The Sweet Smell of Something
Not for nothing do they call smell the most evocative sense. I got a whiff of Jungle Gardenia perfume recently, and in an instant I was a guilt-ridden 5-year-old again, tempted to look over my shoulder to see if my mother had caught me pilfering between-meal cookies.
This intense cologne reaction can go several ways. I was once tempted to deck a complete stranger in an elevator because he wore the same after-shave as my ex. The scent of Jontue (don’t lie, fellow 40-something women – you bought it too) takes me right back to my senior prom, complete with French-braided hair, a Styx power ballad, and a fake-flower arch where my date bent his arm unnaturally to highlight my corsage as we got our picture taken.
I’ve left my Jontue days long in the past, but Old Spice will forever smell like argument to me.
I suppose I’m thinking of smells so much because my husband recently commented that he can’t escape the scent of mulch. And he’s right – it’s everywhere. A sharp, tangy smell that selfishly obliterates every other aroma in a 2-mile radius. But after the winter we’ve had, mulch = Spring. It has a perfume all its own.
So, oddly enough, does cow manure. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to smell it without thinking of a local farm at which I’ve spent many happy hours enjoying the chance (along with hundreds of other suburbanites) to “get my rural on.” The milk from those cows has been magically transformed into far too many mint-chocolate-chip ice cream cones. And when I visit the calves in their tiny individual pens, it’s easy to convince myself that one specific calf – I can even identify her by the number tag she sports like a low-rent earring – has eyes only for me.
What is it about baby animals? Puppy-belly smell renders me completely helpless and delighted. I imagine God made puppy-bellies smell so good so we wouldn’t be too angry when they ate entire sneakers (puppies must have impressive digestive tracts!)
A close cousin to this phenomenon is that of kitten-breath. I have a cat who’s broken a lamp through her feline skittishness, shredded several box springs with her claws, and frequently tumbles head-first into her food bowl, scattering Science Diet pellets throughout the kitchen. But she has only to lick my nose and all is forgiven. Kitten breath. They never outgrow it, and it’s irresistible.
Would you believe that I even have a soft spot for the odor of horse dung? It’s true. Combined with the smell of deep-fried, powdered-sugar-laden funnel cake and meticulously oiled leather saddles, it never fails to put me in mind of a favorite local horse-show-cum-country-fair.
I guess scents mean different things to different people. You’d think that fresh-cut grass would be a universally positive aroma, but to a landscaper, the association with endless sweltering days of pruning unruly hedges and gallon jugs of lukewarm ice tea teetering on yet-to-be-mown lawns would conjure up anything but a relaxing image. The smell of newly-fallen rain is the stuff of misty-eyed, romantic dating commercials for some – but to me, it just signals a dreary sky and a slick commute. For good memories, I’ll stick with horse dung, thank you very much.
However, horse dung isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (ew – horse dung tea!), and an entire industry has grown up around making our environment smell good. Way back, there were “sachets,” which resided in your grandmother’s nightgown drawer and were the forerunners of potpourri. Potpourri is an interesting racket: gather whatever twigs, dead flowers, and shriveled fruit you can find in a local park, pour some scented oil on it, package the whole lot in a clear cellophane bag tied with a raffia ribbon, call it “Apple Harvest” or something – and charge $11.00.
But with potpourri, the aroma-industrial complex was just getting started. The real money lay in candles. Impressively molded into the shape of everything from jars to lamps to miniature rabbits; striped, swirled, and blended in every shade on the color wheel; and even more creatively named than paint chips, scented products have probably neared the top of their “market penetration” arrow on this year’s Yankee Candle annual meeting PowerPoint.
(I’d like to have a word with the folks at Yankee Candle headquarters, though. How exactly does a hunk of scented wax conjure up a “Midsummer Night?”)
The newest thing is “reed diffusers” – basically, you plunk a bunch of balsa-wood sticks in a bottle of scented oil, and it perfumes the whole room without the danger of an open flame. Full disclosure: I love reed diffusers. I have two in my office at home (I’m still trying to mask the smell of smoke after being quit for months) and one in my office at work. This hippest of aroma-trends, though, is also the most confusing. The names of these scents aren’t even remotely literal (it makes me long for “Midsummer Night!”) Someone walked in to my office the other day, asked me what smelled so good, and I said “Serendipity.” My colleague found a reason to leave pretty quick.
I’ve got real estate on the brain these days, and it’s amazing how big a role aroma plays in “staging” a home for sale. Holding an open house? Make some chocolate-chip cookies or (better yet) an apple pie that morning. It really does make prospects more likely to make an offer. I don’t know if they think you’ll stay on as their personal pastry chef or what…
But forget artifice. My clearest scent-memories are the simplest ones. Truck exhaust fumes smell like my commute. Thin-crust barbecue chicken pizza calls weekends to mind. Salty air smells like Cape Cod – and the excitement I always feel at visiting my family there. Alfred Sung eau de parfum and Armani cologne smell like Date Night, Garnier shampoo like my frequently wet-haired niece. Cigar smoke used to belong to my grandfather, but now it smells like my husband, as does Guinness (and the far more wholesome Irish Spring soap.)
I could probably replace sight (guide dog, Braille) and hearing (Cochlear implant, lip-reading). But I couldn’t do without my sense of smell.
The water that caused her “eureka” moment? To Helen Keller, it must have smelled like nectar.