The smells of memory

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It was after a speaking engagement in Chattanooga when I was signing books that an arm slipped over my shoulders from the back and a woman leaned forward to press her cheek against mine.

Before I saw her, I smelled her fragrance. I stopped, my Sharpie paused inches above a book, and I drifted back for a moment to the days when I took that scent for granted. I inhaled deeply then turned to see my sweet friend, Martha Martin.

“Are you wearing Youth Dew?” I asked.

She smiled and nodded. “It’s what I’ve worn for many years.”

“That’s all Mama ever wore.” I sighed and allowed myself a moment to remember and miss her before turning back to the books.

For a woman raised in the mountains with no frills at all, it’s unusual that Mama had found her way to being perfumed up. But one year, someone at church had given her a box of Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew bath powder. From then on, Mama used it every time she showered. I gave her a box for Mother’s Day and, usually, one at Christmas. I am grateful for that because I will always be able to have a beautiful scent connected to Mama.

There are others that aren’t as beautiful, such as pinto beans cooking, grease in the kitchen’s air, and whatever was the cheapest hairspray she could buy. Usually Aquanet. Louise, who often fixed Mama’s hair, started buying something at the beauty shop for her and Mama was so proud of having an expensive hairspray.

There are times I can close my eyes and smell the hot steam and soap from Daddy’s showers. As he dressed for church or the funeral home – the only times he dressed up – he would open the bathroom door, soap up his face and shave. Then, he splashed on Jade East, a dime store aftershave. It is the mixture of those smells that brings such nostalgia.

After he died, I found half a bottle of Jade East in the medicine cabinet and I brought it home. From time to time, when I want to remember, I pull out that bottle, open the top, and think back to the precious days when everyone I loved was still alive.

Those days smelled so good.

The memory of smell, they say, is our strongest. I believe that. I can walk into a basketball gym and smell popcorn and hot dogs, which transports me back to high school years and then my early career as a sports writer. Car grease and Lava soap evoke other memories of Daddy and the scent of honeysuckle on a summer’s day takes my hand and leads back down the trail of childhood summers when I waded in the creek or ran barefooted through the pasture.

“There’s someone I want you to meet,” my friend, Jane White said one day. “I’m having a little get-together. Please come.”

Jane’s husband was an Army Ranger and he has come to know an extraordinary war hero, Steve Baskis, who lost his sight when a bomb hit his vehicle while on patrol in Iraq. Though he is blind, he is an adventurer who has climbed the world’s toughest mountains and started a non-profit to encourage those who are without sight to keep moving, living, and finding adventure. (Please, visit www.blindendeavors.org to learn more about this mission.)

“Did your other senses get stronger when you lost your sight?” I asked Steve.

A wistful look flickered across his face. “I lost my sense of smell, too.” The bomb had taken his sight and destroyed his olfactory nerve, as well. Food, without smell, is tasteless unless extremely spiced. Of all the senses, what he misses most is the smell of his mother and her clothes.

I understand. There is no memory of smell more comforting than a mother’s scent to her child.

What a tremendous sacrifice of comfort he gave for our country.

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know.” Please visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]