Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 15, 2009

Stop and smell the lilacs

Each spring day as I travel between our home and Manhattan, I slow slightly, lower the van windows and inhale deeply as I approach the Christmas tree farm, trying to capture the scent of the lilacs lining the road. The scent takes me back to my childhood on the farm where purple and white lilac bushes bloomed in abundance near our home and along the driveway.

The same thing happens when I catch a whiff of honeysuckle. If I close my eyes, I can see the vine with the delicate white and yellow flowers winding around our old windmill.

While odors can transport us to other times and places just as pictures can, they often evoke stronger emotions tied to those memories than images do. For a period after I was widowed, I would go to the closet and press one of Jerome's shirts to my face and, for just a moment, he was close again.

Today, the smell of baby powder takes me back to the days I rocked my daughters to sleep. Sea breezes remind me of the first time I saw the ocean and felt the lapping water on my bare feet. Evergreens invariably bring to mind family Christmas recollections.

Sister Gaila thinks of the farm whenever she smells a freshly-mown yard or works in the soil

Brother Dave also remembers the farm when he smells plowed fields or Mom's nice fried chicken dinners. And the odors from a locker room remind him of his "hard-fought high school basketball games," most of which he said his team lost! .

When husband Art encounters the smell of creosote used to preserve telephone and power poles, he is transported back more than 40 years. On those hot dusty summer days walking the railroad switch yard, the odor of the creosote-treated ties was a constant companion. He also associates smells of his native Wisconsin with certain times of the year near favorite trout streams.

Mom clearly recalls the smell of the milk separator on her parents' back porch.

Friend Jennifer says if she ever moves back to her native state of Washington, it would be to experience the combined smell of the river and the evergreens.

Scientists say that although our sense of smell is not nearly as well developed as that of many animals, we humans are still able to distinguish more than 10,000 different odor molecules. We utilize our sense of smell for a multitude of activities, from enjoying the aroma of freshly brewed coffee to avoiding skunks or stinky locker rooms. Smells also warn us of danger - of food gone bad, of gas leaks, of fire. Smell is even a major component of what we commonly call taste. Those who have their noses plugged from a cold know that common foods don't taste the same.

Twelve years ago, I temporarily lost my sense of smell in a very different way. I had an auto-immune disease that affected the nerves in my spine and brain stem and left me unable to walk, move or talk. But with these "big" problems, it didn't occur to me that my sense of smell might have been affected, too. Then one day when Art, Gaila and one of the nurses took me outside the hospital to enjoy a warm day, it struck me that it didn't seem like spring. It was because it didn't smell like spring.

But one night while I was recovering, I lay in my hospital bed and distinctly smelled something burning. Worried, I called the nurse and asked if my suspicions were true. He confirmed that, indeed, someone had over-heated some food in the kitchen. I was relieved that the hospital wasn't on fire. Relief was quickly replaced by joy. My sense of smell was returning!

And now, every time I pass those lilac bushes, have a slice of freshly baked bread, drink a cup of coffee, dab on my favorite perfume or have any one of a number of aromatic experiences, I'm mighty glad it did.

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