Tuesday, May 2, 2017

In Search of Times Past.

RHYS BOWEN: Yesterday I was nostalgic about village festivals and today that nostalgia continues. I don't know, maybe it's advancing age but thinking back to the past seems to happen more often these days.
I was driving with the moon roof of my car open and I passed a small grassy area that had just been mowed. And suddenly I was back in my childhood. New mown grass was such a quintessential smell of summer in England. The English are obsessed with their gardens and every weekend the fathers would get out the old hand-pushed mowers and there would be that lovely smell of cut grass. Also the rhythmic sound of clackity-clack as the mowers were pushed back and forth.

My school had huge fields around it and there a tractor used to pull a giant mower so that the fields always looked pristine. In summer the smell of cut grass wafted in through open windows. Of course I should point out that it rains so much in England that the grass grows quickly!

The other smell that evokes childhood is that of a garden bonfire. In England we are allowed to burn garden waste and the smell of bonfire smoke would always be lingering. I grew up in an old house with an acre of orchard around it so there was always plenty of work to be done to prevent it from going wild. A funny story about bonfires: when we bought our first house in California the garden was horribly overgrown so we worked to clean it up and then.... we started a bonfire. And five minutes later two enormous fire trucks arrived outside the house. The firemen pointed out nicely that fires were not allowed in California but they still handed us a large fine!

It's funny how evocative smells can be. The particular smell of an old English church: damp, old books, but not unpleasant. My grandmother's house that always smelled of lemon furniture polish and cabbage and the lingering smoke of open fires. And my parents house. I can't describe the smell but I know it.
 One of the items I rescued when my mother passed away was her sewing box. My father had it made for her: three tiers that opened out on both sides, beautifully made. It stands in a closet downstairs and still contains anything I might need for sewing. I opened it the other day and instantly put my head down to it and breathed in the smell. And there it was: the house I grew up in. Maybe a hint of my mother's face powder. I closed my eyes and kept breathing, then hastily shut it up again lest the smell escape.

So what smells evoke childhood for you? I wonder what smells will trigger childhood memories for my children and grandchildren? I don't think my house smells of anything particular and I don't wear perfume....

But at the end of the month I'll be heading back to England and I find myself drawn to things that bring back my childhood: the thwack of ball against bat at a cricket match. The sight of children digging sandcastles on a beach. The cry of seagulls as the fishermen bring in their catch. And of course I head for my favorite childhood food items: bangers and mash, fish and chips, Cornish pasties, cream teas, and Cornish clotted cream ice cream--all horribly calorie laden, I'm afraid. But oh so worth those calories. Besides, English houses are so bloody cold (especially the big and drafty manor house where we'll be staying) that one burns off the calories. At least, this is what I'm telling myself.

30 comments:

  1. What lovely childhood memories you have, Rhys . . .

    Many smells and fragrances remind me of my childhood. We had a large lilac bush in our front yard when I was young; the smell of spring lilacs always takes me back to that home. However, the smell that I most closely associate with my childhood is baking bread. We would often come home from school to find the house filled with the smell of just-baked bread. My mom would always slice one loaf while it was still warm so the butter would melt into the bread . . . such a special treat --- and a wonderful memory.

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    1. Joan, you are so lucky to have had home baked bread! My mom was a school principal and had no time to cook
      Rhys

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  2. Joan, your mother's bread reminded me of my great grandmother's bread, which we could smell baking every Wednesday, half a block from our aunt's house. We went there after school to wait for our mother, but I loved when Little Grandma was there. She always cut bread hot, just for us, too. What could be better?

    My mother's purse always smelled of leather, her perfumed hanky, and Juicy Fruit gum. My grandmother wore Chantilly, and an old bottle of that fragrance brings her to me strongly enough to bring tears. Same with cigars for my dad. I suffered from earaches as a child and Daddy would gently puff cigar smoke into the sore ear. So soothing.

    A friend brought her grown daughter over with her a few months ago. Alice hadn't been here in years, and the first thing she said when she walked into the hallway was, "Oh! Your house smells just the same." She insisted that was a good thing.

    Rhys, you are so right; I think it's the most evocative of our senses.

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  3. Sweet peas evoke a very young memory for me. The smell of cigarette lighter fluid brings my grandmother back. Smelling onions and meat cooking in the late morning takes me to countries I've lived in - Brazil, Mali - where people eat a big hot meal midday. And yes, cut grass! I love that smell, Rhys.

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  4. Oh dear - childhood? I don't know. Fresh-cut grass from the VFW post across the street. My mother's lilac bush in the spring. The dusty smell of autumn leaves and the fresh, clean scent after a rain.

    I still love them all (but I had to replace fresh-cut grass from the VFW with the golf course across the street - or even my own back yard because it's big enough).

    Mary/Liz

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  5. Newly mown grass, lilacs, hot chocolate on a winter's day--sausage frying--these take me right back to my childhood. And the smell of coffee brewing.New-baby smell--takes me right back to the days the when the youngest was six weeks' old and his brother a year old, fresh from their baths,fed, and drowsy.... The scent of pines takes me straight to the Rockies....

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  6. Lovely post. For me, the smell of wet pine trees always brought back Girl Scout camp. It was in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains

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  7. The most evocative sense of smell has interested me for decades, and just a whiff of something will take me back in time.

    Here's an explanation for all this from Wendy Suzuki, New York University, a podcast:

    "Anatomically, Eichenbaum explained, the olfactory system has unique connections with two key regions in the brain's temporal lobe: the hippocampus, which is critical for laying down new long-term memories, and the amygdala, critical for processing emotions. Unlike all the other senses (i.e., vision, touch and hearing), which require many connections — synapses — to reach the hippocampus and amygdala, olfactory information has immediate access to those systems. It therefore has the ability to lay down long-lasting memories linked to particular times and places (a specialty of the hippocampus) and to include deep emotional resonance associated with those memories (processed by the amygdala)."

    We are hard wired for this odor memory thing. Aren't our brains amazing?

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    1. Finta, thank you for sharing this! So interesting
      Rhys

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  8. As you said, Rhys, the smell of face powder. My grandparents' house was all grandma's face powder and grandpa's cigars. Heaven on earth.

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  9. So nice! After my mother died, we found she had left a bankers box, you know those cardboard boxes with lids? For each of us. Full of the memorabilia she had kept: school papers, and photographs, newspaper articles, things like that. But when I opened my box, a puff of her perfume cleaned out. The box smelled just like mom. I have to admit, I visit it from time to time.

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  10. Lovely memories, Rhys! Smells are SO evocative. Hot summer day, I used to sit on the hood of my mother's T-bird and as vividly as anything I remember that metallic smell that came off on my hands. Or the orange-blossom smell of my mother's Elizabeth Arden skin cream. Or the smell of steam rising off wet pavement after a brief summer thundershower.

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    1. Hot tar on the street on sunny days.

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  11. Great post!

    True about scent memories. When my grandmother died, I was too young to remember. However, when I was a teenager, my family had brunch with one of my grandmother's sisters. I did not remember her, though I remembered her perfume. I cannot remember anyone else wearing the same perfume.

    Childhood memories:
    The smell of felt pens brings back memories of my year at Catholic kindergarten school.

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  13. I grew up camping in the redwoods, so any time I am in a redwood forest, the smell brings back many happy memories. That is the one thing I wish we had in Southern CA because I wish I could visit them more often.

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  14. Oil of Olay, or as they call it now, Olay. My mom uses it, and so do I, now (partly because the scent make me think of her?). I was applying some not too long ago at my aunt's house, and she walked by the doorway and said, "Is that Oil of Olay?" Apparently, her mother used it, and the scent immediately brought her mom to mind.

    There's also a certain ocean smell that reminds me of my hometown. I can't describe it, but I would know it anywhere!

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  15. Lovely post, Rhys, and as Hank says, very Proustian. And, Ann (Finta) that is so interesting about the brain.

    I was walking one of my dogs last week when we passed a big clump of blooming honeysuckle and, whoosh, I was back in my childhood. We always had honeysuckle growing around our garden in the spring. Woodsmoke is a big one for me in the fall. Hot exhaust fumes transport me to Mexico City; the smell of pines to many vacations we took in the Ozarks. My grandmother liked lavender so that always reminds me of her. Frustratingly, although I can see my mom's dressing table perfectly in my mind's eye, I cannot remember the name of the perfume she wore... Maybe one day I'll smell it somewhere.

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  16. Karen in Ohio, my late mother wore Chantilly right up to the day she died, and a whiff of it can make me ache with missing her.

    I spent a lot of time at swimming pools in my pre-teen and teen years, so the smell of fresh-cut grass combined with chlorine and coconut oil takes me right back to that era.

    My son was very active in Boy Scouts, so I suspect the smell of a wood fire will always be evocative for him.

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  17. The smell of newly cut grass is definitely a reminder of childhood, which was fine. Until it became my job to mow the yard and then it was just an irritant. :D

    Sometimes the smell of an oncoming rainstorm can remind me of growing up.

    But beyond that, I really can't think of any scents that remind me of childhood.

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  18. Oh, smells are such wonderful reminders of childhood. Debs, like you, one of the strongest, most evocative for me is honeysuckle. It seemed to be everywhere when I was growing up, and I can remember the windows rolled down on the car and smelling it in the early evening. I think we miss a lot these days cooped up with our air conditioning, both in cars and houses. And, Estee Lauder Youth Dew perfume will always take me back to my mother's smell and the dresser in my parents' bedroom where it sat. Cloves puts me in our kitchen when I was growing up and my mother was fixing the country ham that my father had cured.

    Thank you, Rhys, for a lovely trip down memory lane today.

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  19. I love the memory of sitting on my grandmother's wide porch during a summer rain -- and the memory of barns (hay, animals) -- such a complex of smells and sensations. Thank you for this post.
    When I was a teenager, I was the grass mower in the family -- more than an acre of grass -- I used a power mower and it was NOT a pleasant experience. But, sitting on the grass after it was mowed -- bliss.

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  20. Rhys, how lovely your post is. My father passed away last year. He was a fantastic wood sculptor and some of my earliest memories are of playing in his studio with the discarded bits of wood from his work, so the smell of sawdust, paint, or turpentine always brings him right back to me. It makes me feel like he's still with me.

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    1. Lovely smell. My dad cut left-over wood into building blocks for us, and then wrote a story. https://storytellermary.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/santa-dreams-a-new-toy/

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  21. Mean firemen! They should have given a warning the first time.
    I used to love going to the shop (Industrial Technology) classroom at FHN. The smell of sawdust reminded me of my dad's basement workshop. He and his brothers built our house, and as family needs grew, he added cabinets, closets, tables (from a door), beds, and even a trundle bed for my little sister. Smelled creative and loving . . . Grandma's apartment at my aunt's house always smelled of baking . . . just another way to show love, like my mom's chicken soup with homemade noodles. Aaah <3

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  22. The delicious scent of Pepper trees takes me right back to third grade at Sycamore School. (Yes, I know---Pepper trees at Sycamore School. It was across the street from Sycamore Park, which did have Sycamore trees.) Pepper trees shaded the playground outside the classroom and, lacking air conditioning back in the day, the windows were raised to invite in the occasional California breezes.

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    1. Do pepper trees smell like pepper, Wendy? I've never heard of them!

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  23. I grew up in the desert near Yuma, AZ and the smell of dirt & lettuce, citrus blossoms, cow manure, and other agricultural odors brings back home to me... our house was in the middle of farm land - we had lemon trees, date palms, orange trees, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, and many other crops within walking distance. For fun we used to climb up the giant fans used to keep the trees from freezing and losing their blossoms. I swam in the canals, and ran around in 100+ degree summertime barefoot.

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