What We Recall Through Scents of Our Past

by ParentCo. April 26, 2017


The last time I saw my grandmother, she was settled into her rocking chair after a long day of church and family. “Baby girl,” she said. “Help me with my socks.” I was in my 30s, but would ever be her Baby Girl. As I pulled the thick, soft socks over her small feet, she smiled. “I used to be the one putting your socks on. The tables have turned,” she said. “No! I never needed help with anything!” I teased her. I wasn’t comfortable, on that day, with contemplating my long-past youth and her advanced age. I knew it was our last visit. I got up to leave the room, knowing it would be the last time I saw, spoke to, hugged my grandmother before she died. This visit had to end at some point, and I wouldn’t linger. From the doorway, I wished she would say that thing she always said one more time…the thing she said every day of my childhood when I left through her squeaky back door to walk the short path back to my own house… “See you later alligator.” “I love you, Grandmother.” We all knew she was fading, and that’s why my husband and I had driven 12 hours for a weekend visit and a last chance to see her while she was still lucid. I would speak to her again the night she died, through a phone held up to her ear. She spent her last days in my childhood bedroom, being looked after by my parents, my aunt and nurses. I was selfish and glad to not see it. "I love you, Grandmother," I told the phone. "We are all going to be OK, so you can go when you're ready."

Proust and the Madeleine

In the study of memory, French novelist Marcel Proust’s description of eating a Madeleine with a cup of tea is the oft-cited connection between remembrance and scent in literature. Proust’s narrator smells the combination of tea and cookie and is suddenly overcome with the memory of his childhood. This case of autobiographical memory evoked by the sense of smell is known by cognitive scientists as the Proust phenomenon. These odor-evoked memories are typically vivid, emotional, and old. Cognitive scientists say memories evoked by scent are a conscious process, both involuntary and voluntary. As Proust’s character first registers the scent of the cookie and tea, he has an involuntary flash of a moment from childhood. It is then a conscious effort for him to pursue that flash to form a full narrative of the remembered scene. By searching out the scents of our past, we may recapture connections to places and people who have been lost to time.


I dip a Madeleine in a cup of Earl Grey with milk, inhaling for a revelation. The only memory to arise is of studying Proust. My first memory of coffee came from a whiff of freeze dried Taster’s Choice crystals hitting steaming water in my grandmother’s kitchen. Sometimes she’d give me a sip, and sometimes my brother and I would instead dip strips of white bread in glasses of cold milk, sucking at them like kittens. I forgot the pleasure of instant coffee until I was an adult. Fresh ground coffee beans can give off their own pleasing scents, but different roasts are too varied to attach to particular memories. However, peel the seal off a jar of instant coffee and the light brown pebbles will smell just like they did 30 years before. When I realized the jar of instant coffee could take me back 30 years to my grandmother's kitchen, I started drinking it every day. The memory is academic now, worn too thin to be emotional.

Memory trigger

One theory about the connection between olfaction and memory is based on the anatomy of the brain. The olfactory bulb is connected to the amygdala, hippocampus, and thalamus – parts of the brain which are also involved in emotion and memory. A psychologist specializing in the study of smell, Rachel Herz, believes sensations of smell and taste are especially “sentimental” because their ruling structures are connected to the hippocampus, where long-term memory is centered. The amygdala is also a converging point for smell, memory and emotion. Literary scholar Evelyn Ender suggests emotion is an essential component of memory retention. She wrote, “A memory image exists by virtue of an emotion. If it were just a flat picture, devoid of emotional vibration, this image would probably not have been retained.”


She was averse to scents, allergic to flowers, an opponent of perfumes; a migraineur on guard against olfactory attacks, but at bedtime, exceptions were made. After a bath, she would emerge in perfect pink pajamas and a robe, glowing and dewy. She never went a day without coating her face in Oil of Olay and her body with Jergens lotion, each with their own potent scent. Pink Oil of Olay beauty fluid from a glass bottle smells chemical and vaguely floral. Jergens' original scent is a cherry-almond blend. Not a vain woman, still she made choices which protected her pale, soft skin. I never saw her in direct sunlight and heard stories of her bathing in milk as a child. After a childhood of tucking my hand inside her perfectly smooth palm, I could sketch her hands from memory. Her nails perfectly filed, her rings loose, soft blue veins across the top of her hands. Her hands were cold, her heart warm, as they say. I keep her nail file next to my bed. I wear her ring on special occasions. I don't use Oil of Olay or Jergens because I'm afraid the potency of their scents will fade from overuse. My daughter was born five years after my grandmother died. I imagined the two convening in some way, hoping my two beloved spirits could connect in the ether, even if they never would in life. When my baby stirred in the middle of the night and settled again, I imagined her Great Gran checking in on her. It was a comfort in the addled postpartum months to believe my grandmother lives inside my daughter in a way that is not precisely reincarnation, but more like a thinning of the veil. I find evidence in the way she looks at me, like she has known me for ages. She asks to smell my instant coffee. I apply her bedtime lotion and then breathe her in. For the first few years after Grandmother died, I did not want to remember her too acutely. I did not want to see her house remodeled for a new occupant or read her handwriting on old papers. I accepted her visits in dreams; we never talked, just sat and held hands. I accepted her visits to my daughter, comforted by the stories I told myself, that Mamie and Grandmother would love each other immensely. By remembering Grandmother as clearly as possible, I can bring the two together deliberately. I can let Mamie smell my coffee, and I can look for recognition in her eyes.



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