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The Scent of a Woman

Like me, you've probably not only read but have also personally experienced that smell is one of the strongest memory triggers. Once, on a bus during late elementary school, an odor wafted past my nose and I was instantly reminded of my great-grandmother and her house---many years after her death. I couldn't have identified or recalled that smell, but it was so distinctly her, and in that moment, I was literally out of time and place so strong was my memory due to that smell.

Do you have a smell like that?

My eyes aren't too great, my ears are easily overwhelmed, but my nose works very, very well. This is a blessing and a curse.

Humans can smell between 4,000 and 10,000 smells, all based on seven distinct odors: Camphoric, musky, roses, pepperminty, etheral, pungent, and putrid.

I can't produce smells on a blog, but I can (hopefully) evoke them with some key phrases, such as:

Wet dog
Dress straight out of plastic from dry cleaner
Spoiled egg salad
Garden of roses on warm summer day
Baby clean from bath and powdered
Baking banana bread
Fresh coffee
Hot plastic on a computer printer
Car exhaust

These are all individual, however. What about the smell of people? And smells between people?

In Common Scents, Janice Carlisle explores how great Victorian novelists such as Dickens, Eliot, Meredith, Oliphant, Trollope, and Yonge used scent to establish status and relationship between characters:

In depictions of comparative encounters, the commonplace meetings of everyday life, such fiction often registers the inequalities that distinguish one individual from another by marking one of them with a smell. In a surprisingly consistent fashion, these references constitute what cultural anthropologists call an osmology, a system of differentiations that reveals the status within a particular culture of the persons and things associated with specific odors. Featuring often innocuous and even potentially pleasing aromas emanating from food, flowers, and certain kinds of labor, novels of the 1860s array their characters into distinct categories, finding in some rather than others olfactory proof of their materiality. Central to this osmology is the difference between characters who give off odors and those who do not, and this study draws upon the work of Victorian psychophysiologists and popular commentators on the senses to establish the subtlety with which fictional representations make that distinction.

The concept in Common Scents intrigues me. What truth does smell reveal, especially among and within people?

One review particularly struck me:

"Important for [its] interest in how the senses register modernity, and for the broader social implications of the ways in which the outside world penetrates the bodily sensorium;...whether the nose smells the proximity of the poor or the odor that belongs to the habits of another--and often threateningly social ascendant--class."--Studies in English Literature 1500-1900

I think most of us are very attuned to odor, and are not as easily able to tune it out as we can other sensations.

I personally find scent one of the most intrusive things. How something looks or sounds doesn't affect me near as much as how it smells. That's why it is easier for me to keep an open-mind about other sensory input, but I am more likely to judge (or draw a conclusion) based on scent because the smell of another person does directly affect me, and might strongly affect my enjoyment of an event, for example.

Take last night.

My husband and I went to see a play, Subject to Fits (A Response to Dostoevsky's The Idiot, by Robert Montgomery).

I was a little concerned about the play, going in, largely due to the broad use of superlatives in all the reviews: outrageous, unorthodox, highly theatrical, a trip, zany, bold, wild humor, original, and unpredictable. I was also worried about something from the 1970s that calls itself a response to The Idiot.

Do you know this play? If you do, then you'll understand the experience I had last night.

At least you will with regard to the play. What you don't know is how it smelled in there. It smelled like the musky, camphorus perfume the lady in front of me apparently uses to wash herself and her clothes, followed by an extra shower of it for good measure.

I can't identify which perfume it was but it was overwhelming. It wasn't bad, according to us, simply because it was overpowering. It truly was a highly unappealing scent, above and beyond its olfactory assault.

During Intermission, my husband asked if I thought there was something rotten near us. "Outside of taste?" I replied, "No."

I got a little obsessed. Why that scent? It smelled disgusting to me and my husband, but what about it appealed to her? Why did she need to wear it, and so much of it? Did she want to be noticed, get attention? Be smelled?

Or, did she want to be remembered?

Was she as aggressive a person as her scent implied?

Isn't shoving your scent heavily up someone else's nose really aggressive? It's a heady characteristic, I think.

In fact, it is a sort of branding yourself on the other person. It's territorial. Your scent pervades the territory. You've marked it. It's yours.

It can also transfer to more than just the air. I swear when I got home I smelled that scent on me, my clothes, in my hair. I bet the next person to sit in that seat will smell it too.

She not only marked her territory while in place, but left behind her scent to mark it after she left.

It's a very basic instinct.

I wonder if she even was aware.

This type of marking scent is why I quit my job. Oh it's not that simple, but it was the trigger moment.

When my very brief maternity leave with my first daughter was over and I returned to work, I lucked into an excellent home care situation. The lady lived right next to my office, and I could use my breaks to run over and see and feed my daughter. Plus, she was highly recommended, had a great setup (renovated the basement into a children's wonderland), and obviously took great care of the kids.

I knew she cuddled my baby, but I really knew it because every day when I picked up my daughter, she smelled of this women.

My response to this was illogical, emotional, and inexplicable. It was also subconscious, initially. I only knew that I felt vaguely unhappy with this woman. I felt tremendously unhappy with my baby in her care.

My husband kept trying to get to the reality of the matter, "Do you think she lets her cry?" he asked, "Doesn't feed her? Leaves her in her chair too long? Ignores her? Doesn't care for her properly? What? What is it?"

I couldn't explain. I kept trying to find concrete clues, examples I could use.

But my daughter was always clean, and happy. When I popped in unannounced, Patience was generally being held or entertained in a bouncy seat or exersaucer. Her diapers were always clean, her tummy full, her day interesting and fun. All in all, I could find no fault with the care she received. Yet, I kept looking, even though I didn't really understand why I was so keen to find fault. I told myself, this is what any loving mother does. I reassured myself, I'm only looking out for my baby's welfare, you can't be too careful.

Every day I'd walk into this perfect room, and this wonderfully nurturing woman would hand me my happy baby. I'd clutch her close to me, trying to rebond with her. I'd bury my nose in her neck or on her head and I'd inhale, looking for the scent of my baby. Instead, I got a nose full of her caregiver. Every evening, instead of feeling joyful to be reunited with my baby, I felt depresssed.

It eventually started to make sense. As soon as we got home, I'd bathe my baby. I'd use our soap, and our lotion, and I'd cuddle her next to me, re-establishing myself as mommy, and getting us back to nothing outside of our scent.

One day, I cried to my husband, "I can't stand the smell of another woman on her!"

That scent encompassed every guilty feeing and sadness I felt not being able to mommy my baby all day every day. That scent was a sharp reminder that someone else was taking care of my baby. Every time I smelled it on Patience, it evoked wrenching sadness. I wasn't ready to hand her over to someone else's care. I wasn't ready to be back at work, apart from my much longed for first child.

And so...I quit my job.

The first day home, at about six o'clock, I sniffed my baby and she smelled simply of only herself, and maybe a little of me. In that moment, I felt completely at peace with my decision.

Scent is powerful, even if it is subtle. It's emotionally evocative and reminiscent (no pun intended). It makes a statement we might not intend to imply, and others infer something about us from our scent. It says something about us, our truth, and might help us recognize a truth.

Tell me one of your scent stories...

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

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Gina Pintar said…
Channel #5. My mom only wore this when she and my father were going out special. I remember being little again.
The smell of Old Spice makes me think of my father. When I was a child, that was all he wore. Thankfully, of late he has expanded his cologne horizons. However, every time I smell it, memories of him in my childhood come back.

Funny you should mention smell. I have a friend who we lovingly refer to as "the bloodhound"! That girl can sniff out a smell from a MILE away! She is forever asking, "Do you smell that?"

I have a funny/horrifically embarassing smell story. One day I was at a conference where myself and numerous colleagues were working together to prepare a curriculum for the schools to use. While working with this lady, I was struck by this odd smell. It smelled like a musty, dusty old house. Being the compulsive person I am, I began to obsess about it. My outward appearance looked as though I was hard at work planning out the curriculum. However, my mind was consumed with finding the culprit of this smell. "They must never clean this room!" I thought. "Did the carpet mildew, and they never adequately take care of the problem?" I wondered. This went on and on until I started to think that maybe it was the lady with whom I was working. Finally, after a day's worth of hard work, I left to go home. Again in the car, I was struck by the smell. This alarmed me greatly, as I was no longer with that woman or in the assumed offensive room. Once I got home, I began an investigation and, much to my horror, I was MY FEET! ( I CANNOT believe I just wrote that!!!) I had worn an older pair of sandals that day...and it was my feet! Words cannot possibly do justice to the depths of my mortification at that very moment! I threw the offensive sandals away, and have been a foot nazi ever since!

Now, what do you think that OTHER woman was thinking? God, PLEASE don't let me EVER have to work with her again! Because, knowing me, I will tell her the entire story!

How's that for TMI?
Julie Pippert said…
It's so cool how you both have scents that give happy flashback to childhood. Gina, Chanel #5, very cool. Queen, Old Spice. I bet it smells good to you, just because.

Hee hee, my husband has given me book and teased me about my nose. Bloodhound. LOL

Queen, your story cracked me up. I've discarded shoes that didn't go well with my er body chemistry LOL. That wasn't TMI b/c we've all BTDT I'm sure. LOL Thanks for sharing. Love it!
Girlplustwo said…
ah. yes. i've been driving over the california border to mexico on and off for the last 14 years. every time, every single time i cross the border and hit the road towards ensenada, i roll down the windows and breath. it smells like mexico, i scream in the wind every time.

i love the smell of mexico.
IzzyMom said…
Wow! That's an amazing testament to the power of smell.

Whenever I smell colognes like Polo or Drakkar I'm transported right back to my teen years. Not only did my boyfriend wear those but so did every other boy.

When I smell incense, I'm reminded of my college and post-college years and all my fun, freaky friends because we burned it constantly.
Bea said…
What a brilliant post.

I wonder if the memory-evoking quality of scent has to do with its specificity: a blue sky will remind us of nothing, because we see it every day, but certain smells can bring back a memory from twenty years ago, because possibly we haven't encountered that particular odour since then.

Lately, I've been having sudden, vivid memories of childhood that occur when I get down on the floor and look at something from an odd angle. I was looking up at the bottom of my parents' dining-room table the other day, and it brought back a wisp of memory from my childhood - not an event, exactly, just a perception. I probably haven't seen their dining-room table from that angle since I was a small child.

Kevin Charnas just got a Perfect Post award for a post about his reluctance to wash the sheets his parents slept on while they visited him - as long as their scent is still in the house, they don't seem so far away.
Gwen said…
Scent is powerful. Sometimes I smell things that remind me so much of home, but since home is another country far far away, I think that perhaps the memory of smell isn't as keen as I'd like to think. My husband has the same issue with our children smelling like other people as you do. It really really bothers him; but then he loves the smell of them first thing in the morning, when they're covered in the dried spit of sleep, so I'm not sure about him. I've become such a nit about smell, I don't even like to wear perfume anymore and I can't stand men's cologne. Ironically, my husband wears cologne and wishes I went back to my perfumed ways.
Julie Pippert said…
Jen, one thing (among a plethora) that has always worried me about me is that I feel that way about Paris. I remember as a romantical pre-teen trying to bottle the smell to take with me. I knew I could never open the bottle, of course. It encourages me to know---hving smelt Mexico many times, just across the Border---that you have a similar affliction. ;)

In short, Jen, I know JUST what you mean and I LOVE that...loving a smell that otherwise might not be so loveable just because it smells like what you love. That is awesome.
Julie Pippert said…
Izzy, oh yes, Polo. It reminds me of times at my best friend in high school's house because her brother bathed (literally) in it. LOL about the incense. Yes, my granola freaky crunchy friends and I burned incense too. It doesn't snap me back though, when I smell it. I wish it did, sometimes.

The thing about those youthful smells (and here I go again with the truth) is that it makes me remember things I otherwise don't or wouldn't...or reminds me of these things.

B&P, thanks! I think you are on to something about scent and specificity.

Perhaps incense doesn't have such a fun flashback for me because it was a broadly smelled thing, in many places and times.

Finding pieces of chldhood when looking at things from a different that is really interesting.

I believe that and it really adds to the idea of specificity.

Gwen, oh I believe that you do pick up something and remember home.

As far as your husband loving the smell of your children first thing in the a.m., too. Err, my children though, not yours. It's like that's their elemental individual scent at its strongest. I love it because it is them.

And now to completely reveal my UTTER FREAKISHNESS...

When my children grew from babies to toddlers and on, their smell slightly altered. I can anticipate spurts by a change in the smell of my children. I think I will smell puberty. I can smell illness and the sort it is. I can smell it before the first symptom sometimes.

I can smell a lot. I think sometimes smell tells me more than body language.

This is one reason why perfume, too strong, and cologne bother me, especially if they are popular scents. It interferes.

I'm pretty liberal about smell. My husband is not. If anything smells, it smells bad.

I think I was a dog in my last life. ;)

I usually try to keep my sniffing to myself because it really, really bothers people in general.
Wow, Julie. Well done!

So good I can smell it. :)

For me it's the smell of wiff and I'm on the floor of my grandfathers shop, making sawdust snow fall on the village I'd built out of wood scraps.
luckyzmom said…
X's pipe tobacco
Her Bad Mother said…
Mouldy dust. Lavender. My grandmother.

Lovely post.
Lady M said…
Such a beautiful post! I can to visit after seeing your comment at Bubandpie's place.

My lab partner in high school chemistry wore "Beautiful" by Estee Lauder, and to this day, the smell makes me wince, because it wasn't a good odor to be mixing with chemicals.

I love baby smell - the mix of sweet skin, baby soap, and cuteness.
Julie Pippert said…
Jenny, sawdust. I could really see, feel and smell, just from your brief words.

Luckyzmom, pipe tobacco, PU LOL.

HBM, thanks! Dust and lavender for your grandmother. The combination is so specific, and for her.

Lady M, so glad you came by! And thanks for commenting! I can just imagine the combo of that sweet perfume and harsh chemicals...ick. Yes, baby smell. I like that too. :)

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