I was at a grocery store the other day – one of those upscale, bougie places that sells snobbish $5.00 bottles of enriched water and pompously superior organic/all-natural/sustainable/ethically-sourced…everything. My kind of place! As I strolled through the aisles, I was seduced by a display of colorful handcrafted soaps. Always in search of new scents to brighten my shower time, I paused to sample the goods. Two- and three-toned soaps; delicately swirled soaps; soaps with flowers embedded in them. All had precisely cut sides except for one deliberately rough edge, some left raw, some artfully pressed in lavender buds or dried rose petals. I breathed in intense gardenia and jasmine, calming chamomile, invigorating peppermint. There were clever names, like “Purple Haze” and “Volcanic Vanilla.” As I sniffed my way through the piles, I picked up one called “Sand and Sea.” I had a rough expectation of a salty ocean aroma, but, instead, I had a flashback so vivid and powerful that I closed my eyes and found myself transported in that memory.
That’s the funny thing about our senses. A taste, a sight, a sound, and particularly, a smell, triggers an association locked deep in our brains that can spontaneously return us to a specific time or place. The sweet fragrance of summer rain pattering on my roof and I’m eight-years-old, seated cross-legged on my front porch with my current Bobbsey Twins book open in my lap, fingers oranged from the Cheetos I wash down with cherry Hi-C. Protected by the overhanging roof, the driving blur of the downpour hypnotizes me. When the storm slows, I’m lulled into dreamy tranquility as I return to the adventures of Nan and Bert, Flossie and Freddie.
The crunch of dried leaves beneath my feet and I’m among the throngs of trick-or-treaters scuffling up and down the sidewalk. Shivering in the late October chill under Wonder Woman costumes or white sheets with eyehole cut-outs, it didn’t occur to us to ruin the effect with a heavy jacket. After a week of decorating the elementary school classroom windows with construction paper jack-o’lanterns and witches, our anticipation is at its peak when October 31 finally arrives. My friends and I, giddy with excitement, don our costumes in preparation for the school-wide parade along the main street, parents gathered to oooh and ahhh, passersby in cars honking in appreciation. After dinner, with pillowcases in hand to carry our haul of Hershey bars and 3 Musketeers, we join scurrying neighborhood ghosts, ghouls, and superheroes in the crisp, autumn twilight.
Coconut oil and it’s spring break in Florida. On crammed beaches with hordes of other college students, my friends and I sizzle all day until our skin looks like aged cognac. Nights are spent jammed in smoky clubs, shouting to hear each other over the music while flashing flirtatious smiles at cute boys. Stumbling back to our rented house at three in the morning ensures fuzzy, aching heads when we awake a few hours later to repeat the previous day’s schedule – coconut oil, sizzle, party.
The taste of almond paste and I’m watching my grandmother’s delighted smile as she opens her gift of colorful, fruit-shaped marzipan. The scent of Tabu perfume, and I see my aunt at twenty-five, sashing across a parking lot while every head turns to admire her youthful beauty. The syrupy smell of cotton candy and I’m strolling through the State Fair where I buy my first guinea pig. “Freebird” and I’m in early adolescence feeling the heartache of my unrequited crush on Eduardo.
The day I revisited when I smelled the “Sand and Sea” soap was a family trip to Cape Cod. I was four, maybe five, so too young to have clear memories. More just fleeting images. That’s why the impact of the aroma from the soap was especially startling. The impression was buried so deep that it was at an almost primal level. As I stood in the Health and Beauty aisle with eyes closed, I feel the rocky sand beneath my feet, very different from the smooth beaches I was used to in New Jersey. I’m wearing a floppy beach hat to protect my eyes from the burning sun while my skin is sticky with Coppertone. My older brothers have built a sandcastle nearby and are desperately digging a moat around it as the tide comes in. Mom and Dad are more relaxed than I ever remembered, lounging in metal-framed beach chairs with basket weave nylon seats – the kind that leave red crisscrosses on the back of your thighs – while keeping one drowsy eye on their three lively children. Every evening during that trip, I strip down in the outdoor shower to discover that my droopy bathing suit bottoms have carried back half the beach. Why did this bar of soap take me to that singular trip to Cape Cod instead of the countless excursions we made to the Jersey shore? There must have been the slightest nuance that evoked one memory over the others.
Generally, these sensory nudges pleasantly lead me through the photo album of my life, flipping through memories with wistful nostalgia. There are others, however, that arouse a more painful response. I can’t buy poinsettias anymore because, as they were my mother’s favorite flowers, I bought out the nursery to decorate the church for her funeral. I’ve never watched my wedding video because it was the last celebration I shared with my father. My heart aches when I see swarms of dragonflies as they were the favorites of my college roommate Samantha. Every time I pop open a Miller Lite, I hear my recently departed friend Steve chortling for the umpteenth time: “Less filling, tastes great!”
Why some sensory memories bring a smile to my face while others bring a tear to my eye is something I can’t explain. It’s a visceral reaction, devoid of thought or intention. It must go back to that place deep in the brain where those responses originate. While both of my parents are gone, memories of them conjure different feelings. I don’t purchase poinsettias or watch movies of my father, but the image of innocent bliss conjured up when I smelled that “Sand and Sea” soap is equally linked to my parents. I felt such serenity as I stood there in the store, eyes closed, holding the bar to my nose, that I bought that soap. Then, I returned a week later to buy three more bars.