Scent and Memory

The cold lifted slightly, and the sun came out, so I went for a walk around Irvington. I stuffed airpods in my ears and put on a playlist, and this made the walk my own, a version of it that no one could repeat, even if they went the same way.

There weren’t many people out, which meant I didn’t often have to abandon my trajectory on this or that sidewalk to stay 6′ from others, an action that has been rebranded by current circumstances as an exemplar of thoughtfulness instead of being entirely rude.

One necessary move from the east to the west side of the street brought me into the waft of cigarette smoke, and I was instantly pulled away from Irvington, away from the now-me who chose the path and the music and by doing so asserted herself in this place and moment of her choosing–but that is the power of scent on memory, how it overwrites everything. That I was still walking in Irvington but entirely away, astral projected into a memory of my aunt and uncle’s house as it was in my childhood.

I am on the fringe of the memories cued by this scent because the cigarette smoke that plumed upward from the adults who ringed the kitchen table to play shanghai always gave me a headache, and so I’d try to avoid this space and it, as much as anyone can avoid that which drifts, and so I located myself in the side room to play hearts on the computer or found a spot in the back room to watch TV, or maybe a Ninja Turtles movie. I was shy and afraid of the way that adults–even beloved adults like aunts and uncles–would look at me and ask me questions about school or friends or boyfriends and I was to answer them in as funny and fun a way as they spoke to one another, so I layered that reason on top of the smoke and became the ghost beyond the smokeline.

Or so I assumed. Becoming meant fitting in, and there were ways I could learn to do it, and I eventually did, I eventually realized that certain things would just be so and I should be patient: my cleverness came in later–I can hold my own with any uncle; I can play a mean hand of shanghai; I make an excellent Eilers’ Pizza and pot of potato soup; I love black olives, as every good Eilers ought. And there would be other things that would for me be necessary deviations, ways that I would never assimilate with moments and possibilities. I have never smoked a cigarette. And that also means I’ve never supplanted these memories, and the olfactory trigger that takes me back to them.


Today’s prompt: Smell can be a powerful trigger for memories. Your grandmother’s favorite perfume, the salt of the ocean on vacation, a musty old book you read over and over. Write about a particular scent and what it makes you think of or feel. Or, head to your spice cupboard and pick a jar at random. See what springs to mind when you take a whiff. 

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