On Scents and Sensibility

Scents trigger in me a visceral, down-in-the-gut immediacy. I smell the meat of a cracked-open walnut, and I’m immediately nine years-old and swinging my legs over a low branch on the walnut tree that grew in the backyard of my home in Portland, Oregon. Wave a bottle of Chanel No. 5 under my nose, and I’m with my mother. We’re in the car, and she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Let me smell the oily scent of an escalator, and suddenly I’m riding to the second floor in a department store when I hear a woman cry out that John F. Kennedy’s been assassinated.

Scents give us history. They provide background to our defining moments. They instantly move us from present time to the past. Today, I caught a whiff of fried chicken, and it was immediately the Fourth of July and I was headed to a picnic at Jantzen Beach. I was seven years old, if I was a day.

The smell of a pumpkin makes me nearly dizzy!

The same with the evocatove power of a book. Of course, some more so than others.

My great-grandmother’s bible from Glasgow, Scotland, with its fragile onion-skin pages and its unattainable words causes me to fall from the height of myself each time I hold it gently in my hands. The poetry of Jorie Graham and a collection entitled, Poets Against the War does the same to me.

Oh, God, the volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, with all their words and history give me chills. Law books from my former profession hit me equally (yet then again, may I never again need to crack the spine of the newest California Law Review).

When I began researching my book, All the Dancing Birds, I was struck so often by the brave and, yes, helpful non-fiction that gave me information as well as concern for our soon-to-be aging population. John Bayley’s Elegy For Iris uncovers his wife’s descent into Alzheimer’s like none I’ve read. He gave me courage to step into the mind of an Alzheimer’s patient, and write a novel stricken with consuming challenge.

During my research, I read that scent is the first to leave an Alzheimer’s patient. I can’t imagine living without the triggers to my past, those moments of delight — or anguish — that come upon me with just a whiff of scent. I can’t imagine. I hope I’ll never need to.

The fragility of our bodies is sometimes more than I can comprehend.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll tell you about my brain tumor.

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