I’ve been asked if my book Whiff is autobiographical. The lead character, Jim Bronson, is a man whose primary way of experiencing the world is through scent. He tries to resurrect moments, places, and people in his life by “collecting” smells. It’s kind of creepy on the face, and so I suspect people wonder if I’m creepy in that way as well!
I want to assure you that I am not Jim Bronson! But I will say that it is based on an experience I had as a child. When I was four, we moved from Austin, Texas to Lonoke, Arkansas. On the way out of town, my mother took my twin and I to the post office for a change of address. While we waited, there was a little girl there. I became smitten with her in my own little four-year-old way! At some point after we arrived in Lonoke, we stopped at the post office again. When we got to the counter, the smell was identical to the one in Texas. I got a rush of butterflies in my stomach. For awhile, every time we went, I got the same feelings. Even at four years old, I was a lovesick romantic!
Since then, I’ve been very aware of smell in my environment and the way it affects me; the memories they invoke.
In How Smell Works,Sarah Dowdy writes
A smell can bring on a flood of memories, influence people’s moods and even affect their work performance. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.
After my grandfather’s funeral, we gathered at my aunt’s house for food and comfort. It was a house that my grandmother had never entered. As I walked passed the stairs, I got a whiff of something so familiar. It was my grandmother’s scent. Chanel #5, Spearmint, cigarette, lipstick, and her own unique scent signature. I followed it up the stairs half expecting to see a ghost. Then it disappeared. I knew is was her. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it was her. She was so present. For a moment, she was resurrected.
Our olfactory memory is so powerful, the most powerful, that something that is gone or far away can be brought back into being in our minds. Smell is as intimate a contact we can have with a person, place, time, or thing. It’s like a time machine. We are transported immediately when we smell that recipe for cookies that mother used to make. We smell peanuts and beer and we’re at the ballgame with our grandfather. We smell the clothes of someone who is not in our lives at the moment or forever and we can feel them close. We smell fur tree, scotch tape, wrapping paper, wood burning fire, clove, orange, newspaper, coffee and we are seven again on Christmas morning.
So, no I’m not Jim Bronson, but we can all relate to this character in some way. We’ve all collected smells. We comfort ourselves with the fragrances that mean something to us. The difference for Jim, though, is that it his way of life. He lives in a fog of nostalgia that keeps him from having meaningful relationships in the present day, and nostalgia is a kind of grief. I’ve done it before. I’ve tried to recreate a moment with aroma. It works in a sense, but there really is no resurrecting a moment. So treasure the moments you have.