Anne here, and today I'm pondering the power of scent to stimulate memory. Scent is so powerful, isn't it, and yet we have so few words to describe scents, except to say "like a lemon" or "like new mown grass." It's always struck me as an oddity in the language. I suppose we all experience our own individual version of "scent of lemon" or "scent of fresh-cut grass" so we don't need a special word for it. Maybe.
It's something I do sometimes in my books — draw on my own scent-memories to create similar-yet-different experiences for my characters. Imagining the things they see and scent and remember is a way of plunging into their reality and making their world come alive. Because despite the period and reality differences, we often share similar experiences.
I pruned a lavender bush earlier in the week, and was instantly plunged back to my childhood, where my grandmother used to make lavender sachets to put in drawers — of the sliding kind, for storing clothes I mean. Not the wearable kind of drawers. Although . . . No. Ahem. Moving on . . .
Every year or two Nana put me to work picking lavender, drying it, then stripping off the flowers, unpicking a seam in each little sachet, tipping out the old lavender, refilling the sachet with the new, and sewing up the little hole. It was a process that went over several weeks, as the lavender had to dry, and it was one way to keep a small child occupied in a house that, as I recall it, had very few books.
Yesterday I cut myself some sprigs of pine. When I was a kid, we always used to go out as a family to cut a tree, and it was a highlight of my Christmas, choosing a tree, cutting it down, and bringing it home to set up and decorate.
I'm not having a big Christmas tree this year, but for me, Christmas isn't Christmas without the scent of pine in the house — not just the needles but the fresh-cut wood. So this year I cut a bunch of small branchlets (nothing to disfigure the tree) and bound them together to make a mini-tree and stuck them in a vase. I also made some bunches to hang, and now the lounge room smells beautiful. An added bonus is that I'll have to make some mini-decorations to go with my mini tree, which will be fun.
Other scents throw me back to particular times and places in my past. My mother's last years were in a care facility. She had dementia, but they had a beautiful scent-garden in the grounds, and I used to take her here and we'd spend hours there. She'd smell the different flowers and we'd crush aromatic leaves and I could tell by her expressions that each scent evoked something, even if she couldn't explain what.
I'd talk to her about the scents some of them evoked, for instance wormwood, a silvery gray leaves had such a particular fragrance. I'd say, "Remember this? Aunty Flo and Aunty Ruby and Uncle Ern had this growing all around the chicken runs, didn't they?" And Mum would grin and nod and sniff the crushed leaves.
So now I'm thinking of some of the times and places I have stored in my memory. There is the scent of my grandfather's shed — a unique combination of oil and tangy metal (his tools were all razor sharp and gleaming) rabbit skins drying on wire frames, fishing bits and bobs, beeswax (he kept bees) and sawdust.
Last year I had my first blooms of frangipani (plumeria) and one deep sniff of that delicious fragrance takes me back to when I was eleven and my eldest sister had a wedding bouquet of it. It was the first time I'd ever seen or smelled it. Magic.
Washing day — especially when I was little, and especially at my Nana's. She did it the old fashioned way, so for me it's the smell of boiling linen, Velvet soap, starch, and scent of sunshine drying the sheets as I hid between the sheets hanging on the line, the scent of the hot iron pressing starched cotton shirts, and the pleasure of sliding between sheets straight off the line, slightly crisp from the washing and smelling of sunshine and cleanliness.
Thyme is a herb I use a lot in cooking, but I have so many memories associated with it that are nothing to do with cooking. My grandfather (my dad, too) had masses of thyme growing in the back yard, and the honey from their backyard bees had a glorious thyme-y tang to it. Years later I was in northern Greece one winter. We were climbing up a snow-covered mountain and as we stomped down through the crispy snow, the fragrance of thyme and other herbs would waft up, a memory of summer. No wonder my friend's Greek mother said my family honey tasted just like the wild honey of her homeland.
Another time I was on the Greek island of Corfu. I'd been traveling, and away from home for about a year. Near the cabin I was staying in was a grove of eucalyptus trees — eucalypts are native to Australia and to most Australians they carry the scent of home. The Australian bush (wilderness) smells mostly of eucalyptus, and I remember gathering up a handful of leaves and crushing them between my fingers. I don't know whether it helped my homesickness or made it worse, but I do remember feeling quite emotional as I buried my nose in those crushed leaves.
So, enough of my scent memories. What are some of yours?