The Scent of a Memory
The Blog Post in Which I Glue Sticks Together and Spy on Birds
Emotion, memory, and our sense of smell are intricately tied together. It’s been proven by science, and marketers know it. From air fresheners that smell like new cars, to infamous candle creations promoted by celebrities (Gwyneth Paltrow, I’m looking at you), the business of scent is real - and about as subjective as art itself when it comes to which scents appeal to whom.
My husband and I planted a lilac in our backyard roughly a dozen years ago. This week, the flowers emerged, as they do every year, their clusters almost like grapes; baubles of pastel blooms bobbing in the wind. The tree is in our yard’s back corner, hidden behind our garden shed and requiring a bit of careful navigation to maneuvre around old branches and storage containers. The canopy of variegated leaves forms an archway overhead, creating a secret (or not-so-secret, since I’m telling you about it) nook, a tiny hideaway. From there, I can spy on the birds bathing in the marshy patch on the other side of the fence.
Spying on birds aside, mostly I venture there to get a noseful of lilac. It reminds of my childhood home, where, not unlike now, our house had a lilac tree stationed behind the makeshift shed that held our garbage bins, complete with a child-sized bare spot, ideal for solitary daydreaming, at its gnarled base.
I’m reminded of summers in the backyard, the grass soft and wet beneath our feet as we tried to dodge the water spouting from the rotating arms of the sprinkler. Rainy days on the back patio, listening to the water tap-tap-tap above us on the corrugated plastic roof. My parents had a few fruit trees trained to grow flat - living sculptures that always reminded me a bit of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (though I wouldn’t have known the image’s title or creator...it was just “the old drawing of the spreadeagled naked guy” at the time). I’m taken back to when the summers seemed endless and I could kill some time by poking at the bubbly bark of our evergreen with a sharp rock to get at the sticky, amber sap and - like the McGyver I used to be - use it to glue some sticks together.
Another part of my brain registers this scent as something old-fashioned, an aroma of elderly ladies who lived in musty stone houses and had glass bottles of perfume (lilac, of course) sitting atop the doilies on their vanities. Where I made this connection, so vastly different from the memory of carefree summers of my youth, I don’t know.
This week, at bedtime, I turned off all the lights and sat in my bedroom. I gave my eyes a welcome break and concentrated on opening my ears and my nose. Out back, the frogs in the marsh sang - a chorus of croaks, peeps, chirps and trills - and the breeze slipped through the open window, carrying that sweet lilac scent. Such small but meaningful pleasures.
Like everything else in life, the lilacs are fleeting. Already, individual blooms have started to curl in on themselves, spent for the season. But they’ll come back (like everything else does, in one form or another). And they’ll bring my memories with them.