I was sitting in church a few weeks ago and caught a hint of an unusual scent. I tried to decipher what it could possibly be, and thought I detected a hint of vanilla mixed with a light floral fragrance. It seemed odd that I caught only a whiff of the pleasant smell, and then it was gone. After church, I made a trip to Walmart. As I rounded the canned vegetable aisle, there was the same scent—illusive, and a little bit creepy, to tell the truth.
Nice smelling ghosts aside, this phantom smell concerned me. I had heard that smelling something that wasn’t there could be a sign of something going wrong in the brain—tumors and dementia at the top of the list. Phantosmia, olfactory hallucination, can be deadly serious.
I loaded my groceries, jumped in my car, and turned on the ignition. The air conditioner kicked on, and I breathed in the fragrance again! That’s when it dawned on me—the unusual smell was from the new body lotion I’d put on my arms that morning. Well, I was relieved that I’d solved the mystery and dodged that neurological disorder bullet in one fell swoop.
We are surrounded by odors, pleasant and unpleasant. Some of our strongest memories are tied to smells. Harold and I were in the shop working on his latest project when I caught the smell of freshly sawed lumber. Immediately, I thought of Jim and me building his mom’s house and then ours. By building, I don’t mean hire a contractor. We didn’t have money for that! We strapped on our tool belts and went to work. Jim could smack a nail a few times with his hammer and drive it home. I “Lizzy Borden-ed” my nails. About forty whacks later, I’d be there too.
Scents are a time machine. A recent article I read talked about how our noses are important memory tools. Our sense of smell can stimulate the brain to remember. The article in the caring.com newsletter said, “Although someone with severe-stage dementia may seem beyond all interaction, you may be able to reach in and connect through smell.”
Odors can be used to influence mood. Aromatherapy can stimulate different moods or emotions. Some scents, lavender, for example, are soothing and can be helpful for insomniacs. Peppermint and rosemary are believed to be stimulating. Peppermint might also remind a loved one of Christmas. For me, wintergreen makes me think of being sick—Pepto-Bismol. In fact, the very smell makes me queasy.
What about those candles or plug-ins that smell like sugar cookies? That brings back memories of my mother-in-law Virginia preparing dozens of sugar cookies for care packages to family members. The trouble is, those scents make me hungry! And the smell of cinnamon drives me insane for Virginia’s cinnamon rolls.
The smell of crayons or a freshly sharpened #2 pencil will bring up mental images of the first grade. I didn’t go to kindergarten so first grade was my introduction to a schoolroom. My older brother, Tommy, ever helpful, dropped me off at the room. He tried to prepare me for my new experience by telling me the pencil sharpener was at the back of the room.
All was well, until I panicked when I couldn’t figure out exactly what the pencil sharpener was supposed to look like. I started crying. Of course, they went and got my brother to calm me down. He later said that I cried every day of first grade, but I think that is an exaggeration.
We can smell our way back to our younger years, or even our childhood. Wouldn’t it be great if we only remembered the happy smells and not the icky ones? Sometimes, we don’t get to choose which memories our sniffer triggers, because the nose knows our oldest and most deeply rooted memories.
Copyright © August 2016 by L.S. Fisher