Friday, June 7, 2013

What's That Smell?

There is a distinctive smell to my house that I’m only aware of in the first few moments when I walk in the door after being gone a few hours, but even more so when I come home from a few days away. It smells like “home”.

On a day to day basis, I never notice the smell, but after a time away it is a precious bouquet of safety, comfort, and love. I’ve tried to pin down the smell. There is a faint scent of baking bread, with overtones of Murphy’s soap and lavender. When I breathe deeper I smell grass and wood and animals.

My teenagers have a potent aroma all their own, a blend of hormones, sweat, and hair products. It’s especially overpowering first thing in the morning or seated beside one of them in the car. When they were babies I craved the scent of them. It was a sour, sticky, sweet perfume. On nights when their frightened cries or my own fears drove me the nursery in the dark center of night, that familiar scent calmed me. Snuggling the sweaty, limp body close I would breathe in deep and wish that I could bottle it.

Before we evolved to the days of processed food and home security systems, we probably relied on our sense of smell much more. Now our sense of smell is only useful for detecting food we’d like to eat and knowing when the cat has peed in the basement. The flowers that bloom in the months they shouldn’t have only a whisper of their former perfume. And potent “air fresheners” strip the world of its natural scent.

Even so, our sense of smell is powerful. It can transport us back to our grandmother’s kitchen, the tree fort where we whiled away the hours, or the halls of our elementary school. Aroma candles are big business which indicates that we still crave smells. We want to surround ourselves with scents that comfort and uplift us.

Citrus and lavender are my favorite scents. But basil makes my day summer any time of year. And, oh, rosemary, garlic, thyme, even a pungent tarragon are all smells that comfort my soul and cause me to breathe deeply. The scent of garlic, onions, and olive oil will make my stomach grumble in anticipation. But the odor that fills the house when my husband makes beef broth or brews beer sends me out the door. I’m not even sure why the strong, yeasty, oily smell bothers me. It should conjure up warm winter nights, but instead it strips me of my appetite. There must be a bad memory buried deep in my life that calls forth this aversion.

The smell of diesel fumes renders me nauseous, transporting me instantly to stuffy rides stuck on the “hump” in the middle of the back seat of my parents’ station wagon squished between my two brothers for a trip to visit another relative I don’t remember.

The antiseptic smell of a sterilized environment like a doctor’s office or a dentist or even a county building, makes me anxious. But chocolate chip cookies, Auntie Anne’s pretzels, or old bay seasoning on steaming shrimp make my stomach grumble.

I dropped my daughter off for her oboe lesson at the local college last week and the scent of the cinderblock building brought back the nervous feelings of moving into my college dorm room. How can the smell be the same 20 years later and several states away?

As I write this, I’m inhaling the wonderful fragrance of “white chocolate coconut latte” tea. It is heavenly. I discovered it only a few months ago yet it has fastened itself to my writing hours. I panic when my stash gets low, knowing the scent has become my muse.

Maybe my respect for the power of smell explains my fascination with hound dogs. Beautiful, multi-colored, floppy eared, nose to the ground, they can distinguish between thousands of scents. They can not only hunt down dinner, they can save lives. They are the canine super heroes.

While our sense of smell is nothing compared to a hound dog, and it may no longer protect us or inform us as it might have in the original design, our sense of smell does have vast power. It can launch a memory, motivate a mind, and still our souls.

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