“I Followed Your Smell.”

That’s what my Grand told me last week when he found me during a game of hide-n-seek. Unlike him, I choose different hiding spots when it’s my turn – this time behind the bathroom door. I heard him walking down the hall, calling out “Nana!”, then stopping. He walked right in the unlit room and peeked behind the door. He’d only moments before finished counting to 10.

“How did you find me so quickly?!”

That’s when he delivered his matter-of-fact answer.

Followed your smell. Scientists have determined that hearing is the last sense to leave a dying body, which would indicate that is somehow the strongest. But it’s the sense of smell that triggers the strongest and most vivid memories. A quick search told me, smell and memory are so closely linked because the anatomy of the brain allows the olfactory signals to get to the limbic system [the region related to emotion and memory] very quickly. Experts say the memories associated with smells tend to be older and thought about less often, meaning the recollection is very vivid when it happens.

When I smell incense or beeswax I’m not in that store or church, I’m transported back to the Catholic church of my youth with the vaulted ceiling, marble floor, squeaky wooden pews, and Father Hans who smelled like cigars and peppermint candy . . . his attempt to cover up the odor of cigars. Right now my peonies are blooming and their scent sets me firmly in Ohio, my childhood backyard, my grandparents’ house. The same thing happens when I smell lilacs and sweet peas. When I catch a whiff of a certain kind of greasy fries and vinegar, I taste them and I can hear the rise and fall of roller coasters, squeals of laughter, and the slap of waves from Lake Erie onto the beaches of Cedar Point – an amusement park where I worked for a summer after high school.  

I still have a bottle of Ice Blue Aqua Velva my dad brought with him when he moved down here for what was supposed to be rehab. He died in my arms less than 48 hours after settling in. Once in a while I open the bottle, and even after 5 years it hasn’t gone rancid. I smell his aftershave and immediately feel his fleshy cheek against my cheek, his arms around me in a tight hug before leaving his home to drive back to mine.

I still have a message or two from him on our answering machine so I can hear his voice – and his admonition, “Helloooo. This is Dad. Don’t you kids ever stay home?” Then his laugh, he’ll call back later, he loves us. I also have a cd he burned of him playing his harmonica, can imagine his baritone singing the old cowboy songs. While the audio brings him close, they don’t evoke the visceral response of the aftershaves. When I want to feel him near I open the bottle of Ice Blue Aqua Velva.

Unfortunately I don’t have a scent trigger for Mom. I wish I did, especially since I don’t have an audio recording of her voice either. I can’t remember what perfume or lotion she typically wore, (Lynda or Trudy, do you?), or I’d have a bottle near. There are times as a mom and a nana I’d like to have her close. My daughter likes the smell of cigarettes because it reminds her of her grandma.

I don’t have the same positive reaction to cigarette smoke, maybe because I grew up around it and didn’t like it in my hair and clothes. But cigar smoke and pipe tobacco conjure up the strong memory of my loving grandpa, his bristly mustache, the chair he sat in working his crossword puzzles. A few years ago my daughter gave me a pipe tobacco-scented candle because she knew the smell reminded me of him. The smaller box in the photo is a tobacco box Hubby bought me for the same reason; the larger one is a cigar box Grandpa used for storing the children’s crosswords he saved for me.

I wonder how many of us keep a shirt or baby blanket that still carries the scent of our loved one.

“I followed your smell.” How do you follow that up except by asking, “What do I smell like?” I took a shower that morning so the question was more from curiosity than fear or bravery of what he might say. He looked at me and pondered. His little mouth twisted up, his head tilted to the side, and finally, “Pineapple.” I have absolutely no idea what I was wearing that smelled like pineapple, but I’ll take it.

“You can hide again Nana,” he said with all the confidence of knowing he’d easily find me wherever I might be. All he has to do is follow my smell.

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4 Responses to “I Followed Your Smell.”

  1. quinonesev1 says:

    Roses, Kim- and all things beautiful. Pineapple, too!

  2. D Jaillette says:

    My dad and Old Spice. What a great ‘scented’ memory. XO

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