The scent of a memory

by Jennifer on April 11, 2008

I found it at the bottom of a drawer today, a small, purse-size bottle of a perfume I love, L’Instant by Guerlain. It was half empty–or half-full, I should say, since finding it was a simple, happy surprise–and must have been in that dark drawer for months. My larger bottle of the same perfume, my favorite, was used up at least that long ago, and I never replaced it, though why I haven’t makes little sense to me now.

I pulled out the stopper and dabbed a bit of it on both wrists, then just behind each ear, in that spot where we all hope a kiss might find its way. There. I waited a moment for my wrist to dry, then held it to my nose and breathed in. Ahh. Because I love it, it seemed as though all of my sensory pathways opened to it. For the rest of the day, I found myself holding my wrist to my nose so I could smell it again. I’ve missed it, though it’s a silly thing to miss, I suppose.

Once, while wearing this perfume, I talked a poker opponent out of calling my all-in move, a strategy that worked because I was sitting right next to him at the table. We were the only two players left in the hand and he had more chips than me, so if I lost, the tournament was over for me. I said, “Come on, you don’t want to call. I’m nice. I’m fun to talk to.” He laughed and agreed. The whole table was watching and waiting, and they laughed, too.

“And I smell good,” I added. At that, he smiled and nodded sort of side to side, deliberating for another moment. And then he folded.

He would have won the hand (unless I drew out on him with my Ace King, that matched nothing on the board after the flop). Two hands later, he got knocked out of the tournament (I kind of felt bad, then), and I made the final table that night. To be fair, he had some knowledge of my style of play, and might not have thought I would push without a decent hand. But he told me after the hand was over that all he could think about was that some smelly guy would take my place if I left. (Ladies–especially you, Holly— you’re welcome to steal this maneuver. I can’t guarantee the results, but there’s anecdotal evidence that it could work.)

Scent is a powerful element in our lives. There are certain ones that can bring back a sweet memory, or a whole swarm of them. Just one thread of memory, or enough to make a comforting blanket. (This can work the other way, too, when a scent evokes a bad memory. But I’m focusing on the good stuff today.)

When I smell salty sea air, no matter what coast I’m on, it reminds me of the years I spent in Connecticut and lived close enough to drive to the beach as often as I liked. On the way, I would open my car window, waiting for that moment when I got close enough to the water that I could smell it before I could see it. Sometimes, I would sit in the sand and write or read. When the tide was out, I would walk or jump from rock to rock to the end of the jetty, barefoot, and sit for a long time, scooting backward as the tide crept back in by inches.

Other times, I would walk down the beach, so far that I could no longer see the place I came from.

There are other scents that evoke more primal memory, like the smell of baby shampoo. It is ambrosia , delicious, and acts like a tranquilizer for new parents. I swear it kept me going when my babies were small. I know I used it on them long after they were babies.

And there’s the different scent of each of my children. I’m certain that I could pick them out of a lineup, blindfolded, just by smelling the top of their heads.

Some smells can take us over, so strong that they can pull us whole years and decades into the past. A perfume or cologne worn by an old boyfriend or girlfriend. The smell of hay, hot in the sun. School glue. Dark, rich soil, a day or two after rain. The rain. The leather seats of a car. Woodsmoke. A shallow stream beside a dirt road.

These smells are as imprinted as the memories that enfold them, and as elusive. Neither one responds very well to a tight grasp, of hand or heart. Just as we cannot breathe only the scent of perfume, and must breathe of fresh air and even stale air when necessary, it is also impossible to steady ourselves only against the banister of our memories. They must come and go, as if through an open window. Our memories drift away, out of reach and beyond our next breath or thought. Some may leave us for years. They should, and they do. But in time, when they come back to us, we breathe them in.


I asked my friend Ms. W to think of scents that evoke memories for her.

Here’s her list:

In summer, the breeze off of Lake Michigan and the smell of wet dog – tail wagging, ready to head back into the lake to get that piece of driftwood.

Also in summer, chlorine, freshly shucked corn, tractor oil and dust in my Grandpa’s barn, newly mown grass.

My children — the scent of soap and kid, all mixed together.

My grandmother – face powder (Airspun by Coty, I think)

My Aunt Evy – Chanel No. 5

In fall, burning leaves

Libraries – old, musty paper

It’s a good list, isn’t it? So tell me, what smells bring back good memories for you?


Hey, it’s my best friend Madge’s birthday today (April 13). Stop by It’s a Mad, Madge World and wish her a happy birthday!

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Carolyn April 11, 2008 at 11:41 pm

Yowzers. Loved this post. How do you do it? A great read every time.

As for my sense of smell; it’s freakishly powerful. I can smell things from blocks away. Seriously. It’s actually more of an annoyance than a blessing. Everthing is so intense that I usually end up with a headache. As you can imagine, my scent/memory connection is very strong.

The smell of Csilla’s head tops the list. I read something about mothers being able to identify the scent of their baby blindfolded and vice-versa. It’s nature’s way I guess. I used Csilla’s baby shampoo on her yesterday just so I could take a sniff and get sent to heaven. It’s seriously like crack for me.

There are many other scents that conjure up powerful memories for me, but I’ve already hijacked your comments enough this week so I won’t go on. I’m not a stalker, I swear.

Oh, and I think I have a crush on you for being a poker player. Does that make me sound weird? I’m not into girls or anything. I just love poker. Gosh I’m tired; and this comment is starting to feel a bit like a drunk dial so I should probably go now. Later gater.

Akelamalu April 12, 2008 at 3:21 am

Oh I so agree with you!

It never ceases to amaze me that a scent can evoke so many memories of people, places, events etc. I have favourite perfumes – some old, some new – but the old ones bring back so much.

Madge April 12, 2008 at 5:29 am

Ralph Lauren Polo — my first huge crush in high school, alas it was not meant to be.

Aunt Mary’s cinnamon rolls — Friday night — best comfort food

the smell of a Georgia spring rain — coming in my window right now

the packaging from my itouch — i think i am in love. for real this time.

cce April 12, 2008 at 6:08 am

White rain shampoo reminds me of going to my cousins’ lake house in upstate New York and bathing in the cold, fresh lake.

Ralph Lauren Monogram (sadly discontinued) reminds me of my first love.

The smell of vinyl car seats and gasoline remind me of riding in my older brother’s first car, a Toronado that he loved and adored and had the widest, red pleather front seats.

Wood smoke on a chill summer morning reminds me of weeks spent in the Belgrade Lakes on Maine where we would rent a cabin and eat our meals in the main lodge where, on crisp mornings, there would be a cheerful fire blazing and warm cocoa for the kids.

Treasia April 12, 2008 at 7:07 am

Another great post. It’s funny how smells bring back memories. Songs also bring back memories for me as well. Some of my memories from scent are:

baby lotion- reminds me of when my babies were babies.
Old Spice after shave- my dad
Roses- my grandmother, she’s now 104 and always wore a roses perfume.
hot chocolate- of winter nights when dad made it for us.
chocolate cookies-getting off the school bus in the afternoons and mom having them baked.
wet earth and dirt-driving around our farm on Sunday evenings after church checking the crops.

Jenn @ Juggling Life April 12, 2008 at 8:08 am

I get up and go downstairs before my husband in the morning. When I come up to shower myself later in the morning the bathroom and walk-in closet always smells of his cologne-Givenchy. I appreciate it each and every day.

Mrs. Chili April 12, 2008 at 9:41 am

I love the smell of:

my pillow.

my sleeping children.

my husband’s neck.


baking bread, simmering onions, and roasting beef. Oh, and of pretty much anything sweet.

the perfume that Bath and Body Works discontinued on me, the bastids!

we_be_toys April 12, 2008 at 11:01 am

– The smell of peanut butter and jelly always makes me think of elementary school

– The smell of old books puts me immediately in my grandmother’s house

– The smell of petroleum refining makes me think of going to my great-aunt’s house in an old oil town

– the smell of apples makes me think of fall in western NY

flutter April 12, 2008 at 12:26 pm

night blooming jasmine
a perfume called Sugar
Lemongrass and orange

Kellan April 12, 2008 at 12:30 pm

I just love it when a smeel evokes a memory – you never see it coming and it is so often such a pleasant surprise. It happened to me recently – yesterday, I think – where a scent took me back many years to a memory I had not thought of for a long while. It is so true!

Have a good weekend Jennifer – see you soon -Kellan

Manic Mommy April 12, 2008 at 2:57 pm

My first real kiss smelled like Chaps by Ralph Lauren and Velamints.

When we first looked at our house, it smelled like my grandmother’s when we were kids. When my sister stopped by when we were having the inspection, the first thing she said was “it smells like Nana’s house.”

Play-doh and crayons smell like kindergarten.

New plastic anything makes me think of Barbies as a kid.

I read somewhere that you have brain cells in your nose, which is why smell evokes the strongest memories.

Brenda April 12, 2008 at 7:07 pm

Smells of memories:
-Public elementary school. I only went to public school for kindergarten, but when I was older, I voted at elementary schools, and they smelled EXACTLY the same.
-Cold. Cold has a smell, and I love it. When a person or animal goes outside in cold weather, they come in smelling COLD. It reminds me of my childhood, walking in the moonlight after a big snow and sliding down the drifts on my back because my coat was slick.
-Rain. I rarely smell it here, and when I do, it’s often far away, and I never actually SEE the rain. It reminds me of home and running in the rain as a child.
-Coty Wild Musk. High school. Confession. I recently bought some and wear it occasionally.
-Tomato plants. The garden of childhood that somehow made me love the garden today.

Smells I just love:
-Baking bread. Baking cookies.
-Fresh, homemade bruschetta. (The garlic, oil, and parsley, especially.)
-Cooking jasmine rice (especially when lentils are cooking at the same time. And even better if there are chopped cucumbers and freshly-squeezed lemons in the same vicinity)
-Rosemary. Rosemary grows like trees here. Walking near it and especially brushing up against it is decadent.
-Purple roses.
-Chlorine. (It makes me think of pool season.)
-Salt air.
-Freshly turned dirt.
-Hot grass. Just how it smells to go outside in the dead heat of summer and smell the grass.
-And yes, a shallow stream by a dirt road. But that encompasses almost every sense in some wonderful experience. It requires a stop to absorb it all.

Nicole P April 12, 2008 at 7:58 pm

Wonderful post!!
Let’s see, I am going to be totally honest with you. I cannot think of any examples. I am sure there is something…..
hmmm, now I will tell you that I hear certain old or older songs on the radio that my mind instantly travels back to the time of the songs popularity. All of the memories of that time of my life are brought back.
I am sure that it is the same way with scents, but I just can’t think of anything. I am sorry.

Sandy (Momisodes) April 12, 2008 at 9:55 pm

Oh you never cease to amaze with your posts 🙂 I am certainly one of those with a great memory tied to senses such as smell and sounds. I can probably name every single cologne from each one of my ex’s, and certain songs from era’s in my past.
Some of my ex’s wore Polo, CK One, Drakkar, Christian Dior Higher, Polo Sport, Safari….. okay, I better stop here or else you may think I’m a hussy 😉

JCK April 12, 2008 at 10:28 pm

Scent…many I’d love to list, yet my tired brain protests.

However, I will say that I loved this post and it made me smile.

My son has an incredible sense of smell. This can be good…or BAD.

cce April 13, 2008 at 4:56 am

Have I told you how much I like your new look? Very nice, worth the technical difficulties last week!

Dave April 13, 2008 at 5:42 am

The smell of Thanksgiving turkey stuffing that my sisters make based on my mom’s recipe. I think it’s heavy on the sage!

: )

Angela April 13, 2008 at 11:35 am

The smell of fresh cut grass. Jasmine. Philosophy Pure Grace…..lemme think a little more….great new look!

Lisa April 13, 2008 at 2:01 pm

Smell is one of the most powerful memory triggers of all the senses. I used to wear ‘Poison’ when studying for tests and wear it again for the tests.
Smells–I always love the beach–it reminds me of the great summers I had.
And the smell of ‘outside’ that my kids are covered in when they come in. It smells so healthy.
For food–oh so many–red spaghetti sauce, chili, ministrone soup, bacon in the morning. …I better stop–I am getting very hungry now!

david mcmahon April 13, 2008 at 4:23 pm

The sense of smell is known to trigger powerful memories in human brains. Makes scents/ sense to me!!

I enjoyed your comment about your licence plate, too!

Minnesota Matron April 13, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Peonies — first discovering gardening

Curry — oh my. I could eat this day in and out

freshly cut grass — precious few weeks we get this here

Any child just out of the bath

Popcorn and butter

Our dear old dog Thurston’s paw pads: Meaty!

DP April 14, 2008 at 4:39 am

Oh my, what a great post! And I love the responses, too. My daughter tells me that I have the most sensitive nose in the world (which I use to tell her when her room needs to be cleaned!), and I am very scent-oriented.

Things I love to smell:
– freshly mown grass (the smell of spring and watermelons)
– farmland (reminds me of the best parts of my youth)
– almost anything baking, particularly cranberry-orange bread
– Aramis (reminds me of boys I had crushes on in high school)
– babies, particularly right after their baths
– fresh laundry (although I miss the smell of clothing that was dried on a line…can’t do that in my neighborhood)

Peace – D

Autumn April 14, 2008 at 6:16 am

Oh I love this post! (And your layout rocks!!!)
Smells that bring back good memories are honeysuckle (I stock up on candles since we have no honeysuckle handy), baby products (making new memories with those now), vanilla candles, and the smell of peanut butter and jelly (weird I know, but it reminds me of my grandmother). Any and all Thanksgiving/Christmas smells, especially pumpkin pie.

Smells I just love? Hazelnut candles, clean linen, cookie/cake scents and my kiddos when clean! lol

dragonfly April 15, 2008 at 2:12 pm

Rain, always rain. And even stronger is the distinct smell of a thunderstorm…suddenly it’s summer and we’re camping at the lake, or I’m at camp, listening to the rain on the cabin roof and the thunder rattling our bunks.

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