Like poignant land mines

The sweet scent of these plumeria brought back happy Hawaiian memories. Barbados, March 2010

The sweet scent of these plumeria brought back happy Hawaiian memories.
Barbados, March 2010

“Nothing is more memorable than a smell…Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years.  Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once.  A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”
Diane Ackerman

Tangerines smell like Christmas to me, just as onions sauteed in butter with sage smell like Thanksgiving.  A whiff of a cologne I wore only in my youth can bring back memories of people, incidents and even dresses I thought I had completely forgotten.  And is there anything more delicious than the smell of wood smoke from someone’s chimney that first crisp autumn night?

It’s not just the lovely smells we remember.  In the unlikely event I were ever near a “Skunk Tree” I would surely be flooded with sensations of being back in graduate school, with tests to study for and papers to write, as I had to stroll past that rare and pungent Sterculia foetida every day when I walked to class at the University of Hawaii in Manoa.  Yet the disagreeable odor would be bittersweet to me now, as my years at UH were full of happy times.

Of all our five senses, smell is perhaps the one we tend to notice the least, but our unconscious mind is keeping records for us.  Though we will never have the olfactory prowess of our animal friends, our brains can make some lightning-fast connections between what must be a complex calculus of factors that make each smell unique and identifiable even after many years without experiencing it.

Have you ever had a scent detonate an explosion of memories in the way Ackerman describes?  What smells evoke the most treasured memories for you?

One year ago today:

A vision that stays


  1. Good morning, Julia!
    Yes! The first one that comes to mind is the smell of chicken cooking in our old church basement. Like many old churches, our Fellowship Hall and kitchen was located in the basement. We had so many church dinners there, and also community meals, and chicken is tasty and fairly inexpensive. But it’s also pretty fragrant, and over the years it seems to become a background component in the tapestry of smells of an old church, along with the wooden pews. One of the best things about this combination of odors is that it appears that chicken and churches have been a popular combination for generations and consequently there’s an almost trademark smell to many old churches. So whenever I visit an older church, and can smell that chicken dinner smell – it feels like home and it makes me smile. And it makes me stay for lunch, especially if they’re serving chicken!

    • Susan, this is perfect! That church basement smell was the cousin of the “first day of school” smell that consisted of cafeteria yeast rolls, new crayons, chalk dust and duplicating fluid. I too find that many old church basements share that pot luck smell, perhaps with a bit of Sunday School supply closet mixed in! It’s amazing how much aromas can do to make us feel comfortable and safe.

  2. HarryS

    In the BC comic strip this morning Peter expounds that education is not about filling a pail but lighting a fire!

    🙂 Thanks for lighting my fire each morning. 🙂

    • Don’t you just love BC? I’m glad to hear the strip is still appearing in the “funny papers” as I called them when I was a child. I appreciate your kind words about the blog, and I’m so happy you like it!

  3. singleseatfighterpilot

    A Bible search of “sweet savour” (to God) will yield over three dozen occurrences in the Old Testament.
    Even in the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 indicates smelling has a God-like element.

    • Eric, I love that verse. I find it both challenging and comforting. Who indeed is equal to such a task? An exhortation and a reassurance.

  4. Carlyle

    I remember, as a little girl , you once said Daddy smells like an airplane”.

    • Yes, and in those years, airplanes smelled differently. It was a strange mixture of new upholstery, coffee, cigarettes, pressurized, air-conditioned cabin air (during a time when few homes and buildings had a/c), eau de tarmac, and actual food that came from actual ovens in the galley, not prefab foil-covered trays that were delivered in a warmed-over state. It all actually came together in quite a pleasant scent.

  5. bobmielke

    The smell of my wife’s hair as she lie next to me.

    • 🙂

      • Rene

        I was going to mention the smell of citrus blossoms reminding me of my old house and honeysuckle bringing back the memories of many evening walks while my kids took karate lessons at the local rec center—but then Bob reminded me of how I used to smell my kids’ hair when I kissed them goodnight.

        • Rene, all of those things are such great memories. I smiled just thinking about you enjoying the scent of your kids. I just loved being able to kiss Grady on his fuzzy little baby head, before he really had any hair! I mentioned honeysuckle in an earlier comment – I am always threatening to grow some in our wooded lot, but Jeff says it’s too invasive. I think it smells wonderful.

  6. Sheila

    My grandchildren will always associate that “Mimi smells like Shalimar!” and I smile. 🙂 I can remember the lunch rooms smells that you reference, especially the yeast rolls. These comments have been fun to read. You have me laughing with eau de tarmac. We are back in Garden City after much family fun. I hope you’ve had a good weekend!

    • I don’t believe this, it’s absolutely incredible. Shalimar is one of two colognes that I think of as my “signature scent” (the other one being an old Estee Lauder scent called Aliage, still being made, although it may disappear any day now!) 🙂 The parallels just become more eerie fun! Were those yeast rolls not the best thing about the otherwise (in our school) yukky cafeteria food? The tops would get brown because they were brushed with melted butter, YUM! I don’t want to think about how many days that was all I would eat for lunch! I am glad you had a fun weekend. We picked Matt up from camp and as always, the group of British young people working there surrounded him with loving and tearful goodbyes, and lots of photos. The highlight of his year each year, and in many ways, of ours too. Hope you have a lovely week ahead!

      • Sheila

        Julia, yesterday as I wrote “Shalimar” I couldn’t help but wonder if you were familiar with it, so your reply was just one MORE thing we share; separated at birth! 🙂 Welcome home, Matt!

        • My friend Maggie introduced me to Shalimar during my first month at college back in 1974, and I have been wearing it ever since! Jeff loves it. Matt is glad to be home but I can tell he’s already a bit bored. 🙂

          • Sheila

            I was just thinking about the little scent strips in some of my catalogues and magazines but the iPads and iPhones have not mastered that. I hope I’m right, especially if Eric might be reading the comments and call me on it! Haha!

            • Sheila, I have heard a lot of people complain about those samples, but I love them! You will not be surprised to know I don’t throw them away (not immediately, anyway) – I put them in drawers, shoe bins, stationery boxes, anyplace I like to catch the scent of something pleasant. Good point, scents have not yet gone digital! I remember how impressed I was when I visited museums in England and noticed that they had smells to go with their displays – fire, food, whatever the exhibit was attempting to re-create.

  7. raynard

    Julia I remember after 25 years , I was finally able to quit smoking. As I share with people, my sense of taste and smell got better. While working were I do presently at a local Dupont Facility, ” you smell things’ and I’ll leave it at that. I think People who smoke( it doesnt bother me to be near them by the way) dont know what they are missing smelling good food and flowers.My wife asked me the other night as we pulled in out apartment complex, Let me take a picture of the albino skunk. My dogs would of thought it was ” a squirrel ” and got ” perfumed” I digress . be blessed

    • Was it really an albino skunk? If so how would we know to run from it? (Until it was too late.) Yikes! I have heard people who quit smoking talk about how they can start to smell and even taste things again. I am glad I never had to find out what that is like. I had friends who quit many different types of addictive substances tell me that smoking was by far the hardest habit to kick, so I am happy you were able to do it! I hope you don’t take in too many toxic fumes at DuPont. I hope they let you wear a mask or something. Now I’m digressing! Have you noticed how everyone now associates you with that trademark phrase? I am thinking of having a website called “we digress” and we can be like John Belushi falling off the chair ranting on SNL. Hope you have a great week!

      • singleseatfighterpilot

        Belushi fell off a STOOL (more dramatic and dangerous). BTW – that really happened at KTXS TV, in Abilene, where Sherry’s grandfather worked. The unintentionally comic, Wesley Robert Izzard was the announcer. He was a highly decorated fighter pilot from World War II.
        He was just getting all worked up during a broadcast, one night, then all of a sudden he fell off his stool, and the Camera was left to film an empty desk, with only the KTXS logo in the background (maybe that’s why he soon moved away to Amarillo?)

        • Oh dear, how embarrassing! Too bad he didn’t dissolve into uncontrolled laughter like that guy on the video I posted awhile back. I hope he wasn’t injured.

  8. singleseatfighterpilot

    Sheila must be a championship listener! She seems to care to read more comments than most others.

    • Sheila is definitely good at “listening” through reading what we say. Since the comments section also would be aptly named “We Digress” I think that just means Sheila is a people person and a good reader, too. Thank you, Sheila! There are several special friends here who read the comments, and I really appreciate that.

    • Sheila

      Eric, I wouldn’t share this with just anyone but my nickname (one of them) is “Nosy Nora”. I’m sure that’s safe with you! 🙂

      • Well, just remember what Oscar Wilde said: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” BTW on a rare shopping mall errand with Eric when I was a kid, he got impatient with my endless exploration of everything in my path, and said “Julia, you are the only person I know who can meddle in a department store.” I thought you might identify!

  9. Michael

    In Hawaii we had a Night Cereus (sp?) bush outside our door. I also remember the Leis made of Pikake and of course Plumeria abundant.
    My grandma had a particular smell associated with- I think rose water.

    • Those Night Cereus are so pretty! I think they look a bit like water lilies. I really miss the Plumeria. The smell I associate with my Granny H. is Toll House cookies.

  10. Michael

    Sterculia foetidia- is that the giant death lily? Blooms once every ten years?
    Smells like rotting meat.

    • I think you must be thinking of another plant. The Skunk Tree is described here. It has a pungent, heavy smell, but not like rotting meat. It’s hard to describe just what it’s like because it’s very unique, as distinctive as the animal for which it’s named (though not the same scent).

  11. Great quote, Julia.

    The smell of Jergen’s hand lotion takes me right back to my mother’s kitchen in Canada. I can see it sitting next to the sink, and from there the room unfolds. The expanse of floor, the sun shining through the window. It’s lovely and bittersweet.

    Cinnamon toast also evokes pleasant memories of childhood.

    • Alys, now that you mention it, Jergen’s does have a lovely smell. It reminds me of my Granny, who always used it. I am crazy about all things cinnamon and love the smell and taste of it. We used to have cinnamon toast with our oatmeal and I would always gobble mine up and have a whole bowl of oatmeal to deal with then. 😦 I have grown to love oatmeal but I so DIDN’T love it when I was little, especially after it got lukewarm. Honeysuckle is a smell that brings back childhood to me, as there were tons of vines growing in the woods behind our back yard, and we used to play back there quite a bit.

  12. LB

    The smells of the shipyard (Daddy is a retired Naval Officer) take me right back to my youth! While not necessarily a “pretty / lovely” smell it is not unpleasant to me. Isn’t it incredible how smells can transport us through time?

    • Yes, I think smells are a faster time machine than sights or sounds. Have you been to the Norfolk shipyard? WOW, it’s amazing to me. I used to love Pearl Harbor Naval Base too, and I found the smell appealing. It felt safe and adventurous at the same time.

      • singleseatfighterpilot

        A “safe and adventurous” smell – outstanding description! One of the first of such, for me, was the smell of a canvass tent.
        Neither Sheila nor Julia must have experienced the hi-tec broadcasts available in Busan (LG is the inventer). The translation of the Korean word is “Smellivision”.

        • Eric, are you for real or are you pulling my leg again? Smellivision – it sounds like an urban legend almost. I did find some references to it online but they differ in terms of how they define its origins and current use. Hmmm, I can see where this could be problematic if it was really accurate! Let’s hope they never try to market it to dogs.

  13. Michael

    This tree I don’t remember. I spent m any afternoons at Foster Botanical and actually stayed for two weeks at the YMCA across the street- on Nu’uanu avenue, when I first got to Hawaii. If you want a real stinker tree, check out the female Ginkos at Prospect park in NYC. The fruit has a nauseating odor that I can only describe as- much like vomit. On our first trip to New York we walked through a group of like twenty trees and it was truly unforgettable- not in a good way. this is why most gardens only plant the male of the Ginko species.
    Here in Seattle the Blue Angles are back. We missed them last year. They will practice on Thursday. Supposed to get up to 85 today.

    • Wow, I didn’t know that about the gingko. Is that the same tree they get the supplement from (the one I think I need to start taking to improve memory)? It’s funny you are having hot weather. Last night was a near-record low and it’s wonderfully cool here today. I might have to take an extra-long walk this evening. When I went out walking at 6:30 am this morning, I actually got a bit cold. Hope that 85 is coming with at least a bit of sunshine!

  14. Michael

    Yea -same tree. NPR had a program on rare Albino Redwoods in California. Never heard of them -supposed to look like flocked Christmas trees. They are all white.

    • WOW, that is something I would love to see! I have never heard of them.

  15. Michael

    Also from last summer in NYC, I remember the weird electric wiring smell from the Subways. It is hard to describe but kind of burning insulation-somewhat like the electrical smell of those old Lionel toy electric trains.
    And as I may have mentioned the lingering scent of the Lynden tree flowers- much like an Orchid. They make a tea out of the Lynden trees which I tried. It tasted like– hay. And if you like cinnamon you will have to try the Seattle “market spice” tea sometime.

    • Michael, any sort of spice tea is tops in my book. I definitely need to check out the Seattle version as they seem to be the epicenter of tasty hot beverages. My Greek friend Eleni introduced me to Linden flower tea (maybe the same as Lynden?) as a remedy to insomnia, and it’s quite effective. I didn’t notice it tasting like hay, but maybe that’s because I drink so much green Sencha tea, which has a very grassy taste. I think I’ve picked up on the Subway smell you mention, but it’s only in places where some of the trains are very old, such as NYC. I haven’t noticed it here in DC. I wonder if it has to do with dust burning off the wires, since I sometimes notice a similar smell when I first use the space heaters after they have been put away for the summer.

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