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?