Smell is the strongest sense we have regarding triggering memory. I read that once. It is primal. It activates something deep within our animal psyche. It makes the memory something much more powerful than just a thought. It transports us back into our own history.
The distinct aroma of a perfume or a lotion and suddenly the mind is racing to remember an evening long since forgotten. Homes acquire smells too. Walk into a home you’ve been absent from and it isn’t the physical artifacts you remember. No, at the threshold you stop and take a deep breath through your nose. The remembering becomes palpable.
As a kid my family would take extended vacations to stay with my grandmother in Michigan. Five or six weeks is a very long time to a kid and I never got over the feeling of getting back home. Central Kentucky in August has an incredibly distinct aroma. The air is thick and heavy, on the cusp of sweating the humidity straight out. The fields are full of corn and tobacco. Everything is green. The smell is indescribable. That’s how I would know I was home. No sign or building told me I’d arrived, but if I rolled down the window or opened the car door and could breathe in that sweet, August air, that was sign enough.
The other night I was on the tram and when it arrived at my stop, I got off. The second the doors opened and I took a breath, I stepped off the tram and straight into my back yard. If I had closed my eyes I would have believed I was sitting around the fire pit that I’d dug in the third grade. The fire pit that myself and my brother and our friends had spent countless nights over the years sitting around talking. I don’t know where it was coming from. It wasn’t from a cigarette or a grill. It didn’t smell like a burning building. It was the sweet smell of pure, burning wood
That’s not the kind of thing you would expect to smell in a city of over a million people. But, there it was: smoke. And with it, a memory.