Thursday, December 8, 2011

Smelling Time

So I have been thinking, since last we talked, about the sense of smell and the power of it. Right now, I am writing with a microwave-warmed lavender neck wrap tucked inside my hoodie. The lavender scent is lovely and I hope will help to transport me to sleep.  But that's a lot to ask of any flower, dried or fresh.  As much as I love lavender, my mother hates it. Hates it, hates it. Does a little foot stomp and asks for its immediate removal.  It seems when she was a little girl there was a woman at church, who always sat near her after bathing in gallons of lavender water. The long Mass was tough enough on itty bitty Margaret, but holding her nose for an hour and ten minutes every Sunday has apparently scarred her.  Eight decades later, she still has not forgiven lavender.

I also, right at this moment, am typing in between sips of jasmine tea.  I love this not so much for the taste, which is perfect, but more for the scent which rises, subtle and steamy from my Howdy from Texas!" mug.  I love this mug with bucking horse and cowgirl because it was an unexpected gift from my daughter when she returned from Dallas. Isn't it funny how good tea tastes even better from a great mug?

So the funny mug and jasmine are keeping me company tonight.  My love affair with jasmine began back in junior high with my discovery of Love's Sweet Musky Jasmine cologne. The little bottle with the purple plastic dome was a cousin to the equally sweet Love's Baby Soft , a baby- powder scented concoction. These little gift boxes beckoned, stacked deep and high at Christmastime in department stores in the early 70's. And a friend tells me they are back on the shelves again (maybe they never left, maybe I just stopped looking for them). But I remember them being packaged so cutely with a small cylinder of powder that no one ever seemed to use. I got one sweet set at Christmas and I had to make it last all the year through. I drove my first boyfriend crazy with that Loves Sweet Musky Jasmine and the only boyfriend I had after that too. My love of this cologne, started my obsession with all things jasmine: Twinings jasmine tea, essential jasmine oil to dab on the pulse points, quality jasmine incense, jasmine candles. Such was my love of jasmine, that my ex and I named our first dog after the scent, a buff- colored cocker spaniel. Jasmine, or Jessamine Sweet Thyme, as her papers read, the most beautiful dog that ever lived...

We adored that dog, and pampered her so, as do many pre-kid couples. I loved that she was ours; I loved her beautiful coat; I loved her name. Because of her, my love of  jasmine flourished and became more sophisticated as time went on, with my ex buying me more expensive jasmine-laced perfumes. I am so very happy that jasmine was not a casualty of his departure. So many things that I used to love ended up on the never -to- be- enjoyed- again list because of association with him, tainted and removed from life's pleasures since the divorce. But I think the scent of jasmine hung on because this scent was mine and truly mine, way before I ever met him. It has remained mine long after the last whiff of him was gone from my air space.

It is funny that I am now reminded of a certain former man in my life and this oddity: he had an almost complete absence of odor. The man didn't stink: not his feet, not his breath, not his armpits in August after cutting the grass. No smell, no soul? Who knows? But his hair did have a certain subtle something that was like home itself to me, for many, many years.

Let's talk instead about something pleasant. How about the smell of olive oil? I wonder if there are many other women for whom, an open bottle conjures up precious memories of their babies births. My midwives used it for a labor message to ease the passage of my wee ones into the world. Oh how I will never ever forget that immediate first kiss upon those salad- scented newborn heads!

Spaghetti always goes well with salad, and that leads me to the smell memory of my mother's best dish. For quite awhile when I wondered what my food-shunning toddler lived on, this was the only thing I could point to. Funny little creature she was. Funny little creature she still is now, my teenage doll baby with purple nails. And no matter how many years pass, I know the smell of nail polish will always have me turning my head, expecting to see her sitting there, plugged into her ipod, long after she has flown off to polish her nails in a home of her own.

That same funny girl will always have me wondering why a bag of newly opened potato chips smells the way it does. I will rerun the jokes and giggles my girls had over this, forever more whenever I open a bag of chips. And here is another smell mystery: why do all diner foyers smell like wet dogs? At least to me they do, and yet I have found not another soul to agree with me on this one.  But wet dogs are what I smell in any diner in any state when I first walk in. And of course the smell of wet dogs reminds me of my no- longer- with- us pups and how good they all were when bath time came around.  How they put up with us, those dogs who didn't care if they stunk, but respected the fact that we did. 

Some might argue that cigars stink too, but the smell always reminds me of back in the day when my dad smoked cheap cigars and I was allowed to walk across the street and actually buy them for him. I think they were about seventy-five cents for a pack of four, and while I was there I was always allowed to buy wax lips, or bubble gum, or little paper- tasting flying saucers with candy beads inside, all for a penny each. I would chew on the wax lips after making my father laugh and he would squint at the cigar smoke, deep in thought.

My then, indestructible dad, used to take us boating on the rare day he had off. And days off  usually smelled like gasoline.  I love the smell of gasoline. The pleasant association goes back to the days when my dad backed the trailer up to the Delaware river, and expertly released our boat into the dirty water. The anticipation of the day ahead was almost too much, as the boat's motor gurgled up gas fumes all around. Later in the warmth of dusk, that same scent would signal: "time to go home" and thoughts of clean, thin pj's and cool fresh sheets rose up on those same gas fumes.

But by far the best smell of childhood, above crayons, above the marvelous mapley mix of Maypo on a winter's morning, is vinyl.  The smell of fresh vinyl is really, truly the scent of a new doll on Christmas morning. Second to this, as one grew older, would be of course the smell of 45's all cozied up in their own little box with a handle.

Also in their own little box were pencils and erasers, full of promise on the first day of school. One whiff and I am right back at my wooden desk in Mrs. Girard's third grade class. Such is the smell of simpler times.

So I have to wonder, if smelling things can conjure up feelings of safety and simplicity, why then don't we use more smell therapy; beyond candles and incense and perfume and air fresheners and beyond the aromatherapy potions which are rosemary and lemon verbena, or tea tree and rose hips but never - erasers and pencils. Would purposely dabbling in the scents of yesterday, bring back some happiness from those simpler times?  Or would the effect be too bittersweet, creating an unsettling longing for those days.

No, I guess there will never be essence of gasoline or cigar smoke eau de toilette bottled on shelves, and for good reason, aside from no mass market appeal.  I think for a scent to work its magic, it has to sneak up on us. Surprise us. Like the smell of a new book and secrets not yet revealed, or hyacinths screaming, "It's Spring!" when walking through the doors of K-Mart. 

While most scents nudge, some indeed do shout. Not to be ignored, is the warning nature of  some smells. For smells also scream "Fire!" or to not drink that because it is "Sour!" or who left the burrito in the car, because it is "Rancid!" or stay away from that man, he is, "Odorless!" Well, that last one might belong solely to me.  But I think from now on I will treat my nose a little more nicely. I won't call it a beak; I will try to remember the sunblock and buy softer tissues. It has given me such pleasure over the years, and has left me with forever memories and even tried to warn me. Yep, I think I will fine-tune my sense of smell and heed all of the warnings, even the subtle ones. If I ever let another man into my life he better sweat his sensitivity from every pore. I want to be able to think good thoughts of him when I remember his smelly feet.  

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