Sunday, February 8, 2009

What Triggers Your Memory?

Many years ago when we still lived in New York,  we were casually strolling through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, enjoying the early flowers, when I was suddenly overcome by such a wave of unbearable homesickness that it nearly took my breath away.

“What is it?” my husband said when I stood unmoving, rooted to the spot.

“That smell!  Where’s it coming from?”

The air was almost still, the breeze so light that it took a moment for me to orient.  We modern humans are so far removed from our primitive ancestors that we can’t track smells the way they probably could; but this scent was strong enough that, like a bee to a locust tree, I followed my nose and eventually came to a tall scraggly bush with tiny, insignificant flowers.  It was well off the main paths where nature had almost taken over from the usual manicured beauty of the gardens.  No neatly printed tags identified anything back in that tangle, but I knew the bush.  One ten-footer had grown under my grandmother’s kitchen window.  My cousin and I played house under its arching branches.  In eastern North Carolina, it blooms in early January and those little white flowers put out such a powerfully sweet aroma that a few stems in a vase can perfume a whole room.

The Latin name is lonicera fragrantissima—most fragrant honeysuckle—but the common name around here is “First Breath of Spring” because it does convey all the promise of springtime in the dead of winter.  That day in Brooklyn though, it was the smell of home; and now that I look back upon it, my longing to come home was probably triggered by that incident.  

Smells can do that, can’t they?  Set a whole long train of memories chugging through our heads?  We may have lost primitive man’s more acute sense of smell, but enough remains to bring us back to times long gone.

Amusingly, after we had moved back to my homeplace, a place my Brooklyn-born husband thought would never really feel like home to him, he had his own olfactory flashback while standing under my mother’s crabapple tree.  The tree was in full bloom, a mass of beautiful pink blossoms; and like a magic carpet, their fragrance immediately transported him back to the beach at Riis Park in Brooklyn, where he played as a child.

I still have my grandmother’s First Breath of Spring.  Despite last week’s freezing weather, it’s blooming right now . . . and the buds are swelling on the crabapples we planted as soon as we finished building the house.

What about you?  What smells send you back to childhood?  I’d like to hear.

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