December 30, 2011

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Co-Founder, creator and artist of A Dozen Roses, Sandy Cataldo, signing bottles
Whiffs of Scent Memory
By Suzie Parker Devoe

       A good friend of mine and I woke up at five in the morning, loaded our bikes on the back of my SUV and drove all the way from New York City to Savannah Georgia in one day.  By nine p.m. that evening we were eating shrimp and grits and toasting our road trip success with a martini. My friend is from Las Vegas and had never been to visit a southern city. She wanted to get a tour from me, a former Georgia peach.  I insisted she would love Savannah and the best time to go was early May. 

       On our second night in town, we were strolling down the streets around dusk, the air warm and humid, as we admired the homes and architecture in the historic district. I was stopped in mid-step by a scent. I literally halted and said, “That smell, where is it coming from.” I began sniffing like a hound dog, intent on not losing the aroma and finding the source. It was floral, familiar, and wonderful and the odor was creating some sense of joy in me that I could not explain. It was almost as if I had been given a happy pill. I was turning in circles when I could see what I thought was responsible for the beauty that was intoxicating my head.  A garden brick wall with jasmine vine, loads of it, perfectly in bloom, climbing all over. A beautiful rod-iron gate, a lovely gas-lit lamp close by, made the scene even more heavenly. “Jasmine” I swooned,“ I haven’t smelled jasmine like this in forever.”

    I wanted to rip the vine off the wall and wrap it around me like netting.  All in one second of scent, I was home, I was whole, and I was my southern self that I had forgotten about. In an odd way the bouquet of jasmine was curing my homesickness that I had been experiencing over the past year. Honeysuckle can come close to making me feel closer to home, gardenia also. But this moment in Savannah was explosive. The odd thing was that I didn't’t connect the fragrance of jasmine to a particular memory, person or event. I didn't’t exclaim, “Oh this smells just like my grandmother”. But for me, the fragrant blossom was obviously a very strong connection to something or maybe several past memories had strung themselves together in one momentous whiff.  I seriously didn’t want to leave that corner in Savannah. 

    Each time my friend and I talk of that road trip we both stop and say at the same time, “remember when we smelled that jasmine!” So now, my new memory of the scent of a jasmine plant will forever be connected to that moment of walking down a street in Savannah. I will see the iron-gate, the brick wall in my mind, and I will “smell” the vine. Will I now scream ‘Savannah,’ every time I smell jasmine?

       Scientists tell us, as we all intrinsically know, that smell and memory are linked, but the link is complicated and not completely understood those scientists report.  The area of our brain that smells, our olfactory cortex is embraced by the amygdala and hippocampus, the areas of the brain where emotion and memory are processed. This partly explains why a smell triggers a memory of people, places, and events and why it has the power to evoke an emotion, positive or negative, powerful or subtle. Memory, smell and emotion are a closely related dynamic trio.  It is no wonder that when people lose their ability to smell they can suffer from depression and aromatherapy is used to treat anxiety.

          Scientists have recently been working with the idea that studying or learning with a specific scent nearby can enhance the memorization of what we study, if we sleep with the same scent next to us. So, if you study for your chemistry test with a rose next to you, then sleep with the rose next to you, you are more likely to remember the material. If you then take the chemistry test with a rose next to you, you have really increased your chances at remembering more material.

         While reading about what scientists are discovering about this complicated chemical sense, I ran across a fact that a scent memory study was done in 2003 with the fragrance Opium. Now even the name of the perfume Opium by Yves St Laurent triggers powerful olfactory sensations for me and I imagine many of us who went to college in the 1980’s. Opium was introduced in 1977 and created great controversy with its name; groups protested that the perfumer was promoting drug use.  
      Opium perfume reminds me of my friend Camille who attended a Texas University with me. Camille adored the perfume and she quickly became one of those who made it a number one selling fragrance. When I smell Opium, I can see Camille laughing, smiling, her intricate cowboy boots and I hear her slightly hoarse voice talking on and on excitedly. I may not have thought of Camille in fifteen years, but she is almost with me if the odor of Opium is near. If I continue to sniff this fragrance, it then creates a whole host of olfactory events in my head; the smell of an entire dorm of females, all wearing Opium, along with Benson and Hedges cigarettes, oversized sweaters at a football game and beer at the frat party afterwards. Opium isn’t just Opium any more, it becomes super-sized Opium.      

       This scientific information got me thinking about how I react to smells and how they become complex or change with time.  I think of my teenage sons and I smell sweat, shampoo, and stinky shoes and then the odor of Axe body spray creeps in. It didn't matter that their 13-year-old female cousin said; "Where something different than every other boy in my history class!" they needed it-the spray, the deodorant, the whole line of products. And no wonder! An ad campaign that suggests that even angels will fall over the scent of AXE is all they need to hear. I couldn't walk into their bedrooms they used so much of the spray. Inhaling made my nose sting. It was so strong that I could smell them coming down the stairs in our house. It was so overpowering I almost started to call them Axe, oh here comes Axe, instead of their real names.

     My eldest left for college two years ago and I swear his room still reeks of the spray. Though I now find myself opening the door and walking in just to get a whiff. This was an odor that I had to tolerate even though it was almost impossible. Now, I almost crave it once in a while. The memory of the scent has softened and morphed into something tolerable, at times, even desirable as I crack the door and take a sniff. Instead of turning up my nose, I actually stay and linger. Now that remaining controversial smell has become the strongest, most powerful remnant of my son in our house. It makes me feel as if I get a glimpse of him more so than the pictures on the wall do. 
There are scents we want to forget, that almost haunt. I grew up in a rural southern town with a chemical plant and Union Carbide plant. The smell that would change with the wind was awful. The scent of sulphur from corporate pollution haunts me each time I know of someone who grew up near me and I hear of his or her diagnosis of an illness at an all too young age. Corporate pollution stinks and I wonder if scientists can figure out how to erase scent memory?

    And then there are those olfactory evoked sensations that we would never want to give away. I was reminded of the complicated emotional response to fragrance not too long ago while I was walking through the aisles of a drug store looking for vitamins. At the end of the aisle was a display with a large bottle of Jean Nate body splash. For a split second I wanted to open the bottle and take a whiff. I hesitated, as I knew that I might be brought to tears in the store. Or even worse, maybe I would open the bottle and Jean Nate would not smell like I was remembering it would and I would be completely disappointed.

    Jean Nate was launched in 1935 and it was what my grandmother, whom I loved dearly, wore everyday. I see that chartreuse colored bottle with the black circular plastic cap and I can smell my grandmother. The bottle, always a large one, would sit on the vanity counter in her bathroom in her ranch style home. She would wear her pink terry cloth bathrobe after a shower, her gray hair still in the shower cap, and splash Jean Nate on her neck, chest and wrists. She would put a dab on her index finger and place it on the tip of my nose. I would laugh.
      She would then proceed to put on her suit with her matching purse and shoes and head over to run a trucking company in Cartersville, Georgia, a job she inherited when she became a widow.  Though she had quit school in eighth grade during the depression to help provide for her family, she ran the business, dressed, ready, leaving her house in a cloud of Jean Nate. I again think about the complicated trio of scent, memory and emotion and I don’t think I need to understand the link anymore than I already do.

     My friend brought me a small vase with blooming jasmine last snowy New Year’s day and it made me so happy. I like to wear Channel No. 5 and a newly launched perfume called Juliet by Juliet Stewart. They both make me feel feminine, strong, and elegant; just like my grandmother. I don’t wear Jean Nate, but you never know, I just might try it.  Maybe I will start studying vocabulary and sleeping with Jean Nate next to me. Maybe I will learn to appreciate the complexities of the scent of Axe. And maybe scientists will soon understand more clearly why I need to sleep on my husband’s pillow when he has been out of town for more than three nights. Sometimes we just need a whiff of memory.   

      Our sense of smell is the last to go as we age. So I guess I have comfort in knowing that when I can’t taste, see or hear, I will be able to smell the scents of jasmine, Opium perfume, Jean Nate body splash and Axe body wash. If it were only that simple.



A new contributor to The Perfume Magazine, and to the fascinating world of fragrance, Suzie Devoe is writer, performer and producer. She is a former contributor to Hook Magazine, a Hudson Valley publication and a short story writer, who is currently writing a series of essays to be read in NYC of memories of growing up in the South titled “Variations on Red Clay”.  She has produced an award winning production of Dorothy Parker’s short stories and a one-woman performance of her life and works titled “Just a Little One.” She is a graduate of Southern Methodist University and The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She worked in advertising and public relations before her life in theater and as a writer. She is on the board of two non-profits and lives in Nyack, NY with her sons, dogs and tall husband.