The Sense of Smell

Many years ago, I learned that the olfactory sense is like a mini time machine. One sniff of a long forgotten odor can transport us mentally to that time a place of distant memory. A year or so ago, the pungent smell of hard provolone cheese brought me back to a corner grocery store in the Italian ghetto of a small East coast city where as a small girl I accompanied my father to buy fruit and nuts for an up-coming holiday. The proprietor, a smiling man with a handlebar mustache stood behind a wooden counter sharpening the long knives he would use to slice the huge cheeses and salamis that hung from the ceiling of his shop. The proprietor would put down his knives to shake hands with my father as they had known each other as boys. While they conversed, I squished my little feet into the sawdust on the floor and tried to see into the barrels stood in front of the counter. In a few minutes, large hands would scoop assorted nuts from one of the barrels and dump them into a paper sack. Dad would select some grapes and tangerines from wooden boxes near the window. Our encounter with the mustached shop- keeper would end until the next holiday season.

Yesterday, my sister and I stepped into the kitchen of our 97 year old aunt who stood sprinkling parmesan cheese over a steaming bowl of spaghetti and sausage. In unison, we turned to each other and said, “Just like Mom’s!” The red sauce smelled of childhood, warmth and security.

The most poignant flash back occurred while cleaning out a bathroom drawer in preparation for my impending move from a three story house to an apartment. I pulled open the drawer where my deceased husband and I kept an assortment of combs and brushes. It is a drawer that I open every day to take out my hair brush which I keep near the front. The drawer is a deep one the kind and size that forgotten item use to hide in back. As I was cleaning, I pulled the drawer all of the way out. It was time to toss stray hairpins and used razor blades. In a far back corner, I found a hair brush that my husband used years ago. I’d forgotten that it still existed. I put the bush aside until I disposed of the cracked shoe horn and the half tooth combs that rested among the loose hair pins and disposable razors. Next, I decided to clean all of the hair brushes. There were a total of three brushes, mine, my husband’s and the old one. I smiled when I noticed that the old brush was full of light brown, redish hair – that of my husband in his younger years. The oils from the hair had not diminished with time. As I pulled the hair, the odor released itself and I smelled my beloved. I continued to clean the brush with my eyes closed in order to keep the cherished ghost as long as possible. The sense of smell is a powerful entity.

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