Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Scent of a Lost Time and Place--New Year's Eve Nostalgia

RHYS BOWEN: It’s the last day of the year and a time to get nostalgic for all of us. Actually the entire holiday season is tinged with nostalgia—memories of Christmasses long ago when the world was simple and safe and we were surrounded by the warmth of family and simple pleasures. Some of the memories are not so sweet—every Christmas for me evokes the sharp memories of my mother’s death, fifteen years ago. Being summoned by a telephone call on Christmas Eve telling me to come now or it would be too late. Trying to buy a plane ticket to Australia that didn’t cost an arm and two legs. Traveling through the night and arriving to find I had missed Christmas altogether and was in the middle of scorching summer, beach weather, zinc on noses, surf boards, and in the middle of it, my tiny frail mother dying of pancreatic cancer. I remember feelings of loss, not only for her and the person she was, but for myself on missing Christmas, not being there to watch presents I had bought be unwrapped, mince pies I had baked be eaten and that someone else would now sing my solos at the Christmas Eve mass… and then, of course, feeling guilty that I was even concerned about such trivial things when I was losing my mother.

I arrived to find my mother, shrunk to a stick figure, sitting up and eating a mince pie. I was able to curl up on the bed beside her and watch a carol service. She lasted another two weeks and I was able to brush her hair, read to her, and tell her I loved her. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

It’s funny how much my memories are linked to my sense of smell. Nothing evokes a time and place for me like a particular scent—those baking mince pies and sausage rolls tell me that Christmas is about to be celebrated and I’m back in my grandmother’s kitchen.  Recently I bought a bar of Pear’s soap and when I showered with it I was back in my childhood, being bathed in a very cold bathroom.

 The scent of eucalyptus leaves takes me immediately to the lakeshore where I walked my mom's dog while she lay dying... a magic forest of paperbark trees with the feeling of being very old and forgotten about it. I believe my mom used to call it the enchanted forest.

 And after my mother died I had to decide which items I wanted to bring back to California to remind me of her. Mostly things like photographs, naturally, and her jewelry, but I also had her sewing box shipped back to me. My father had had it made for her—a big contraption with layers that opened out, beautifully crafted in light oak. When it finally reached California I opened it and the special scent of my parents’ house came up to meet me—not their house in Australia but the house where I grew up in England. The smell was that old, musty, damp smell tinged with furniture polish that always lingers in ancient English houses. I thrust my nose in between the layers and breathed deeply, taking in a lost time and place.


The box still sits in our downstairs closet. It contains a wealth of useful things—buttons and hooks and elastic and various color threads. And every time I open it the smell comes up to meet me and I can’t resist lowering my face and breathing deeply, trying to conjure up something that no longer exists anywhere else in the world except here.

For those of you who are fellow writers, here’s my year end tip. If you want to evoke a time or a place, do it with the sense of smell. Nothing can transport us more powerfully.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year,

Happy writing and happy reading,



  1. Sometimes fifteen years seems like just yesterday and some pains always remain buried deep in our hearts . . . so sorry, Rhys, for your loss of your mom.

    I don’t think there’s anything quite like the wonderful scent of Pears soap . . . .
    Scent is an amazing thing and I particularly enjoy its use in story-writing. For me, the smell of baking bread always brings back childhood days . . . during the cold winter months, if we came home from school and found our mom in the kitchen baking bread, we knew the furnace wasn’t working again and she was baking to keep the kitchen toasty warm. On those nights our sister would sleep in the play pen in the kitchen because it was far too cold upstairs for a baby. But that wonderful yeasty aroma also meant we would have warm, just-baked bread with butter melting into the thick slices.

    New Year’s sometimes seems a tad maudlin with its propensity to look back on things that cannot be changed. But it’s also a time for looking ahead to the promise of new opportunities to do the things that are important to us.
    May the new year bring everyone all the very best of everything.

  2. Lovely essay, Rhys --

    So right about smells. I used to sit on the hood of my parent's car in our California driveway, and thinking of that metallic dusty smell that got on my hands transports me.

  3. Lovely essay, Rhys --

    So right about smells. I used to sit on the hood of my parent's car in our California driveway, and thinking of that metallic dusty smell that got on my hands transports me.

  4. My mother died at Christmas time, too, in 1997, after a sudden one week illness. I still don't experience Christmas in the same way that I did prior to her death, although if I try to picture Christmas decorations and Christmas trees from my childhood I can make myself feel the wonder again. She was removed from life support the day after Christmas, so we went through Christmas Eve and Christmas day knowing that we would be losing her within hours. A couple of days before my mom died, I was grabbing a bite to eat in the hospital cafeteria, and I thought I could smell my mom's perfume. I know I didn't, but for some reason that thought comforted me.

    I'm not one for making New Year's resolutions. For me, the beginning of the school year always feels like the right time to make new plans and to start new projects. I want to purchase every notebook I can find!

    Smells: I LOVE the smell of fresh strawberries! It brings me back to picking strawberries at the home of my mom's parents, popping them into my mouth immediately, fighting the birds for the cherries on their cherry tree. And then I can imagine I also smell the grapes from their grape arbor, the tomatoes my grandmother grew, the apples on their tree! For a kid who lived in a housing project, it was a type of paradise!

  5. I love Pears soap, too. I have a Canadian ex-pat godmother who stocks it, and I associate it with stays with her.

  6. A lovely essay, Rhys, thank you. And, oh my, what a beautiful piece you have there in your mother's sewing box - a precious treasure.

    The smells of the beach are the smells that transport me back to happy childhood days.

    Deb Romano, I'm such a notebook junkie, and yes - a brand spanking new clean one for the new year is just right.

  7. My mother also died during the Christmas season, early December 2001. But I had a small child, so I didn't have the option of not "soldiering on" with Christmas as usual. Somehow, I think Mom would approve.

    Deb, I'm with you on fall. That's always the time of year when I feel it's right to start making plans and begin projects. Maybe it has to do with training to be a teacher.

    And scent? Can anything beat the vanilla smell of fresh cookies, freshly baked bread, the crisp dustiness of fall leaves, or the fresh smell after a spring rain?

  8. Love you so much, dear Rhys.

    Jergens lotion, remember? That smells of almonds? And Coppertone! And baking cinnamon buns. And popcorn.

    Happy new year to all! xoxo

  9. That really was a lovely essay, Rhys!

    My favorite scent story is not actually mine, but told to me by my college friend Katherine. She said when she was a child she loved ginger bread. So when her grandmother died and her mother knew she would have to break the news, she baked ginger bread before Katherine got home. Then when her parents decided to divorce, the news was broken over fresh ginger bread. Katherine said that to that very day, she could no longer smell ginger bread without a sense of foreboding.

  10. Dear Rhys, This is a beautiful and poignant post. Thank you so much for sharing your memories of your final days with your mother with us.

  11. Thanks for sharing those memories, Rhys. I enjoyed that so much.

    (And I love Pears soap, though I never used it as a child. Always Woodburys. I suspect they don't still make it)

  12. I think we don't value scent memories enough, relying instead on sound memories to evoke the past. I have an almost atavistic sense of smell, have even been known to smell emotions on people (this is not B.O., but a change in the tone of their normal scent). And changes in the weather.

    Because I play the piano by ear (a family trait), I write about "cooking by ear" but it is really cooking by taste and scent.

    You get off a plane in L.A. and it smells of desert. Honolulu smells of tropics, but not the way that Montego Bay, Jamaica, does. Lake Michigan smells like what it is, an inland freshwater sea, but it does not smell like the ocean. Florence, Italy, smells of lemons and caffe espresso, and diesel fuel and olive trees in the distance.

    Movies in 3-D don't interest me, but if they could show you the scent of a pre-war New York apartment building, I'd probably pay extra. Neil Diamond sang about "smells of cooking in the hallways" in "Brooklyn Roads."

    I hang things in the garage when I bring them home from the store to get them scent neutral before I bring them into my house. And when I smell Bells of Ireland, I am reminded of my first dog, whose natural scent was that of those flowers (very subtle).

    A saddle horse on a hot summer afternoon. Coppertone in Miami Beach in the 1950s. Boiling raspberry jam wafting from my grandmother's kitchen window in mid summer. Linden trees in bloom (like an old fashioned soap; wish I knew which one!). And I may have the last extant couple of cups of Oxydol powdered detergent because when P&G sold the brand, they kept the scent (you can trademark a scent, did you know that?)

  13. What a lovely piece, Rhys.

    Just yesterday I was thinking about my mother and place memory. I had an appointment on one side of Dallas and errands on another, and as I drove across the city there was one thing after another that I associated with my mother. You might guess that my mom was a great one for going places and doing things!

    And how interesting that so many of us love Pears soap. A pharmacy in Dallas near where my mother lived as a teenager carried it and she loved it, too. Now I order it from Amazon by the case, and every time I open the plastic wrapper and scent comes wafting out there is a little visceral thrill.

  14. What a moving piece. Thank you. My heart is with all of us who've lost loved ones. Cheers to all those who have gone before us, and cheers to the ones coming after.

  15. Thank you, Rhys. A beautiful posting.

  16. Thank you for sharing your scent memories, everyone. Deb R--it was also 1997 that my mom died, so we were both sitting there, watching her slip away at the same time.

    I'll think of you every Christmas now.

  17. A moving essay for the end of another year, thank you. My mother passed away right after Thanksgiving six years ago. She loved the holidays, especially decorating the house and cooking. The smell of cookies and pies baking always reminds me of the house at Christmas.
    My other favorite smell is a freshly mowed lawn. My dad would be mowing and my mom would be weeding the flower beds and I would help,as long as no spiders appeared.

  18. Rhys, what we always hope for when we begin reading is to be transported into the writer's world and you did that completely with this essay. For a moment I was with you on the airplane and seeing you mother eat mince pies and feeling the poignancy of "missing" Christmas only to gain something much more precious.

    Vickie, you nailed it for me with the smell of new-mown grass. My father was meticulous with our lawn and the smell of new-mown grass always evokes for me the memory of him mowing the lawn with our push mower (somehow, the gas mower never had quite the same cachet.)

  19. I was walking through town and there was this wonderful aroma. It smelled just like my grandma's pork roast. I was back in he kitchen with the oil cloth on the table and her playing solitaire. I almost wanted to knock on doors til I found it. But I was too shy. Sometimes I wish I had. I keep asking my aunts and other people if they knew how she made it. But I have never come across that exact aroma yet.

  20. So true, my dad died around Christmas & this time of year is always bittersweet. But smells! I kept my dad's flannel shirts for years because they smelled like him. The first time I went to Italy, years ago, I went with my mom on a bus tour and the smell of bus exhaust always makes me think of Italy!!! The smell of certain cooking oil reminds me of Mexico, nothing puts me in a time or place faster than a scent.

  21. bugs, the smell of diesel exhaust transports me instantly to Mexico City, where I spent a lot of time as a teenager! So funny that one can feel nostalgic over diesel exhaust...

  22. Rhys, thank you for sharing your touching story of love and loss with us. I wasn't with either of my parents when they died, and I have always thought that I missed a special time.

    Smells are so magical in transporting us back to times and places. Honeysuckle is a smell that I associate with riding in the country when a girl with the windows down. Air conditioning wasn't the great barrier to the outdoors then as it is now. Cloves and brown sugar baking on the Christmas country ham lingers in my mind each Christmas, too, as I think back on the delicious holiday meals my mother fixed, now twenty years past. Hank, you mentioned Jergen's lotion, and that was a staple in our house growing up, too, along with Calcon talcum powder.

    And, thank you so, so much, Rhys for reminding me of my mother's oak sewing box I have. It does have smells that exist nowhere else and are precious beyond compare. I keep meaning to do something with all the old buttons, a project, such as a picture using them, but I do still enjoy sorting through them from the tin in which they reside.

    I wonder what smells my children will hold dear from their youth as the years pass.

  23. Lovely essay, Rhys, and lovely comments, JRW friends. Thank you for sharing.


  24. What lovely memories! My grandmother had this memorable smell of Youth Dew perfume and cigarettes. Doesn't sound like a good combination, but it smelled like her, and is therefore a good memory. Every time I smell Youth Dew I think of her! Nothing smells like the London Underground either! The oily hot air blowing in your face. And a zoo in any country or city has that certain animal smell. Is it the elephants? Smells evoke such powerful memories. It always makes me wonder what I smell like to my children, or the smell that is saturated into my home. Books? Bread? Or just dinner always cooking in the kitchen? I hope I am making wonderful memories for my family to talk about in years to come!

  25. Rhys, sorry too for the loss of your mom--but thanks for the wonderful reminder of scent in our lives--I loved to smell my mother's hair--don't even recall what shampoo she used, but when I was a little girl I thought she smelled like heaven! Sun on pines transports me to the mountains, lilacs wafting through an open window to my teenage bedroom, dreaming away spring nights, woodsmoke to a cabin in the Rockies.... my memories are filled with scent.

  26. Rhys... such a beautiful essay. I could not finish it yesterday. I was very moved. I came back today to read, when I thought would be okay with it. Of course I never will, because some things will always be touched by words of certain memories. They always will. But I needed to read it, and I hope you see this note as late as it is, because I want you to know that I found it helpful.

  27. The smell that surprises me more than any other is the one that comes from making toast in a cast iron skillet. My great-grandmother Troy had an old cast iron stove when I lived with her in her camp. She would make me toast on the stovetop. It was the best flavor I recall from those days. When I want a good piece of toast I make it in an old well–blackened skillet. That's the smell that brings her back to me.