The power of smell: Learning to feel through scent
On our first family holiday to the Blue Mountains, we were surrounded by thick bush. Early mornings smelled of eucalyptus oil from the gum trees. It was winter and cold, but I delighted in running through the rooms with my brother, pulling on the long cords hanging down from the high ceilings to turn the lights on and off. My joy did not last.
In the disinfectant soaked emergency room, the doctors marvelled at my stoicism. At only four years old, I stuck out my tongue unbidden and breathed in for the stethoscope, despite lung-wrenching bursts of asthma that had me gasping for air. I made no other sound. Right from the start, crying from fear or pain, or crying for any reason really, was actively discouraged. Snot and mucous blocked my already overburdened sinuses, making me worse. I was always an obedient child.
When I was young, I often fell sick. I was allergic to cow’s milk since birth and then to almost anything I touched, ingested or smelled. Sunshine makes me sneeze, and I get headaches from even the most expensive of perfumes worn by people standing a considerable distance away. My sense of taste has been diminished along with the ability to recognise and name every flavour in the food on my plate.
But despite, or perhaps because of, the damage, my sense of smell has been enhanced.
Standing in our kitchen at home one day, aged eight, an intense aroma of lavender enveloped the room. When I inhaled deeply, it flooded my senses, and the solid countertops, cupboards and floors around me vanished from sight.
I remember nothing else, just an aide-memoire, a photo of me as a toddler sitting on the veranda at my grandmother’s house. It is black and white, but I know my hair was bright blonde back then. I had been caught in the act of falling over or awkwardly sitting down the way babies do when they are dressed in baggy overalls on top of voluminous cloth nappies.
As I look at this much smaller, much younger me, my nostrils fill with bouquets of lavender once more. It grew in great whorls along my grandmother’s driveway, and she made sachets of it to put in the drawers with her clothes.
That day in the kitchen grandmother came to say goodbye. Lavender is happiness mixed with melancholy and longing.
Jasmine and cigars
My parents fought a lot before they separated that same year. I perceived that the noise they made was not good, but I was too young to understand the content.
In summer, the house was permeated with the heady scent of jasmine. A vine grew around the railings on the terrace outside and when mum was happy, she would cut long tendrils of it and arrange it in three white elliptical vases. They fitted together to make a whole, in a way we as a family never did.
Most days she spent a lot of time in bed, curtains drawn. Dad worked and played hard, and was not in the house very often and when he was, the home became a battlefield with me the unwilling spectator. Yet the waft of a smouldering cigar still takes me back to sitting on his lap, content.
Dinner times were sacred in that house. Mum was half English, so we sat up at the table and asked before we got down.
Serviettes were made of paper and only used when we had a takeaway, but napkins were nice and always made of cloth. The soup should be spooned away from the body, and the special round-headed spoons should never be confused with the oval-headed ones laid out for dessert.
Mum was big on rules. But it did not stop the fights between my older brother and sister. The tang of pepper always hits me like the shaker one of them threw at the other. I cannot remember who raised their arm, missed their target and got me square in the forehead instead. Dead centre. The lid came off, releasing the contents, making my eyes sting, and my nose run uncontrollably. Pepper still makes me sneeze but not as much as then. Its spice is tinged with threat.
At everyday meals we used the ordinary cutlery, keeping the silver set for best. Polishing it was one of the many chores I was given.
The silver polish, a pink semi-unguent liquid emanating forcefully from a plastic bottle, was unlike other chemical concoctions because it left my olfactory nerve in peace.
The repetition of applying the polish, rubbing it in and going over and over the surface until the black grease from handling was replaced by a brilliant sheen, was seductively hypnotic.
The non-stop chattering, as my mind tried to process life events and determine their meaning, stopped, and I just was. Calm.
In my teenage years, I did as my mother instructed and used my brain to question and challenge at every turn. Her method for dealing with this was to remain suspended in a palpable seething silence for weeks at a time.
When she did unleash, every moment of self-doubt, intimate secret joy, fear or concern I had confessed, in fact any daughterly intimacy I shared, no matter how insignificant, could and would be used to punish, torment and hurt me.
I learned early on that showing a reaction, any at all, was ill-advised.
By the time I was 18, I no longer gave her any ammunition, even about events as momentous as losing my virginity. How I longed to tell her, just to experience the thrill of knocking her off balance, if only for a moment.
My memory paintbox
Looking back at my childhood is like viewing an incomplete painting. I can make out scattered, isolated instances of happiness, but on the whole, the canvas is largely blank.
My memory paintbox holds no fine brushes to define outlines or rich colour palette to fill in the hues. It only contains an automatic self-defence mechanism that blurs all the details when it comes to my emotions.
If voices are raised and feelings aired, a red cloud blankets my brain. Whole sentences and single words are obscured or even replaced by another from the same lexicon, similar but not equally exact in meaning. Nuance disables my comprehension. A few minutes after the fact, I cannot remember clearly what was said to me or what I myself said. Even innocuous titbits like what I was wearing, elude me.
Just thinking of initiating discussions about what makes me unhappy or facing conflict head-on suffocates me. I fight against intense panic and dread, and fail to understand what it is I am feeling, let alone know whether it is appropriate or not.
Throughout, my olfactory memory bank overflows. Like a dog distracted by high-pitched sounds, when I pick up a scent, I become completely obsessed by something no one else can discern. Crinkling my nostrils I have to sniff incessantly until I am able to identify what it is I can smell.
My first all-consuming, life-changing love was with a married man whose wife left him in spirit when she had a one night stand, years before she left him in person.
He and I lived together for two years, although I spent the last six months mustering up the willpower to leave him. I was 22 by then and cried a lot in the shower and constantly changed my mind.
Afterwards, we remained friends, good ones, joking about how we would grow old and disgraceful together. At least I would, he was already known for being outspoken and rude.
Then one day he took the lid off a bottle of paint thinner and drank it all down. He was not found for two weeks.
When I went round to his house a week later, the metallic stench of blood still lingered and clung to every corner of every room. It registered so pungently with my nasal cilia that I could taste it on my tongue. I sometimes notice a diluted version when I am at the dentist, or sucking a paper cut on my finger. Brackish and full of loss.
I dropped out of university and went to London and hitch-hiked, bussed and ferried around Europe. For a whole year, I was free, from my family, my mother and my incomprehensible emotion-laden memories. I drank more than was good for me, danced with strangers and reinvented myself.
“Love ’em and leave ’em” was my unoriginal creed and a trailing caress of sandalwood my calling card.
The pure oil was sold in tiny exotic tinted glass bottles at Portobello Market in London, by solemn Indian men dressed in dhoti, armoured against the cold in ancient furs or discarded army greatcoats.
For once, I was just like all the other women I hung around with – pretty, young and fragrant. Normal.
Damp, talc and hospital smells
My father spent the last six weeks of his life in a drab palliative care unit built in a gully, dense with eucalyptus trees.
The building never really saw the sun, so a pervasive trace of damp mingled with the everyday hospital odours, like microwaved meals drowned in white sauce, the antiseptic whiff of soap and the fetid presence of death.
It was summer, and I went to see dad every day. It was so hot I carefully slathered my face with thick sunscreen each morning for the long walk down the hill, and back up again.
I took care to dress well, with matching handbag, shoes and lipstick to accentuate the smile on my face my father loved to see until the day he stopped talking.
Dad had always been a smart dresser and used the same brand of talc day in, day out. I can smell him shaking the light floury spots of white powder all over his shoulders from a time when I first started to retain memories. The red squeeze bottle standing sentry next to his hospital bed ran out the same day he was declared to be actively dying.
Substituting smells for feelings
I used to get great satisfaction in working out what it was I could smell. It substituted perfectly for needing to know what I felt. Acknowledging an emotion, perceiving a sentiment, or just identifying a memory as an expression of feeling a particular way is something I had never been able to completely articulate or comprehend.
When dad died, that began to change. After his death, if by chance I breathed in a waft of his talcum powder emanating from a passing stranger, I always looked up and smiled, expecting to see him. Of course I never did, but I relished the fragrance because it marked his presence, confirmed that he once was.
In contrast, I despised the sickly perfume of the sunscreen I wore to the hospital, and will not willingly choose to use it again. At first, it was because it served to remind me of my father’s absence. All the attendant feelings that accompanied the weeks he lay dying were listed in its ingredients. I was afraid if I rubbed it onto my skin again, those emotions would engulf me, just like the red fog that shuts down my brain during arguments.
However, the olfactory memories of my father sparked by the talc and the sunscreen are equally zoetic. They represent the whole of my father’s being and the total of my experience of his life and death. The negative emotions they evoke are as necessary and essential as the positive.
Without large, frightening, and overwhelming emotional episodes, times of joyous, delirious excitement and pleasure have no meaning. They need a context in which to take form, otherwise life is bereft of connotation and nothing more than an objective description of events.
Now, when I deliberately reach for a different brand of sunscreen, it is because I like the smell, and no longer a way to avoid identifying and dealing with how I feel.