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who scent you?

When it comes to the power of our memories, it seems that our sense of scent is a sure way to find our way home, so to speak. Music can take us there; old photos, certainly; even the taste of a once-forgotten, now-remembered food. But scent seems to surprise us more, perhaps because it wafts our way from virtually nowhere, leaving an indelible impression and stirring up moments from our past in one brilliant instant.

To wit:

The scent of cedar chips always evokes a memory of mine of college. In the spring, specifically; just before graduation. The small New England school I went to was laid out with an upper and lower campus, the requisite ivy-covered buildings, a quad (of course), and a series of lawns and hills dotted with trees that displayed all the colors of fall and offered various shades of pink and white petals in the spring. After the long, cold, windy winters (don’t let anyone tell you that Boston is not windy), the landscaping crew would fill the beds of these trees with sweet-smelling cedar chips. What makes that spring stand out in my mind is that there was a completely unseasonable, unreasonable snow shower in May during finals week. Huge, cottony snowflakes that looked as if they’d been cut from paper, falling amid the blossoms and covering the ground with a delicate but fluffy blanket that was gone in a few hours.

I guess it was that unexplainable event on such a spring day that made the scent of those cedar chips so wonderfully memorable. These days, whenever I walk through the cedar ground cover at a local public garden, the scent brings me right back to that campus. In my mind’s eye, I see the preparations being made for graduation and the students rushing to and from final exams; I hear the exclamations of surprise and delight at the opportunity to dance in the snowflakes at this unaccustomed time; and I see myself looking toward the future, both intimidated and eager.

Or the aromas of a Jewish deli. If you’re someone who grew up going to such a deli, you’re very familiar with the tantalizing scents that greet you from the moment you walk in. Hot pastrami and corned beef; golden potato knishes; homemade matzoh ball soup; fresh rye bread. While all of this always makes me hungry, there’s a deeper reaction, too. All I need to do is get a whiff, and I’m whisked back to a small deli near where I grew up, where my father would take me every so often on a Saturday for lunch. It was his time to share just with me, when he would turn all of his attention to what I was feeling. To helping me to get past my shyness; to encouraging me to dream about becoming a writer; to making me laugh away my fears about life with silly jokes or song lyrics he’d make up for the two of us to sing; to letting me know how loved and cherished I was. He’d order the pastrami; I’d order the matzoh ball soup. Those aromas always transport me back to those Saturday mornings, no matter where the present deli may be.

And then there’s the scent of perfume. I remember a mirrored tray on my mom’s dresser holding beautiful bottles of classic perfumes. No matter how ordinary the day or her plans for it, she always dabbed or sprayed on fragrance before she got started. Over the years, her collection grew and her tastes changed but there was always a bottle or two of perfume or eau de toilette at her fingertips. For the last 20 years or so of her life, she only wore White Diamonds (the fragrance inspired by Elizabeth Taylor) and it became her signature. To this day, on the rare occasions when a hint of White Diamonds crosses my path, I immediately feel my mom’s presence. I remember our hugs, and the scent surrounding me, as if it were part of her. In my mind – and heart – the two are inseparable.


©2023 Claudia Grossman

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