Certain smells have the ability to transport us across space and time. There have been times when I have smelled mown grass and, in my mind, I am on the gridiron as I was in junior high and high school.
Some days I am back during the hot Tennessee summers enduring the dreaded two-a-day practices, sweating pounds away and going through endless plays and wind sprints.
If the aroma of cut grass comes during the evenings at around 8:00 p.m., I’m on the field, the band is playing, the lights are bright, the cheerleaders are getting the crowd up, and I’m smelling the popcorn, the sweat, and the freshly mown field in preparation for the game, and I’m allowing the testosterone to have its way.
Although a life-long non-smoker, I love the aroma of a pipe or a cigar. My grandfather, Charles Duckett, took me fishing more times than I remember.
We would gather worms together from the “worm bed” he had constructed in his backyard at the edge of the woods. Then, we would be off to the Holston River to fish off the riverbank. Once in a great while, he would take me out in a fishing boat. Always, he had a pipe in his mouth. It’s difficult to remember Grandpa without his pipe. Pleasant memories and sensations, reminders of wonderful childhood days, are manifested when the smoke of a pipe is nearby.
My father, who was a smoker for much of his adult life, never smoked a cigar at our house. Whether that was his or my mother’s doing, I do not know. My dad was an electrician. But he was also a gun trader. He held a federal firearms license and every weekend he would set up a table or two full of pistols, rifles, and shotguns at a local flea market that we all referred to as “The Stockyard,” because cattle and other animals exchanged hands there.
He made extra money, but he also liked the interaction with other traders and loved the thrill of making a deal with someone. Occasionally, I went with him to sit behind the tables while he roamed or I would do the roaming and see the newest guns and the old antiques. Dad smoked a cigar at The Stockyard.
Dad went to gun shows, too. We had them in our hometown of Kingsport, TN but he also attended gun shows in Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Asheville, NC. Many times, I would tag along on these events in these venues. Dad smoked a cigar at these gun shows, too. So, these many decades later, when I am around cigar smoke, I am transported to a time and place where the memories are good.
There are smells that convey memories that are less pleasant too. Poverty has a smell. I encountered it as a social worker many decades ago. Although many, perhaps the majority, of the people who live below the poverty line, are clean, keep their dwellings up, and wash their clothes, most of the homes I visited as a child protective services worker were not.
It’s hard to describe that smell, but I recognize it instantly if I get close to it. It’s the smell of dirty clothes, dirty dishes all piled up in the sink, of stale and spoiled food, of roaches in the hundreds, of old grease, of despair, of lost dignity, of hopelessness. That forces up old and unpleasant memories.
Nearly everyone possesses memories that, when activated, stir up feelings and emotions. It might be the smell of bacon, or bread, or one’s favorite meal. There’s the smell of a leather football or of the sweat and dirty socks of a locker room. The smell of chlorine in a swimming pool, of barnyard hay, of cows or horses.
As one who has always been around guns, there’s the smell of gun oil and of gunpowder. For those in the high school or college band, diesel fuel is likely a smell that brings memories of bus trips to games or competitions. The list is as varied as there are people.
It’s a gift, I think, this ability to smell. That memories can be attached to certain aromas that transport us back for a bit to some past time is the icing on the olfactory cake. There’s an old admonition to “Stop and smell the roses” as we go through life. Ah, but life is much more than roses, although that’s a good place to start.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). Worship services are on Sundays at 10:00 a.m. and on livestream at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may be contacted at email@example.com.]