Mandan News

Brian L. Gray: The sweet smell of domesticity

I just bought bookshelves and a bed.

I know. WOW. Congratulations, Brian, on your impressive purchase. And what solid use of effective and original wording to catch your reader’s attention, which one would not find anywhere else in the world of writing, short of any journal entry written by a five-year-old. (That was sarcasm.)

The purchase of bookshelves and a bed, however, is a big deal for me. Since I moved here five years ago, I’ve been using hand-me-downs for beds and shelves, and I finally made the decision to step up like a real man and open up my pocketbook to make some major purchases. (That’s not correct. I cried.)

The day I made the purchases, I was also wearing new jeans and a shirt. I literally felt like a new man. I felt settled down, more established. I walked with more determination that day. I was reserved and more at ease with myself.

That day, a distinct aroma seemed to follow me around. I couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from. I was in my office at the Mandan News, and my olfactory senses had never before picked up on that smell there. It was a familiar smell though, one that I recognized immediately. It was the smell of my parents’ home when I was a kid.

It was a pleasant aroma – a calming reminder of comfort, cleanliness, family and domesticity. I made the connection that maybe this was my brain conjuring up those days in my childhood home, now that I had made purchases to make my own place a bit more like a home.

The sense of smell astounds me. Our olfactory senses are located right next to the part of our brain that stores memories, which is why the sense of smell triggers memories more frequently than any other of our senses.

Just the other day, in fact, I was in my apartment when I smelled something that made me think of my days at a friend’s lake cabin when I was a kid. Seconds later I caught a whiff of something else that brought up a vacation I took in 2000 to Fort Lauderdale with a friend. In a matter of 10 seconds, I was transported over 2,000 miles and through a time span of over 10 years, all because of my nose. (Studies have shown that this is the cheapest way to travel.)

Smell has also been known to recall long forgotten memories. In the literary world (which I learned from Cliff Notes), the novelist Marcel Proust was so immersed by the smell of a tea cake one day that it opened up a childhood memory in him, and it unleashed a staggering string of memories which later evolved into a seven-volume memoir, which he entitled “Remembrances of Things Past.”

Maybe my nose is larger than normal (it has the rough volume of a European car), and capable of more than average noses, but I’ve noticed that memories can even trigger certain smells. I can close my eyes and remember two of my grandparents, Irving and Grace, which will usually conjure the scent of their home in Oregon, their car, their clothes, furniture, even if the smells are immaterial and exist only consciously. It’s incredibly faint, but the experience is both surreal and revitalizing.

Another thing about my grandfather, Irving, that I remember, was his breath. It was terrible. (I passed out once.) He had the worst breath. But I never complained about it to him – he was my grandpa, he could smell however he wanted. I still loved him.

I was going to school in Kansas in 2002 when I got the phone call that he’d passed away. The next morning, the strangest thing happened. As I woke up and exhaled out, I noticed that my breath smelled just like his. And it had never in my life smelled like that before.

I didn’t know what to make of this. Was my nose playing tricks on me? Or did it know something I wasn’t aware of?

Normally, I would have brushed my teeth to dispose of the morning breath. But that morning, I chose not to. I wasn’t bothered by the bad breath, because it was my grandfather’s. I didn’t care if I had been so impacted emotionally by his passing that my brain was somehow chemically manipulating my sense of smell. I had woken up with a special gift; I had a physical memento of my grandfather, something I could hold on to. I didn’t want it to go away. I felt a part of him had passed into me, and I was now carrying on something of his in my life – even if it was his breath, of all things, that had been given to me. (Thanks, grandpa.)

The day I bought my bookshelves and bed, I was taking my jeans off at the end of the day. I realized the smell was not in my mind this time around. The jeans, it turned out, literally smelled like my parents’ old home, even after I’d washed them. Only I hadn’t noticed it until I purchased my new things.

It seemed my nose was telling me something once again. My mind had shut that smell out because I wasn’t in a frame of mind beforehand to process it. Would I have missed these thoughts if I hadn’t made these new purchases, which made me feel just one small step closer to the comforts of home that I remembered so fondly as I child?

I honestly can’t make sense of it all. The power of our senses is well beyond my comprehension. But I’m satisfied in knowing that they are able to provide me a small window to better understanding myself. I’m able to travel back in my mind and remember what (and who) in my past made me happy, which can help shape the things I want in the future, in the search for making a “home” for myself. Because I can have all the possessions I think I need to create a sense of home, but what really matters is remembering where I came from.

The nose knows. It never forgets. Even if we do.

Maybe that’s why elephants are known to never forget – because their trunks are so long.

And in that regard, I’m glad that I have a huge nose. And bad breath.