A few days ago I was reading stories at ScentMemories.org, a site by Fragrance Foundation UK. It’s an interesting project where people have shared their most important scent memories. Many of the accounts revolve around perfumes worn by mothers and grandmothers. While reading these posts I had a viscerally painful realization. My mother never wore perfume.
She used basic soap and unscented lotions, no skin creams or makeup. I can recall scents associated with her, things she cooked or the smell of a hot comb on oiled hair, but those smells aren’t of her. I have a vivid memory of the last time we hugged. I was young enough to believe she wouldn’t die and she was tired enough to know she would. Even in that moment when she held me longer than normal, I cannot recall any scent. For 20 years I had no reason to be bothered by this, but suddenly, I feel robbed of a precious thing I never knew existed.
How can we possibly know and understand the importance of scent memories to the people we love? If the brain has never solidified the connection between a scent and a person, we can’t use scent to trigger a memory of the person. Yet the emotional resonance we get through scent is so strong that as I strained to remember any scent of my mother, I found my brain imagining one, trying to will this scent memory into existence.
The French company Kailan Olfactory Links was created to help people enjoy the scent of someone they miss. They have a process for distilling personal odor molecules from clothing and using that to make a perfume. The perfume is designed for the user to find olfactory comfort in the fragrance, not necessarily to wear. While some people dismiss the idea as creepy, it’s the logical way to preserve a scent that will eventually be gone. The founder, Katia Apalategui had the idea after her father’s death, when she witnessed her mother trying to ease her grief by inhaling from a pillow that still held his scent.
The reality is that along with the pain of loss, memories also fade. Scent intensifies the quality of our memories, keeping them fresh. My first scent memory is of tomatoes in my grandmother’s garden. That was over 35 years ago and every time I smell tomatoes on the vine I’m taken right back to that place. The dirt, the sun, my grandmother working nearby. There are few memories of my mother that have this same immediacy and intensity. This makes me sad more for my mother than for myself. Fragrance can add so much pleasure to life, I hate to think that she never found any joy in something so simple.
What value do your favorite scents add to your life? Please share some of your favorite scent memories in the comments.