This article was originally written in June 2012.
There are many things that can cause us to remember events from our past. Something visual, something heard, felt or touched or something in the air we smelled that compels us to remember an event, a person, or time. Smells and aromas are one of the most powerful memory triggers there are. We can all smell something today and instantly be taken back to another place, another time and remember a moment in time simply from something we smell today.
I too have memories that are triggered from smells I encounter today. For me, this particular memory trigger takes me back to 1983. I was living in Nashua, New Hampshire going to high school. I had received a call that my grandfather was coming back east from California to visit some of his family back here. He grew up in a very large Italian family and after they all grew up some stayed in the east, some moved out to California.
In addition to my granddad coming to visit, also along on the trip was my Aunt Jeanne and Uncle Joe who came up with Granddad one afternoon in mid to late October. The air was crisp, clean smelling, I had been raking leaves as part of my chores before they arrived. All the smells danced around my nose – grass, dirt, the smell of bark and fallen leaves all permeated the air and my senses. I thought to myself as I stood there enjoying the smells, at the time, they reminded me of my youth, my sister and I helping to rake leaves, playing in big piles, throwing armfuls of leaves up in the air and letting them fall on us. It was a pleasant memory.
After a while, Granddad, Jeanne and Joe arrived. I hadn’t seen Granddad in over a year, it had probably been seven or eight years since I’d seen Aunt Jeanne and Uncle Joe. We visited inside and I sat intently listening to the conversation and stories and tried to come up with more than, “yup” and “nope” for answers to questions my family was asking me. I was 14 or 15 then and typical of young teens I sometimes found it difficult to find the right things to say. I enjoyed sitting there listening to stories they all shared. Then, as they prepared to leave after a couple of hours we were outside for a bit, saying goodbye but that turned into another 45 minutes of talking and listening, and smelling.
Eventually our goodbyes became reality and they got into their car and departed. I was sad to see my family leave, it had been a while, but I remembered how before they arrived the smells reminded me of my youth. Now in addition to that, I knew the smells that day would one day be a memory trigger in the future.
Of my relatives that visited that day, Uncle Joe passed away in 1995 after being married to Aunt Jeanne for some 46 years I think it was. My granddad passed away in 2006 in California at the age of 91. Every October, on certain days when the grass, the leaves, the bark and the breeze all combined in the proper amounts remind me of that day back in 1983 when my granddad, aunt and uncle came to see me.
When they were all alive, it was a pleasant memory, recalling an event that had happened and simply marked a moment in time when family got together one day in October. Since Granddad passed in ’06, those October smells now brought sad memories, even recalling my childhood Octobers seemed sad now that Granddad was gone. Many more Octobers have gone by since Granddad passed; I now find little or no joy in raking leaves, smelling the grass or fallen leaves. The memory of their visit in 1983 is a fond one, but the smell is so powerful that it’s hard to say I like the smells of fall. Instead, if I find myself raking or picking up fallen twigs and I begin to cry.
Now, in 2012, it’s June and the family has just lost Aunt Jeanne at the age of 82. We just came off of a stretch of particularly bad early summer weather. Cloudy, raining for days and days, cold at night and not so warm during the day. In New Hampshire, summer can often come late if the weather patterns dictate it.
The day came for Aunt Jeanne’s funeral. A warm, sunny and near-cloudless day as we gathered at the cemetery to say goodbye. As the service progressed I remember taking a few deep breaths every now and again, hoping to catch a familiar scent, but it wasn’t to be found. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it smelled beautiful, and I will remember that day’s aromas for the rest of my life as well. Cut grass, flowers sitting in the sun, a pleasant smell to be sure, and one I knew I’d carry forever. Tears were shed, the service concluded, most of us took a flower or two to remember Aunt Jeanne by. I remarked to my dad as we left about my 1983 memory and the smells of October. I got about half the story out before I began to weep openly. He put his arm on my shoulder as we walked to the car and he knew what I was trying to say in between sobs.
Now Aunt Jeanne has passed and we take our memories of her with us, and hold her love in our hearts. For me, the scents of autumn now hold very little joy. I recall all the memories, I will cherish them and think of my loved ones often. But when those autumn smells arrive in four months, the three people of my particular fall memory are now gone and I have a feeling the smells of October will never be the same for me.
Right now, I’m just glad it is not October…