Scent is the Strongest Tie to Memory
There is much truth in this, and I especially realized it after I lost so many of my family’s earlier generations.
Each Christmas, I begin decorating by pulling out a box of miscellaneous items, such as extra bulbs, hooks to hang things, an old CD album of Christmas music, and anything else that helps me get in the spirit and stay focused. Best of all, though, in this box are two bottles of fragrance.
Mama liked Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew perfume, and Dad wore Brut Aftershave. I’ll wear one fragrance on one day and the other on the next. I can smell her as I walk from room to room. It is comforting and an annual tradition for me.
But it doesn’t stop there. Many of you have read about my Grandmother Roe and how she lived next door my entire childhood and helped raise me and my sister. She wore Avon’s To a Wild Rose, and several years ago I found that Paloma Picasso smells like her To A Wild Rose. I still have a bottle. It seems like these older fragrances never lose their essence.
Another Christmas tradition is my family’s Christmas letter. I’ve done one for over 35 years now. The ones when the kids were teenagers were the best. They dreaded the letters because I used them to broadcast to all our friends and family their latest screw-ups including their punishments.
Like the night Tracy spent swatting mosquitoes in one of my weedy flower beds while I sat in an air-conditioned car with the lights on her. I needed to make sure she finished the job. Don’t you know every mosquito on Lake Jackson was attracted to those lights? She accused me of child abuse on that one—that is until she had kids of her own.
Or how about the year Tracy, as the angel, couldn’t be still in the Christmas pageant and knocked over the manger causing baby Jesus to roll into the audience. Notice how so many of these stories highlight Tracy. There’s your sign!
Incidentally, when baby Jesus took his tumble, Jamie, who had pouted all day about being a shepherd, because there weren’t enough boys in the church, said out loud, “Mama, I told you I would make a better angel!” They gave me great material every year.
A couple of days ago, while working on this year’s letter I wore Dad’s Brute aftershave and stopped several times to reminisce about him and all the mirth and tomfoolery he brought to our Christmases.
I don’t remember a specific fragrance for Grandma and Granddaddy Hamrick but there are strong memories of the aromatic smells of their kitchen, especially at Christmas. Cooking was her forte, and the smell of well-peppered chicken and rice makes me remember her. Hers was the best!
For Granddaddy it was fried bream and the best cornbread I have ever eaten. He passed away in 1968 when I was only 14, and I remember the complaints about everyone’s cornbread, though Mama and Grandma both said they made it just like he did.
About a year ago, though, I think I discovered what they were doing wrong. You see, that was just about the time everyone was encouraged to remove animal fats from our diets and cook with vegetable oils. Now don’t you know there were portions of our food industries who pushed that narrative.
Anyway, I have developed stomach problems with these newer processed oils, and I discovered gravy made from them makes me sick. But not gravy made from lard or bacon grease. And that is when it occurred to me to try bacon grease in my cornbread instead of other oils.
Voila—my cornbread is extra good. It will make your teeth slap your gums. I can’t help wondering if Granddaddy used animal fats and both Mom and Grandma, who both watched their weight, used the new fats, such as Crisco. Could that have been the difference?
A campfire or outdoor fire reminds me of a Florida winter tradition—an oyster roast. My Hamrick and Roe families get together one night each Christmas and we build a backyard fire and shuck oysters. That is a special smell all its own. And for me and Chuck, a gin and tonic is the perfect chaser.
When the girls were in high school, their school had a Shuck and Burn with this same tradition.
Yesterday, I put up a tree. I no longer worry about a real tree, though we have done it for over 40 years. Now, I drag out that little three-piece fake pre-lit tree and stick a Glade pine-scented bottle in a socket. The house smells like the tree is real.
Of course, the kids think they’re missing out on their family’s traditions and nostalgia, but they better suck it up. The year before last when we had moved to Monticello and I had been downsizing by over 1500 sq. ft. since the Christmas before, I put this same tree up and then dreaded doing all the rest of the decorating.
I stopped to rest, lay on the sofa, and read an article in a magazine about the newest fad called the naked Christmas tree. I looked over at the pre-lit tree and decided right then and there that I was done.
After more than a week, Jamie finally asked when I was going to finish decorating. Tracy, who lives north of Atlanta, walked in several days before Christmas and was astounded. She said she missed the surprise of seeing what color the tree would be. I told her the color this year was nude. Jeff? Well, I’m not sure our engineer son even noticed.
So Christmas brings its own scents to remind us of those who have passed before us. And who knows maybe our grandchildren will remember us in the same way many years in the future.