Scents and scent’s ability

A squeeze, a touch and there it is.

A white plastic shrine, four or five inches tall, no more. Two tiny doors that open outwards. Inside, the figure of a slight, wistful-looking woman in blue, hands joined in prayer, standing on a sphere that may be the world.

This long-lost treasure was brought to life by a handful of ancient lavender, wrapped in a square of sheer pink organdie – a scrap left over from making a party dress, perhaps – tied with nylon ribbon. It’s old, very old, yet still it works its magic when I come upon it in a drawer.

It was bought at a sale of work held at the first nun-run school I attended. Hence the  statue of Our Lady of Lourdes.

I was thinking about it over Christmas – a particularly fertile time for scent-awakened memories.

Cold December afternoons. Children running home from school, making slides and throwing snowballs. Counting the days, the hours.

At last the tree goes up, perfuming the air. Fairies dance on the branches – just electric lights to grown-ups, but mythical creatures to little, screwed-up eyes.

It still works, as the years sneak by, the Christmas tree. Its scent, its decorations.

And lifting the lid of a small cardboard box sets free a scent that yanks the modern world right out from under my feet.

In a trice I’m standing in a small back garden – not much more than a yard – with a bright green, cheap plastic torch, what my in-house American calls a flashlight. My first, ever. A silver, sliding switch to keep it on, a plastic push button for flashing. English torch, American flashlight.

I can sometimes re-create that magic-carpet of a scent if I close my eyes and just let it happen. It’s a bit like looking at the Pleiades, though. If you stare straight at the stars you can’t see them – and so it is with this delicate scent.

I have to skim my thoughts right past it to find it.

The scent has a colour – green, but not a bright green. A dark, dusty green. An image of ferns comes to mind, but not because of any picture.

For years the nearest thing the world could produce to match my memory was something called ‘French Fern’. An inexpensive perfume. But not cheap, as in tawdry or cloying.

A scent of fine soaps and delicate talcum powders. Of eau-de-colognes, sprinkled on cotton handkerchiefs.

Or so I imagine.

In our boxes of baubles and tinsel, there was always one that, when opened, set loose a fleeting hint of this scent.

But now it’s gone.

A whole box of boxes is gone, and with it, the memories. That’s to say, the memories are still there, but that’s all they are, not a pinprick for the senses, tearing a shining rent in the dusty fabric of time.

And this Christmas also made me think about how wrong we can be about obvious things. That what’s important to me, for example, may not be important to my nearest living blood relative.

When my father had died and my mother was temporarily – finally, as it turned out – living far from her own home, with my sister, I had the melancholy task of emptying her house. I, with my long-suffering husband.

Among the treasured possessions were the Christmas ornaments.

I wanted to keep them all.

For nearly forty years I’d watched them emerge. Helped distribute little figures and paper ornaments around the house.

P1010428A robin on a log in a box of cotton wool – he always sat near the lavatory, by tradition. An imp adorned my bedroom door – this year my study.

I’d watch my father set up the crib and arrange glass birds in the Victorian glass dome. Watch as he decorated the tree then later, did it myself, for my mother.

My favourite tree decorations – a white bear in a red aeroplane. A blue and yellow plastic tricycle. A bell-shaped glass bauble that rings.

There were many more.

A turkey wishbone.

Clowns strung on cotton threads (I didn’t like them) and my parents’ home-made ornaments from the immediate post-war years. A crystal button on wire. Paper cut outs decorated in ink. Wooden cotton reels painted yellow, red and gold.

Small glass ornaments in shapes like pine cones and Father Christmas. Brown cardboard boxes of plain glass balls. I loved them so much that it almost hurt to put them away each year.

There were two boxes of those – two sizes, many colours.

I wanted them all.

I gave the bigger and better (I thought) ones to my sister (there, I’ve lost the virtue by telling), along with the clowns she said she liked, in a box that once held a xylophone.

I gave her the wishbone – well, it came from the first turkey that she and my parents had, years before I was born.

I suspect I gave her things she didn’t want, didn’t find evocative in the way I did. I don’t know, and may well be wrong. But by then she had three grown children, her own traditions, her own decorations. Her own scents and sights and triggers for memories.

And perhaps like everything else, scent’s evocative power eventually fades if it’s never used – or used too much.

I can still remember my box, can catch the scent if I set my mind past it. But perhaps it’s time has come – and gone. Like Christmas.

This entry was posted in Britain now & then, Thinking, or ranting, or both and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Scents and scent’s ability

  1. Elizabeth S Ferguson says:

    I still have the boxes and they mean very much the same to me . The boys all took one decoration each from those boxes and they hang on their trees. Paul took a paper star if I remember correctly and of course I still hang the clowns ! The others are mainly kept safe !! Liz x


    • Well that’s nice to know! I’m gutted at the loss of a box of boxes – gone are the ceramic Santas, our old white and red crisscross stockings. Christmas is an odd time that means so many different things to people. Did you like my imp? He’s nearing the end of his career but I say that every year – the green bit is becoming very strained – midriff stretch instead of midriff bulge! Mx


  2. Ricardo says:

    My first torch, or flashlight as I called it, was a flat rectangular device with a round glass lens that could have doubled as a magnifying glass. To me the most pleasing feature was the large, flat battery that featured two copper prongs. By touching my tongue to the prongs it gave me a tingling sensation that was both painful and exciting. That was circa 1953. I’ve had a fascination for flashlights ever since.


    • Ha – I told my in house American that someone had commented on his first torch and he guessed straightaway who it was! I may have bitten a pew in church but I’ve never licked a battery! Do you still do it? 😉


  3. EllaDee says:

    Ah, the other trigger for memory trips. Scent. We have no mementos of Christmas beyond those we have had for the past 10 Christmases, which is as long as I have been a denizen of our house to whom the tree belongs. But in the timespan of those Christmases the house and we have accommodated and become part of each other. If I was transported blind & directionless to its door I would know it by the smell and feel of the air. A fragance which is 50/50 past/present. The house gives us the gift of refuge and we give it the respect of care and purpose of shelter. The tree and and the eclectic, each meaningful, decorations are just one of the ways we celebrate collectively our happy alliance.


    • Ah – how well you put that. You are always very thoughtful in your responses. I’ve always been more of a music/sights/sounds person but lately I’ve been thinking of scents a lot as I’ve been trying to write myself back in time. And in fact talking of writing I think paper is one of those neglected scents – it’s there in newspapers and magazines and new books and different in old books – and non-existent on e-readers, bah humbug!


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