Following the Scent by George Merrill

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Working on a bathroom cabinet recently, I accidentally knocked a bottle of Old Spice After Shave off the shelf. It’s an old American classic. I hadn’t used in at least thirty years. It dropped onto the sink. The lotion was in one of the original porcelain bottles and while it didn’t break, some spilled on my hand. I was surprised how just a brief smell of the shave lotion awakened such vivid and contradictory images and emotions.

I smelled the scent of Old Spice first in 1950. I remember it distinctly because during the summer that June, I was hospitalized for a hernia repair. While I was in the hospital, North Korea invaded South Korea. The man in the next bed to me used Old Spice after he shaved and I liked the smell. What gave the scent of the shave lotion its import for me was that while I found pleasure in the way it smelled, I felt an ominous cloud forming over my world at the same time. Five years after WWII ended, America was going back to war.

The power of smells to evoke deep memories is legendary. Of the five senses, I suspect we give the least thought to smell. Yet our olfactory system may well be one of the most significant senses for preserving particular moments in our lives.

Dogs and other animals check each other out regularly through smell. Dogs will go up to dogs of either gender – complete strangers – and boldly sniff them out. For dogs, it takes only a few whiffs to decide who’s your friend or your enemy.

Some scientists believe kissing among human beings is a legacy from the primal times in our evolution. Then, like other critters of the animal kingdom, we once practiced sniffing as the preferred way of getting to know others. Kissing is what has evolved from our ancient ways of sniffing. It’s a sure fire way of getting an idea of whether you’re well matched with this someone you may have just met. Kissing on the first date may not be rushing things at all, but a simple test for determining compatibility.

Perfumes are marketed typically with the goal of making women alluring to men. Harley Davidson, however, had a brief stint of making cologne specifically for bikers. I assume bikers are mostly men. I was not clear whether the cologne was to make a biker more alluring to another biker or to women in general. I can’t imagine at 55 mph on the open road that the scent of the cologne would last more than an hour on the biker. In either case, the cologne turned out to be a flop.

Skunks have perfected odor as their ultimate weapon. Like a Taser, their spray will stop any predator in his tracks – although not kill him. The skunk is one of the world’s few creatures that has no natural enemies. Because of a skunk’s capacity to make a big stink when provoked, it’s essentially left alone. In a way, the skunk makes a case for the power of smell in conducting our lives safely; even though I’ve rarely seen a skunk when one has been killed along the highway, I smell him long before I see him, if I seem him at all. I instantly want to distance myself from him either dead or alive. The skunk stays safe by establishing secure boundaries, and does it through the nose at that.

Marc Antony, in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, speaks these words: “The evil that men do, lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” When it comes to smells, this is also true of mice.

I bought a Hyundai last year. About six months after buying the car, we found mouse droppings in the interior and then a week of two later discovered a dead mouse on the passenger’s side floor. My wife and I couldn’t be sure whether it came from Korea or it was an American mouse. We disposed of the mouse and a month later the car developed a dreadful odor. The mouse had nested somewhere in the car (we never found where) and its brood eventually perished after the mouse died. The good these mice performed during their lives was interred with their bones. We were left with the evil odor that a year later still lingers along with the scent of air purifiers I tried – smells only slightly less gross than mice remains.

Speaking of good and evil, medicine has established tobacco as bad for us, but I must confess I have always found the scent of cigarette, pipe or cigar smoke, homey. I grew up in the forties and fifties when everyone smoked and if they didn’t, someone in the household did. I smoked cigarettes, pipes and cigars until I was about fifty and quit. I decided I wanted to live.

Regarding smoke, my olfactory senses make some distinctions, however. I find the residual scent of a woman who smokes cigarettes nostalgic and sweet. I can think only of my mother. The smell of a cigar freshly lit fires up fond memories of Thanksgiving when my Grandfather would first light his White Owl cigar after dinner. The charm of residual cigar smoke diminished as the day wore on, however. By evening it smelled worse than the mouse remains in my Hyundai. Uncle Arthur smoked Bond Street pipe tobacco and generally I found pipe tobacco of all kinds very aromatic and agreeable. I confess the scent of tobacco smoke, excepting stale cigar smoke, is pleasing.

The day after my discovery of the Old Spice and thinking about how various smells bring back memories, I thought I’d splash some on my face for old times’ sake. It still smelled aromatic, but it may not have been helpful to my memory bank; North Korea has recently been making rumbling noises about attacking America.

Going up in smoke like this does not encourage warm memories.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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