The Scent of Memory
Funny how the brain works. Memories are stored, and catalogued with scent keys, all accessible in a virtual database. Just plug-in a smell, and voila, like entering a keyword in a computer search we are instantaneously presented with a memory filled with joys and sorrows, pleasures and pains assigned to it from months, years or even decades in our past, as if by magic. Some are quite vivid in detail. Others elude us altogether. At times the brain recalls intimate details about an event, a person or a place—significant or not— some remembrances are delivered-up infused with raw emotion, or perhaps they are merely insignificant moments in time that occurred years in the past. But then, we cannot remember what we had for dinner on the previous evening.
Generally speaking, I have a great memory—for historical data, dates and times of significant events in my life, and the like. What I did the day before… sometimes not so much. My earliest memory, if it serves me right, and it does, is an interaction with a childhood friend. She was the daughter of friends of my parents when I was four years old. I remember her and this particular moment as if it occurred yesterday rather than the reality of the nearly forty-five years that have passed between then and now. My mother used to bathe us together when visiting the home of this family. On this occasion, after powdering our bottoms with baby powder, she put us down for a nap on my little friends’ parent’s bed. Her name was Sheri and she was my earliest friend. Blonde hair, blue eyes and she was cute, for a three-year-old. She may very well still be. Cute, I mean, no longer three. Last I heard she was married and had four children of her own. But things may have changed for her. That report was made thirty-five years ago or more. This particular post-bath moment in time, for reasons that escape me, resonates with me because… well, she kissed me. OK, the kiss landed on my forearm, but it was a kiss nonetheless. To this day, whenever I smell Johnson’s baby powder, I think of Sheri and that after bath-time first kiss.
A few days ago, on the last leg of an 8 mile out-and-back run on the Sacramento River, I experienced this scent triggered memory phenomenon again. This time, the scent was that of standing pond water—river water in this case—taking me back to my childhood of exploring the outer perimeter of Oak Meadow Park in Los Gatos, a park just below the larger and more well-known Vasona Park in this quaint upscale town in the South Bay Area of California. My brother and I would explore for hours on a given weekend day, time standing still for us, as is common for pre-teen boys fully engulfed in the essential task of park exploration as our parents barbecued and drank beer until dusk, when the park rangers would come around with their giant flashlights, asking everyone to wrap it up because the park was closing. Oak Meadow Park had a stream that ran through it (this may have been the upper fork of Coyote Creek), fed by Lexington Reservoir just to the south before filling Vasona Lake on its way through Los Gatos and then continuing its run through San Jose. The smell of the standing water in sections of the creek and the duck and goose populated Vasona Lake permeated my senses way back then and are forever stored in those odd cells in the brain along with all of the other seemingly meaningless—and some not so meaningless—information.
Last night I was on another run. Not as long, but a run just the same. It’s what I do. I have to maintain The Temple. No one’s going to do it for me, you know? This particular run was around the perimeter of Capitol Park in downtown Sacramento where I live. The park is nearly a prefect mile in circumference, so it makes for good tracking of distance for me and the countless others that jog in a near constant rotation—clockwise on some days, counterclockwise on others—around its perimeter. On the back side of the park (15th Street between L and N) there is an odd scent that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s always there in that very same spot every time I have passed it over the two years that I have been using the park as my personal training ground. This scent instantly takes me back to a time two years ago when I first moved to Sacramento and was searching for an apartment to rent. The scent is fleeting, lasting but three strides of my typical 10 minute-mile pace, part floral and part the scent of antiquity. When I was looking for an apartment, I used a rental agency that took me around to look at prospective units. I toured many apartments, some in more recently constructed buildings and others that were of the more vintage variety in buildings that had seen more than their share of administration change in this great state. It was the small vintage—some not so much vintage as just plain old—of the apartment buildings I toured that were infused with this particular aroma. Not a bad smell, inherently, but an unmistakable tang of old construction, best described as the smell of antiquity that was peculiarly mixed with a pungent bouquet. This fragrance had to be coming from some type of landscaping flora or another, conceivably of a variety used in a bygone era—hence the recall—but of a resilient species that has endured the rigors of time and the volatility of decades of climate change.
The period of my life when I moved to Sacramento was one of great turmoil, a time which conveyed much sadness, although conversely ample enthusiasm of new beginnings full of new geographically procreated personal and artistic potential.
If ever I feel the masochistical need to reminisce on that time, for its positive attributes or to evoke the immense melancholy tied to that particular chapter in my life, I just go for a run around Capitol Park—clockwise rotation or contrasting counter—or simply sit on the grass in that tiny segment of 15th Street where this unmistakable aroma resides, wafting its emotionally charged aromatic formula into the air, infiltrating the senses of all who walk, run, or ride past. This would have proven impossibly painful for me at one time, but I’ve since come to terms with those emotions and the decisions at their origin. And who’s to say that this same recipe of scents does not trigger an alternatively joyous memory for another. I take no ownership of that which brings up feelings of regret, passion, or pain as it relates to the memories that environmental experiences evoke, just to say, that they exist and that no matter how painful their evocative properties, we are better for the experience. It only proves to the world and to ourselves that we are alive.
Memories… we’re all only an aroma away from being transported to another time, another place, yet we are usually ill prepared for the feelings that await us there. We are an emotionally driven species occupying this tiny blue speck in the deep recesses of our vast universe. Our recollections are alive and well, residing within us all… until the day comes when they leave us… and they will. Gradually at first. Then one day, they will be gone forever, never to return. Memories, good and bad, happy and sad, these are cherished glimpses of moments in time. Hold them dear… for the day will come, sooner for some, later for others, when they will have departed for good.
The next time that a scent takes you to another time, to another place, a place where memories reside, fond or to the contrary, relish it but for a moment. Don’t stay there too long. Let the past remain in the past lest we lose ourselves in a time that is no longer belongs to us. Reminisce… but only for a moment. We owe it to ourselves and to those with whom we occupy those memories to move on—on to the present and to the future, for that is where new memories are created. We are not closing the door on them… just filing them away as to make room for more.