I don’t have a strong nose. I think of scent as my weakest sense, even though I have nearsighted eyes to the power of -10. Even so, there are certain scents that’ll always get my attention. A few years ago, I had a kitchen fire after frying up some samosas. Five minutes ago, my mother decided to fry a batch. I’m sitting here, focused on drawing up a to do list, with a set of earphones in blasting noise so that I can tune out the rest of the world.
The second I turned away from my task and let the rest of the world come back into focus, the scent of the oil sent me into a panic. It’s been an incredibly long time since that kitchen fire. I’ve fried up samosas several times since then – enough that I’ve lost count. I’ve deep fried other things too. Still, today and every other time in the past two years, I have felt panicky every time I smelled oil and couldn’t remember whether the stove plate had been turned off and the pot filled with oil been moved safely away to a cool surface.
It’s been two years but I can’t shake the panic that smelling hot oil evokes in me. Scent may be my weakest sense, but it’s still strong enough to pack a punch. Thankfully, if only to sweeten my feelings towards the whole concept of olfactory memory, there are also scents that bring out far more pleasant memories.
Amarige is my grandmother, dressed up and ready to go out somewhere. Red lipstick on her lips, out of a ridged gold tube. Her hair combed just so, and gold shining. These days, she’s older. These days, she’s frailer. These days, the jewellery’s been sold or locked away – it’s not worth the fear to bring it out anymore.
A jersey, navy wool and saturated with scent was my grandfather for a very long time. I don’t know what it is that I associated with him, whether it’s aftershave, itr or deodorant. The jersey’s been gone a long time, but even as recently as earlier this year, I smelled that scent somewhere and my eyes filled with tears. It’s him, to me. Sitting next to him and demanding he tell me the same story over and over (and over) again. Watching him watch sports and busying myself with whatever it was I paid attention to back then. Seeing old photos, listening to old recordings, they all hurt in their own unique way. But the scent that I can’t ever separate from him, that’s somehow the worst. It’s what I breathed in every time we hugged. It’ll never be the same, having it surround me.
Of all the things in the world I could associate with my mother, it’s strange that the strongest is a MAC lipstick. But perhaps not. She’s liked them for over a decade now – and even though she sometimes tries something new, MAC is an old favourite – and that particular scent, so sweet it’s almost sickly, is instantly recognizable.
On the opposite side of panic is comfort. Paper and ink bound into a good book are comfort for me. I adore e-readers but nothing will be able to beat the scent that a well-loved book fills the air with. Part of why I still accumulate stacks of books is just to be able to wander between them and relive the stunning moment of discovery when I plucked a promising looking title off the shelf and then was immediately lost within the world within it.
I don’t have a strong nose, but somehow I do have these memories.