Memories By Any Other Name

By Barry Bowman


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I've lost my sense of smell.

Well, not all of it. I can still smell burnt toast, only never before my wife yells, "Something's burning!" or before the smoke alarm goes off while I'm cooking. Then I smell it.

Of the five senses, I suppose sense of smell would be the least missed. But it's still sad to realize you can't smell anymore.

It's also a blessing.

When I drive our kids to school and one of them accuses the other of passing gas, I don't have to roll my window down.

I can certainly remember the tear-inducing smells of changing our first daughter's diapers. (I still gag thinking about it.) When our second daughter came around the smell wasn't so bad. I thought maybe I was just getting used to it.

Maybe that's when it all started to happen.

I think it was about that same time I realized I couldn't smell flowers anymore. My fondest reminiscence as a kid is my mom's sweet peas growing up our backyard fence. You couldn't pass by that spot without pausing to inhale!

I tried to rationalize it by assuming these new varieties just lacked the same scent as the ones I remembered. Then, it was roses. Who can't smell roses? Of course, I'd pretend when someone gushed about the beautiful smell. "Ohhh yeah, beautiful," I'd respond, shrugging internally.

Kids have a better sense of smell than adults. In fact, the North American Natives refer to their youngsters as "wolves" because of their canine sense of smell. We lose that as we grow older.

There are so many wonderful smells I remember as a kid, that I'd love to smell again:

Spicy bulrushes in swampy ditches assailing my nostrils as I ride my bike down a country road on a cool spring evening.

The mixed aroma of popcorn balls, apples, peanuts and candy in my Halloween pillowcase.

The pleasant blend of soaps and perfumes that mingled with Mr. Campbell's cigar smoke in that little Prairie drugstore.

The scent of my old, well-oiled, leather baseball glove.

A comic book. (Especially brand new ones!)

The acrid smell of cordite from my dad's shotgun while duck hunting on a chilly fall morning.

Christmas trees lined up outside supermarkets on a cold night.

Plasticine and Crayola crayons!

That distinctive carbolic fragrance of Lifebuoy soap.

A lake's pungent wet sand and seaweed.

Perfume on a letter my girlfriend sent me one summer while I was at cadet camp.

Or the musty but mysterious smells of dirt floor, crankcase oil and empty beer bottles in our backyard garage.

I suppose, as adults, we find other things to occupy our senses.

I can't find a hardware store anymore that smells like the one I remember. Sure, these days they have their own aroma. But what happened to oiled floors, liniment, mulch and bug spray?

Scientists have found that the memory of an event is scattered across different areas of the brain such as the hippocampus and the olfactory cortex - the smell gateway to the brain. I guess that's why we're transported back to childhood when the smell of a certain event or object triggers those memories from the past.

But are these scents only from the past? If that's true, then no adult can really experience those same smells today, smell challenged, as I am, or not.

Nostalgia is a fleeting thing. It's a hint, a brief blink from our past. Too much and it's no longer nostalgia.

As the old joke goes:

"Nostalgia just ain't the same anymore."

So perhaps I shouldn't yearn for the smells of my childhood. To experience them time and again would dilute the pleasure I can now only imagine. Just as a momentary tune recalls a wonderful or poignant time, yet the more you hear it, the less impact it has.

I'll keep my smell memories tucked away for now; for those times when I feel the need to retrieve them, sparingly. As for my latent olfactory cortex malfunction, I guess it could be worse.

I just wish I could tell when the toast was burning before my wife does.

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