Certain smells have the power to transport us through time, reminding us of people and places of long ago. Even ghosts have smells.

In one of William Faulkner’s “ghost stories,” “A Rose for Emily,” in part of the story, Miss Emily’s neighbors recall the mystery of a smell that had emanated from Miss Emily’s house long ago. The townsfolk could not determine the source of the smell until after Miss Emily’s death when they discover the “ghostly” truth.

Some smells are just unforgettable. In “Scent of a Woman,” we learn from Al Pacino that the scent of a beautiful woman is memorable. In the first line of “Love and the Time of Cholera,” Gabrielle Garcia Marquez expresses the poignant truth that even love has a smell: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

The smell of freshly mowed grass reminds me of the green days of childhood and my father mowing the grass in our yard on Kimbrough Street. The scent of certain colognes — Old Spice, Sweet Honesty, White Shoulders, Chanel No. 5 — remind me of places and people I can only see now in memories. Some smells trigger memories so deep they have nearly been forgotten, and maybe this is why chickens smell so good to me, reminding me of long ago barefooted summers at my grandmother’s farm, a white sand tobacco field at the edge of the world.

Smell is an ancient and complex sense, but something we seldom discuss — perhaps because it is hard to describe the subtleties of smell. During the pandemic, smell gained a new appreciation since some of us lost our sense of smell (at least temporarily). Of course animals are highly attuned to smells, even more than people are. My son recently purchased a new deodorant, and while we could not detect the new fragrance ourselves, our cats immediately took notice: they started smelling my son’s arms and brushing affectionately against him, mysteriously attracted to the new fragrance.

Writing for the BBC, Todd Stafford says “smell is the oldest sense,” and “the sense of smell requires at least 1,000 different smell receptors” although “we do not ... have names for all the smells we can differentiate.” We can distinguish between many different smells, but we do not have a wide vocabulary for describing the nuances of smells.

Stafford writes that “smell is unique among the senses in that it enters deep into the brain.” He speculates that perhaps because the “seat of smell in the brain is conveniently placed just next to the hippocampus,” the part of the brain responsible for preserving memories, the close proximity of the centers for smell and memory, could be part of the reason why smells are both hard to put into words, but also able to trigger deeply hidden memories.” This connection between smell and memory may be why, according to Stafford, smells can unlock hidden memories.

I have experienced this sensation more than once. One day when I was cooking bacon I realized that I was flooded with memories of my father, and I told my son that the smell of bacon reminded me of my dad. My son said, “Cooking bacon makes you emotional,” and he is right. My father used to make pancakes and bacon every Saturday and for holiday breakfasts, and we would wake up to the smell of bacon.

Not too long ago, I was again awakened from a deep sleep by the smell of bacon. My bedroom is near the kitchen, and I was overwhelmed by the smell of bacon cooking. It was the middle of night, but the smell was so powerful I got up to check the kitchen, wondering if my son was cooking. Of course, no one was there, and the kitchen was dark and empty.

I concluded what any reasonable person would have: sometimes a ghost smells like bacon.

Dr. Renee Love is an English professor at Lander University. Please write to her at crlove@lander.edu.

Recommended for you