COLUMN: Common scents


My wife Carol has been strongly suggesting (I call it nagging) that I visit my doctor and get the once over. I told her that even though it’s been six months beyond my usual check-up time, I feel fine. She responded that I would never let my car go six months past its oil change date, even if it was running great. I hate it when she uses logic and common sense on me.

So, after I made an appointment, I went to the doctor’s and checked in. Shortly after filling out the same forms I always fill out when I’m there, a nurse escorted me to the exam room. The instant I walked through that door I smelled it: the tart, medicinal odor of isopropyl alcohol. My heart began to race, and a tense feeling came over me. That’s because this scent reminds me of my childhood visits to the doctor’s office. Usually I was sick, which meant there was a good chance I was going to get a scary, painful injection. And decades later, one whiff of that alcohol conjured up those same feelings of dread I had as a little kid.

It’s all in the nose. Apparently, the section of the brain that processes odors is very close to the part of the brain that houses our memory. In fact, experts have determined that of all our senses, smell is the one most likely to evoke memories. I think we can all relate. Gasoline, fresh rain, fireplaces, a mowed lawn, smoke in a barbecue restaurant, baked cookies – we all have smells that transport us to events in our past, both good and bad. Some smells can even be triggers, like the smell of burning cigarettes to someone who has stopped smoking.

It can be the most obscure scent that brings back a memory. Whenever I open a bottle of Coppertone suntan lotion, I am swept back in time to Panama City. I can see the waves, and feel the wet sand between my toes as my mom slathers me all over. During the holiday season, the scent of a live Christmas tree evokes wonderful childhood memories of shaking packages and playing with toys on the living room floor. Once when I was in an elevator, a lady standing beside me had on a bit too much perfume. I didn’t mind because it was the same fragrance that greeted me when I opened the door to my grandparents’ house. The smell of English peas reminds my wife of a childhood meal that she hated – but was forced to eat. Of course, certain odors evoke other responses. Occasionally, when my wife and I are in the car, she will sniff the air, turn to me with a look of disgust, and say, “Ugh! That reminds me of a dirty public restroom!” I just laugh and tell her it’s just another trip down memory lane.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a particular scent can bring back memories that are especially poignant. When my good friend John died unexpectedly, I went back to his house after the funeral. Nicole, his adopted 4-year-old daughter, crawled in my lap, put her arms around my neck and whispered, “You smell just like my Daddy.”

I wiped tears out of my eyes, and whispered back, ”And I hope I always do.”

Here’s a piece of advice, y’all. Take time to smell the roses – and everything else. You never know what kinds of long-forgotten memories will come back to you.

Even if it is a doctor’s office.

Joe Hobby is a barbecue-loving comedian from Alabama who wrote for Jay Leno for many years. Find more of Joe’s stories on his blog: Follow him on Facebook at Joe Hobby Comedian-Writer.