Smell is the first and strongest memory, and the last to leave us. Incoming smells are processed by the olfactory bulb, which sends them through to the amygdala and hippocampus, centers of emotion and memory. All scents go through these two centers, whose marquee should read: ALL THE FEELINGS.
Scent is not everything, but it does get all balls rolling.
TWO I’m lying on the lawn in front of our house, which is (as I will later discover) just like the houses to the right and left, and also across the street and behind us. We all have narrow backyards and neat squares of lawn on either side of the cement walk. I’ve planted myself in the grass, arms and legs outstretched. No shoes. My face is sideways on the grass, and I am overcome with green. I can smell green, and when I pull out clumps of grass and wave them over my face, I smell the loamy, mineral smell of backyard dirt. I breathe deeply as little clumps fall on my face and hair. There’s a vast world out there and I am in it!
FOUR Chickenshit is a thing, not just one of my father’s expressions. My aunt and uncle have a chicken farm in New Jersey. With a lot of chickens. They are enormous, Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds, with dirty feathers, beady eyes, and personalities to match.
My aunt Fritzie, otherwise the kindest of women, demands that I help out. She feels that I have been spoiled by suburban living. What she really feels, I think, as I grow up, is that it was a very good idea to leave Russia and not be massacred in her home but that some lesser things — Yiddish, chicken management, competent children — have been forever lost. She lets me choose between helping her wring the chickens’ necks and gathering eggs. I gather eggs. Inside the chicken coop, it’s shadowy. The air palpates with shit and eggshell, corn and feathers. I can hardly breathe, but even after I succeed in gathering six eggs and putting them in my padded flour sack, I don’t want to leave. The air is a living thing.
SIX My father smokes a pipe all the time. As an extra treat — as it seems to me, like ice cream instead of a single cookie — he smokes a Montecristo No. 4 cigar in the evening. He’s enveloped in a cloud of herby, cedary smoke. He blows smoke rings, and he gives me the cigar bands to wear. (When I’m three months pregnant one winter, I won’t let him smoke in my house, because the smell doesn’t just make me nauseous — like everything — it actually makes me vomit. My father puts on his hat and coat, unfolds a lawn chair, takes the newspaper and a cereal bowl to use as an ashtray, and settles himself in the garage under the one hanging lightbulb. I see now that my self-centered and implacable father didn’t complain, even a little. The garage smells of Montecristos for years. After his death, I find myself in the garage, sitting in a lawn chair.)
SEVEN We have moved on up. We have left my beloved neighborhood of small square houses and ruptured sidewalks and moved to a part of town with big houses and no sidewalks at all. I’ve been invited to Linda’s house to play the Barbie Game. I hate it. (I also prefer Poindexter, the universally despised boyfriend, to the “good” boyfriends, who remind me of the Nazis of my nightmares, but I am ashamed of my preference.) I leave the game and wander around, finding my way to Linda’s father’s den. It smells wonderfully of old leather. I bury myself in his Chesterfield sofa, and I find a side table filled with Playboy magazines. This is where Linda and Cherry find me, an hour later, stretched out and breathing deeply.
NINE My parents are going to a fancy party. They smell like Heaven, especially if Heaven has layers of fragrance. Jean Nate talc, with a powder puff bigger than my hand. On top of that are Pond’s cold cream and hand cream that comes in a lilac, metal tube. It’s from France. My mother rubs the lilac cream into her hands, elbows, and heels. On top of that is Ma Griffe (“My signature”), the only perfume my mother wears. I love this fragrance. It is my mother at her best: sharp, confident, and warm. It has cinnamon and leather, jasmine and vetiver, gardenia and ylang-ylang. All of these scents become favorites of mine. (I am 50 years old, sitting in a theater. An older woman is in front of me, her fur coat tossed back over her seat. She, and the coat, are wearing Ma Griffe. Surreptitiously, I hold the sleeve of the coat. I bend closer, to inhale. I love this woman. I am blind and deaf to the first act. )
TWENTY-SIX Apple juice and milk. I have a baby. Any piece of the world that is not shit or pee or puréed green beans, is apple juice and milk. I live in a scented fog, moving from task to task, with scrambled synapses and heavy feet. (Light heart, love the baby, blah blah. Still.) The combination of these smells binds me then and leaves me now both queasy and nostalgic, longing and relieved.
NOW The old-fashioned roses in my garden, Honey Perfume, are exactly as described, and more so when the sun warms them. (My mother’s dear friend up the street had a full rose garden and a bed of Honey Perfume at the center.) My husband’s scent, which is peppery and salty, almost always has a hint of vetiver, because it’s his favorite cologne and has been for many years. Sometimes, I am near another man who wears some form of vetiver, and I am compelled and a little anxious. Bread baking.
Whoever’s made the bread, it’s not me, and the smell, like the act of being in a kitchen where someone else is cooking, is the most delightful way of being a child that I can think of.
Amy Bloom is a novelist. Her latest work, White Houses, is out now.