.

Even funnier, I just finished a post on my blog about some blossoms across from my front yard that are in full bloom and are creating a heaven every time I open my front door.
They also make me very happy because it reminds me of walking to Institute at USU. :)

kanaboke said...

funny you wrote about Plantboy's smell because I remember Aaron wore Brooks Brothers' Classic Cologne when we were first dating...he hasn't worn it for sooooo long, but I'm sure if I smelled it, it might just get me a bit "randy"!!

The Grahams said...

I hope this comment doesn't interupt any unforgettable moments you might be making right now....I love smells, they make me happy, they make me sad they really just make so many memories come flooding back for good and for bad.

Z. Marie said...

I love cedar. We had the trees all over our property growing up, and we'd use tiny sticks of it for starting fires in the wood-burning stove.