Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Early Scent Memories

Charlie, the 1973 wonder was also part of my childhood memories

It is often said that are earliest scent memories we have, from the almost forgotten depths of our childhood shape a major part of our tastes and preferences later in life. It's hard to prove, of course, since memory is unreliable at best, and our earliest "recollections"  are usually rolled together with family lore and photographs, and shrouded in  myths and mists of time. I've spent some extra hours recently (blame the Benadryl) gathering  a list of  such memories, the earliest I could think of and ensure are real. Generally speaking, I have a freaky kind of memory. I may no longer recall  new phone numbers or the license plate of my own car, but I can tell you who wore what at a particularly notorious party my friends and I had in December 1986. So my rule here was focusing on smells I remember from before starting preschool and the birth of my sister (both happened around the same time). This way I could be sure those are real, as they were strongly connected to the apartment our family inhabited at that time, to people who were no longer in our lives once we moved out, and to a very particular part of the city we left not long afterwords. These fragmented memories are amazingly clear in my mind and mostly verifiable ("Leave me out of this, you freak"---my sister. "Such a genius"--- my mother).

Very few of these scents are  about actual perfume, and I can't see an influence on my taste in fragrance, but maybe you can offer a better insight. In any case, I would like to hear about your own very early olfactory experiences and whether you see them as forming your adult scented lives.

* The inside of a washing machine. This damp and metallic smell as well as the texture of the drum inside still take  me back right there. I can't remember the detergent or the actual smell of the laundry, just the way the machine itself smelled to me, white and ominous.

* Our next door neighbor's cooking. A Moroccan immigrant, our neighbor Simmi made the best food in the world, and I still think so more than forty years later. A particular aroma of honey being heated with oil (I think that's the thing based on some recipes I've tried as an adult), small yeasty buns loaded with freshly ground pepper (I've found an Italian recipe years later that nearly made me pass out of happiness), and her incomparable fava beans. I've eaten at Moroccan restaurants in NYC and in Paris, but nothing compares to Simmi's food (or to her love).

* An outdoor market downtown. That one was and has always been unpleasant. Rotting vegetables rolling under the stands, blood from the butcher's shop, and the unmistakable smell of fish. All that combined with the general stench of a downtown area near a seaport. I have a feeling that parts of Elizabeth, NJ smell very similarly, but I have no intention to check.

* A weekend in summer. The interior of my dad's old Fiat nearly boiling and burning as we drive down to the beach, the dusty smell of the upholstered seats in the sun, and that first whiff of sea air. That was heaven, as were the overly salty french fries (too thin and overcooked),  orange juice (not cold enough and with no trace  of any orange that's found in nature, Kind of like Gatorade, now that I think of it).

* Maja soap. I talked about the actual perfume a couple of years ago, but my mom almost always had a few bars of the soap in her drawers, and the smell would fill the bedroom every time she opened them. It was weird and exotic to my little girls' mind. When my mom read my Maja post she sent me one of the soaps she still kept around (though I don't think this one hails from 1973, it's still incredible and is now perfuming my jammies and nightgowns).

We had one that looked just like that. Photo via strawstickstone.com/

* Kerosene heaters. I'm pretty sure my parents got rid of those after my sister was born, but winters in my very early childhood  are steeped with this very potent smell. I remember one time that the fringes of the rug caught fire because of it.

* Let's end the list with the one item that's most connected to who I am today. The smell of a tiny Parfumerie downtown, a mom'n'pop store (more of a granny type, actually), where my mother bought her skincare (I think) and other various womanly items, and I thought was pure magic. Better than Disneyland, for sure. I remember one time that the lady at the store gave me a lipstick tester and an old green eye shadow to play with. That night my mom and I played "beauty parlor" as she worked hard to scrub all that color from my face. But the store itself had that distinct powdery makeup smell, and something that was probably a Chanel No.5 imitation (I'm certain they didn't sell Chanel over there).


  1. Gaia this is one of my favorite pieces you've ever written. And Non-Blonde-lover that I am, that's saying something! When you write about perfume, scent is a symphony and the read is a tango! Because of you I've had to decant detox a few times ha! I owe most of my favorite discoveries to the irresistible picture you painted :)

    This post though! It's extra special. What a ride you took me on through the iconic scents of your childhood, Wow! Reading yours sparked my own scent memories which brought me back like it was yesterday..to the musty old scent of my grandmother's car in the cobwebbed garage, the always delicious smell of fried foods in my childhood best friend's kitchen, the very distinct smells of swimming lessons with the inflatables and chlorine water, original chapstick, the cafeteria in my elementary school, Jean Nate (did I douse myself often? Yes, yes I did ha!), oh my gosh my childhood town library!

    My mind is reeling now and I'm going to perhaps write my most distinct scent memories in a journal, just to keep. And I'm going to ask my family and friends to remember their own and invite them to share with me. What an Awesome way to learn something new and deeply affecting about each other!

    Well dear Gaia, Bravo Bravo on writing such a truly Beautiful journey and Thank You so much for sharing your memories! :)

    Zanne :)

  2. I have so many vivid memories of smells from my childhood and here are just a few. That Charlie ad makes me remember as a kid in the late 70's and early 80's my brother and I would get my mom a bottle of Charlie and my dad Old Spice for their birthdays. Kerosene heaters and then later wood burning in a Franklin stove were part of my childhood in winter. I had a cat that was insanely addicted to heat and she would lay right by them so close to them that we were worried she would hurt herself and we would move her. And my beloved grandmother’s perfume collection of vintage L’Air du Temps, Shalimar, and Chanel No 5 to name a few, which I would stare fascinated at the beautiful bottles and dare to carefully open and smell as a small child.

  3. Love hearing about very early childhood scent memories! The scent of the inside of a washing machine - that's so interesting and unique. I need to go smell our machine. Here are some of my most vivid early childhood scent memories:

    Chlorine from our pool - my parents put me in the water to learn to swim before I was two. Also have very clear memories of the scent of the inflatable dragon I had to float around in when I wasn't being encouraged to swim on my own.

    The scent of a cleaning product used on the floors of a particular hotel we stayed in when I was around four - for some reason that one particular cleaning product has always remained crystal clear in my mind. I'm not sure what exactly it was, but I've smelled products vaguely similar to it a few times since (was definitely not a product I've ever smelled used in the US). It wasn't a beautiful smell by any means, but I do associate it with happy times.

    The heavenly (to me) scent of fumes from vehicles using diesel fuel.

    My parents didn't smoke (nor do I), but everyone at their frequent parties did and I still love the scent of cigarette smoke (even ashtrays) and associate it with cocktail parties and people in beautiful outfits. But I also remember the scent of scotch and water, which I hated and still do. And at those parties my scent obsessed father would always bring me out to say hello to everyone and he specifically wanted me to notice what the women smelled like (and what they were wearing) and the next morning we would have bonding time, talking about which perfumes and clothes the women had worn (he started doing this when I was three - had zero concept of age and always spoke to me as if I were an adult).

    The smell of Maja soap my father kept in his clothing drawers (did everyone used to do that?).

    The scent of hot tea with lots of milk and sugar, which I was served every afternoon and the scent of boiled milk and honey, which I was given each night before bed when I was very little. I also have very strong memories of the scent of plain boiled rice and various cumin scented dishes.

    The scent of lilacs which I would bury my nose in during yearly visits to close family friends in northern Europe. And the scent from huge beds of marigolds in our own garden in the first home I remember living in.

    The powerful scent of small stores that sold everything from food to scented oils, candles and incense and which, for me, is almost perfectly replicated by MdO's Nuit Noire. Also have very clear memories of the dense, rich scents of food and spice markets.

    The scent of hot people on crowded buses and the smell of the torn vinyl covered seats - good memories, so not an unpleasant association for me.

    An antique cherry wood statue we had in our home which, along with the scent of the cherry wood, had a very faint incensey smell to it.

    I think these very early memories are why I usually crave complex scents and why, although I do enjoy and happily wear certain fresh, clean scents, my real comfort scents are never, ever transparent and light. I like a strong emphasis on base notes, adore vintage scents and hearing a perfume described as "skanky" is like a clarion call for me - will always have to try it.

  4. I agree with Anna on the base notes; was reading reviews of vintage Youth Dew last night.

    I come from a family largely disinterested in perfume, unless you count food. Dad and the grandparents gardened, so there were always flowers. There was a car trip incident where one of us kids asked Mom if she had perfume on and she replied "No, that's your father, it must be his girlfriend's." He quickly explained that he had been perfume shopping in a department store, and tactfully bought Mom a bottle of Revlon Intimate for Christmas. Not that she wore perfume...

    A boss bought me Charlie for Christmas in the 70's. The fact that I loved the body lotion but couldn't tolerate the spray was my first hint that synthetics would be a problem for me.

    One of my favorite smells, mysteriously unchanged in 50 years, is of my Nana washing clothes in her wringer washer, outdoors at her summer cottage, with Oxydol. I recently started using Oxyclean and I swear it smells exactly the same.

  5. I love the scent combination of sea spray, Coppertone sun tan lotion and Chlorine from our pool – my parents had a membership at a seaside yacht club. It’s probably the only reason I love beachy/salty/oceanic scents.

    The heavenly scent of my Nana’s makeup (powdery violets) mixed with her Aliage cologne.

    The scent of lilacs combined with the scent from beds of Iris and marigolds in my father’s garden.

    The powerful scent of leather, sweet feed and horses mingled with fall leaves.

    My nana’s antique wood furniture and whatever wax was used to polish it to a high shine had a faint incense smell to it that reminds me of Coromandel by Chanel and Moss Breches by Tom Ford.

  6. I love this post Gaia - beautiful writing, it's one of my favorite pieces!


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