The power of scents

You learn things in life, like the scent of your mother or the smell of braciole stewing in tomato sauce on a Sunday morning. You can pass on your knowledge, teaching your children, your students and colleagues, sharing it with friends and family. But there are things you know that die with you. Scent, which intimately binds memory with experience, is deeply personal and rarely shared. It dies with you like memory.

This thought came into my head some time ago while I was doing CPR on an old man whose time had come. I knew — the whole code team knew — it was futile, that his terminal illness was unrevivable, and yet suddenly, it bothered me terribly that so many of his experiences and memories would die with him.

I worked one summer as a doctor in the mountain villages of Peru. I noticed that the women had a characteristic scent — not at all unpleasant — of roasted corn and woodfire and potatoes. It was a very homey smell, comforting even, but foreign to me nevertheless. When I was examining a small child there in his grandmother’s arms, he was petrified and clung to her, and then he wrapped his head in her shawl and breathed in deeply with his nose, calming himself with her familiar scent. For him, it was the smell of home and comfort and warmth. Later, when I took my clothes to be laundered in Peru, they came back clean but with the same homey mountain scent of roasted corn and woodfire and potatoes.

My Grandma Mary died when I was about 11. But I can still smell her olive skin, with vague hints of garlic and tomatoes and olive oil and Jean Nate Bath Splash. When I smell flour and water together, I see her rolling individual cavatelli pasta pieces with her thumb on a wooden board. If I cut garlic, for the next few days, my hands smell of it, and it makes me think of how my Grandma Ida would stop cooking for a moment, take my face in her hands and kiss me and say “come sei bellil” (roughly translated as "You are so cute!" in Neopolitan dialect), like only a Grandma is allowed to do to a geeky teenage boy.

I can’t remember a lot of the things I tried hard to memorize in school like the antibiotic resistance of certain bacteriae, but the fetid smell of an anaerobic infection brings me vividly back to the surgical wards at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx and a particular patient’s purulent wound. There is a certain industrial cleaner that brings me back to the Schneider Children’s Hospital, where I did my first medical school rotation and fell in love with the wonder of my profession.

You learn how to block emotions out when someone is dying, or “coding.” But for some reason, while doing CPR on that dying man, I let the disturbing thought in that with his passing was the loss of so many memories, intimate and personal and catalogued according to scent. What did the scent of baking bread or of orange blossoms mean to him?

My wife just walked by and asked me what I was writing about. The sublime. (For isn't scent just the sublimation of solid matter?) I love how her skin smells of the air after it rains, and I hope that memory outlives me.

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