She wanted a writing lesson.
“How do I write great description?”
“Never forget the sense of smell,” I told her. “Never.”
She wrote my words in a small blue pad, underscoring them. I told her that just a trace of a fragrance awakens memories long asleep. How well I know. Sometimes on summer evenings, I walk a nearby trail about suppertime. The trail runs by many a home. I walk it to catch kitchen fragrances riding the air. Chicken frying turns me into a 12-year-old boy ready to ditch his bike and rush inside to dine like a Southern prince. Bacon restores my memory of the “breakfast suppers” we often had on Sunday nights. What joys those meals were but how these walks through others’ kitchens hurt. A homesick feeling takes over. My boyhood days of coming in from Georgia woods to smell a home-cooked meal are forever gone.
Well, at least flowers keep on keeping on. A few days back I posted photographs of gardenias on Facebook. Forty-seven women commented, only two men. Women understand the power of a fragrance, and one woman phrased it in a beautiful way. The first time this explorer-artist woman met an insightful but bold man he told her, “You smell just like a woman is supposed to smell.”
“I never forgot it,” she said. “It was one of the better compliments I’ve ever received.” She added this. “I have loved flowers all my life and they love me. I wear the scent.”
I knew a woman once who wore the scent of flowers, albeit perfume. “You smell like fresh-cut flowers,” I told her. Told her more than once. It pleased her, and I wanted to please her. She told me the name of her mesmerizing perfume but I’ve long forgotten it, perchance Norell, but what does it matter. What mattered was how this young woman would walk into a room and fill it with floral hints and bouquets, a redolence like air swirling around gardenia corsages and wedding bouquets. I was young, easily impressed, and quite taken, but that was then and this is now and things change. Flowers outperform perfume, and other memories of that time are not so pleasant. In my mind, memory and fragrance intertwine like some love-struck honeysuckle male clutching his tea olive woman, each holding the other for worse. Certain fragrances remind us that yes, we were young and reckless once but we did not shy away from a life at full throttle.
Fragrances … they hold memories. It may seem strange to you but drying laundry, sweetened by fabric softener, resurrects memories of growing up as well. That clean smell speaks to me. ... It reminds me of the comforts of home life.
Fragrances hold youth. Whenever I inhale the lemony-green celery-like fragrance of mown grass, I am running beneath Friday night lights.
Sometimes a fragrance turns my head. A woman walks by and she and her perfume breathe new life into a long-forgotten memory. I see people who are no more. Gone from this flower-perfumed world they are. Gone for good. And so there’s a downside to fragrances. To me, all funeral homes smell the same. A blend of flowers, parlor room mold and old upholstery wrap me in heavy air and heavy memories. I remember, too, the time I crushed a fingertip and the salty rubbery smell of first aid medical tape. To this day when I smell that tape, I see the blood and broken bones and wince.
One more thing that’s positive and indisputable. When a certain fragrance co-occurs with one of life’s key moments you never forget it. Columbia native Kary B. Mullis received the Nobel Prize for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction, a quick way to copy DNA billions of times. In his Nobel lecture, he recalled the night he worked out the details for this momentous breakthrough. “I was driving up a long and winding road in Mendocino County, California heading for my weekend cabin. ... The California buckeyes poked heavy blossoms out into Highway 128. The pink and white stalks hanging down into my headlights looked cold, but they were loaded with warmed oils that dominated the dimension of smell. It seemed to be the night of the buckeyes, but something else was stirring.”
Something else, indeed.
“Never forget the sense of smell.” It’s good advice for writers who want to convey emotions and it’s a time machine for those who find themselves looking backwards, an emotional return to the past. And the only ticket required? Just a trace of a certain fragrance. That’s all you need.