By Sharon Lynch
Lucy had just picked up the soap with her wet hands when it hit her. That smell. She was using Sunlight bar soap to clean some brushes in the basement. Suddenly she was no longer in the basement but instead outdoors with sunshine pooling on the forest floor. And surrounded by the lemony scent of that soap.
It was laundry day at the cottage and Lucy’s mom had the old wringer washer chugging away on its wooden platform near the outhouse. An extension cord provided the power as the foamy water churned its twisted clothes up and down, round and round.
A large yellow bar of soap rested at the bottom of the tub, releasing its cleaning power as the machine worked. Once the clothes were cleaned, they’d be hung on the clothes line that ran between the post and a birch tree. Even rinsed, the smell of that soap continued to cling to the drying items.
Later, when Lucy stood in the semi-darkness of her cottage bedroom, putting on the slightly stiff clean pajamas, she could still catch a whiff of the soap. The smell then carried her off to sleep on its lemony cloud.
All it took was one whiff of that same soap to transport Lucy sixty years back in time. Such is the power of smell she thought, running the brushes once again under the basement tap.
According to experts, of all our senses, smell is the one most closely linked to memories. Just as the fresh scent of a pine tree in early winter can conjure up a feeling of Christmas or suntan lotion reminds Lucy of laying on her sandy beach towel. But it’s more than just a memory. Scent makes her actually feel the past as though she is re-experiencing the event. She wondered if this was the same for everyone.
When she had finished with the brushes, she picked up the phone and invited Marie over for coffee. Lucy knew it had been a rough week for Marie. Her poodle had died and she was feeling pretty low. Usually Marie was the one to invite Lucy and it felt good to do the asking for a change.
When Marie arrived she was carrying a basket wrapped with a tea towel. Fresh bran muffins to go with the coffee, she told Lucy. The two friends sat down in the kitchen, and as soon as Marie opened the tea towel, the smell of warm bran took over. These were real bran muffins, the kind Lucy’s mother used to make and the kind Lucy mastered in Grade 7 Home Ec class. They were not the overly sweet cake-like items currently found almost everywhere.
Marie said these were her favourite because the smell reminded her of her childhood kitchen. Bran muffins with butter and honey on the table, a budgie in its kitchen corner cage and swirly wallpaper all around. When she wanted to feel content, Marie made bran muffins.
Lucy then told Marie about her experience with the Sunlight soap. The two women agreed they were fortunate that these conjured memories were happy ones. But they also knew that was not always the case. While simmering spaghetti sauce might be comforting to some, a certain after-shave or spent fireworks might have the opposite effect.
Smell was not something to bae easily blocked. After all most people breathe through their nose so what do you do when you don’t want to smell something? What if you can’t leave the area? Marie told Lucy that she used to feel trapped in the family car on weekend trips to the cottage. This was due to her mother’s perfume. It had a very heavy scent and that, combined with cigarette smoke from two puffing parents and rolled up windows, made for an unpleasant, head-ache-producing trip. While hardly traumatic, the memory had stayed with Marie all her life.
Then Lucy reminded her that any day they would be smelling mud puddles and April showers, warming earth and emerging greenery. If winter was wood smoke, then spring was barbeques and Lilac bushes. Since those were still in the offing, both agreed it was time for another bran muffin.