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Smells and childhood memories

July 1, 2011

Sometimes a childhood memory comes flashing in and you wonder why. Then the cause becomes apparent, a familiar and unmistakable smell pervading your surroundings and, this time, not immediately associated with the distant event.

With the smell of chopped parsley, I recall standing in the kitchen, aged maybe four or five, nose against the edge of the pine table. My mother is furiously chopping mountains of parsley from the kitchen garden which she is going to mix with stale bread and milk. This mash is going to be fed to the newly hatched ducklings that my parents are raising in the yard to supplement our WW2 meat rations.

What fascinates me is the speed of her action, dangerously rocking the half moon chopper to and fro. I remember grabbing the table edge, fingers atop and wriggling them very gingerly toward the chopping board until I spook myself and pull away swiftly in horror. My mother glances at me with her lovely velvet eyes, a quick smile on her face.

I remember vividly the time when I distracted her while she was filling jars of freshly made strawberry jam. The contents of the ladle spilled onto the back of her hand and she screamed. She wore a big bandage for an eternity and I am still feeling some form of guilt, 60 years on, whenever I get the smell of hot strawberry jam. Funnily enough, she doesn’t bear the scars nor does she remember the event.

Summer Jasmine

Summer Jasmine

A great variety of smells remind me of my grandparents’ home on the island of Oléron where I spent so much of my happy childhood. I can spot the scent of summer jasmine anywhere for my grandmother grew a big bush in her courtyard. My father disallowed birthday celebrations and when my big day used to come, in August, my grandmother would fill all her vases in the house with jasmine. Nothing was said but it made me feel very special and I loved my gran for her defiance! I now grow jasmine in my Dorset garden and the late afternoon scent on the patio brings me back to many decades ago.

The island was riddled with termites and my gran used to place Nescafé tin lids under each leg of her beautifully waxed furniture. She used to fill those lids with paraffin to prevent the insects from attacking the wood. As I grew older, I recall being trusted with a pipette, filling all the lids in the house. To this day, I can’t catch the smell of paraffin without recalling the beautiful smooth feel of highly polished wood.

The pungent smell of mothballs takes me back to the endless hours I spent rummaging in my gran’s trunks where she kept the old clothes she had so lovingly made through my mother’s childhood and adolescence. Of course nowadays, anti-moths products are tamer on the nose and it is rare to spot the unmistakable aroma of naphthalene.

Pastis

Pastis

When you are estranged from your country of birth, it is quite amazing to realise how many smells suddenly welcome you that you hadn’t really missed while you were away. As soon as I landed back in France after being away for a year or so, the smell of French cigarettes would recall memories of my family of smokers, Pastis brought memories of my years in the South of France, hot French bread reminded me of breakfast with my grandparents……I couldn’t wait to get to my destination!

Gauloises

Gauloises Cigarettes

However, with restrictions on smoking, entering France is less strikingly characteristic. I remember when, a few years ago, walking in Blandford, I suddenly was overcome by thoughts of France and realised I could smell a Gauloise being smoked. I turned the corner, I was confronted by Mr Onion-man and his bicycle laden with his overpriced strings of onions. As I got nearer, the smell changed somewhat and the magic was rather spoilt.

Now that I feel my home is in England, as I come back from a time away from it, I look forward to smells of this country such as freshly cut grass or bacon being cooked, but I think that because I didn’t experience such smells while I was very young, I don’t necessarily associate them with distant or deeply meaningful memories.

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