Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Oct. 21, 2004

Your knees smell like Bolivia

The sense of smell is a powerful one. It can bring back pleasant memories, warn us of danger, welcome us, or turn us away.

Earlier this month, two scientists won the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering how people can recognize as many as 10,000 odors and recall them later. Their work helps explain how a person can smell a lilac in childhood and still recognize the fragrance later in life, including memories associated with it.

When I smell lilacs, I think of my paternal grandparents and parents because both the purple and white versions grew on the farm. That fragrance immediately brings to mind making May baskets and filling them with flowers and spirea.

When I bake banana bread, the aroma reminds me of my friend Teddy. It's been several years since she died, but I can almost see her standing in her kitchen as the smells of her banana bread and chocolate chip cookies waft through her back door.

For some people, scents are a business. Candle makers have cashed in on our desire to replicate certain smells. Lilac, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, coffee, Christmas pine and other scents are available in small, medium and large candle jars.

Perfumes and colognes are intended to make the person wearing them more attractive. But sometimes they can do much more. Art recently was in a store when the perfume of a woman close by hit him. He immediately thought of his friend Lisa, who wore that perfume. She died several years ago of breast cancer, but Art said the fragrance, coupled with the woman's voice, reminded him so much of Lisa that he wanted to talk to the woman even though he had never seen her before.

Sometimes fragrances that are normally pleasant can also be downright irritating. Sunday Art offered to cook supper so I could keep grading. But as soon as the smell of the baked dish reached my nostrils, it was almost impossible to concentrate on my work. It apparently had a similar effect on Katie as she began to repeatedly ask, "Isn't it ready yet?"

Some scents, like that of a skunk's spray or the odorant added to natural gas, are intended to be irritating. Natural gas has little natural scent, so an odorant is added to alert people to the presence of the gas. One day when I was pregnant with Mariya and living in Manhattan, a neighbor and I could smell that unmistakable odor near the house's gas meter. I stayed with the neighbor until the gas company could investigate. But they found no problem. Art recently explained that one of the qualities of the odorant is that it has to be able to get through openings as small or smaller than one the gas can pass through. Apparently there was a small break, but it was so small that while the odorant leaked out, the gas was still confined.

Odors can also be diagnostic. Art frequently uses smell in his work. He said almost all electronic devices are built on circuit board materials that give off a distinctive odor when they become too hot. The materials used to insulate transformers and the ballast in fluorescent lights also emit a unique smell when they become overheated.

Doctors sometimes can detect certain maladies by smelling a person's breath. Art suggested that medicine seems to have overlooked one common human odor when it comes to looking for diagnostic tools. Maybe medicine hasn't tackled that possibility yet, but I recall that when I rode buses in South America, I could always tell if someone on board was suffering from intestinal parasites.

We don't usually associate scents with humor, but one incident last summer makes me smile whenever I think of it. Katie enjoys pillow fighting and wrestling with her cousin Larisa when my sister and her girls come home each summer from La Paz. At one point Katie's head ended up near Larisa's leg. Katie stopped, looked at her cousin and said, "Larisa, your knees smell like Bolivia." I had no idea that knees could smell like an entire country!

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