A few years ago I wrote a web serial called The Smell Collector. It’s about a man, perhaps autistic, who has a life-long obsession with smells. He collects them by logging locations which he visits regularly and by chemically synthesizing them in his mother’s basement all in order to relive a treasured memory. He has no friends, other than his dear Mother. He has no present day to speak of, at least not until he meets a girl with an exquisite scent.
I’ve sometimes been asked if the
character was based on me. I say no because Jim Bronson is a kind of a stalker. He’s not dangerous, but he is creepy. The truth is that the character is based on my obsession of powerful nostalgia often experienced through smell. I once heard on NPR, where I learn most things, that the olfactory memory is the most powerful of all the sorts of memories.
There are people and events that have smells associated with them in my life, and the smells, for me, are the closest natural technology to time travel.
When my grandfather, Daddy Boots, died, we gathered after the services at my aunt’s house. My grandmother, Granny, had died long before. I know precisely how both of them smelled, even now. Granny smelled of spearmint, cigarettes, Chanel 5, and her own personal fragrance that cannot be described. They say that a mother can identify her baby by smell out of 100 babies’ smell. I could identify my grandmother’s smell out of a 10,000 people.
At the gathering, I was looking for a restroom and it took me past a flight of stairs. Out of the blue, I smelled Granny. Unmistakable. She’d never even been in this house before, but I knew that she was near now. I even tried to follow her up the stairs, but she was gone. Even though I hadn’t been near her since college, I was near to her in that moment. I could hear her voice, see her expressions. I was transported. I was 7 or 8, and she was taking my twin and me to a store in Greenville to pick out a toy. She gave me a stick of her gum. That’s when I first realized that part of her smell was actually Wrigley’s Doublemint. It was like I was right there again. It was a gift.
My seventh Christmas was a real sweet spot for me as far as Christmases go. There was a moment that couldn’t have lasted more than 10 minutes that ranks as one of the greatest memories of my life. I was in my front living room in our parsonage in Lonoke, Arkansas. We had a live tree with presents under it. My mom had just given me permission to light the candles by myself for the first time. An album was playing on the hi fi. I believe it was somewhere in the neighborhood of a Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians Christmas album. I was by myself.
I can’t tell you exactly what made that moment so perfect, and I’ve tried to recreate it with the smells and the music and the sights of it. Scotch tape, burning candles, cedar tree, cozy music, low lights. But ultimately I fail, because that house had a unique smell. That candle had a unique smell. The weather had a unique smell. Lonoke has a unique smell. And seven-years-old is irretrievable. I have ached over this.
My dad knows that I’m a horror film fanatic, especially during October. He asked me when that started. It took me a few seconds to tie it back to a specific event. I realized that the first true horror film I watched during Halloween was when my mom and I were home alone close to Halloween. I was 13 or so. We watched Friday 13th Part 2, edited for tv. At the end, there’s a surprise gotcha where Jason jumps through a huge window. There was a huge sliding glass window in the bedroom I shared with my brothers. I was so scared after that movie, that I slept in the guest room. I never slept in the other room again! I knew I was perfectly safe, but there was a thrill in the safe kind of fear I was experiencing. That’s when it started. I watch these movie to try to capture that Halloween experience. That’s how a tradition begins.
The danger in this, however, is that I become obsessed. With what? The past. I want to be too scared to walk passed a window again to recapture that moment. It rarely happens. I know all the tricks by now.
Nostalgia is a dangerous endeavor. It’s nice once and awhile, but the deeper you go, the darker it becomes. I’ve fallen prey many times. It becomes a kind of depression fueled by obsession, and ultimately, a dissatisfaction with present day life.
A few years ago, it was a quiet day at work and I had nothing to do, so I began watching a stream of YouTube videos involving Christmas commercials from the late seventies and eighties. I was transported by their music and slogans and mini stories. I watched Ronald McDonald skating on a woodland pond with some kids and noticing that one kid was being left out. He picks him up and spins him round and around on the ice. It ends with the kindly clown putting the little boy down and performing a bell kick as he skates away.
It was a nice moment to relive, and there were hundreds more such videos to be lost in. I wasted much of my day. I sank lower and lower into a state of depressive nostalgia. Unfortunately, it was in the middle of summer. It would be months until I could enjoy an actual Christmas, and it would never be one of those old Christmas.
As I drove home that day, I didn’t like the way I was feeling, and the thought occurred to me that the reason my childhood experiences at Christmas or Halloween or Thanksgiving were so special was that children live in the moment. I had lived in the moment. I was thinking, then, very little of the past or far future. I wondered if that was still possible, could I make new powerful memories with new smells and new music and new sights and new frights and new friends?
Ultimately, what I’m writing about is mindfulness. As Halloween approaches, I will watch my old favorite movies, but there are new movies to enjoy. Babadook made me put my hands over my face! I started a new fall tradition a few years ago that I only just found out had become something my wife was looking forward to. It’s a simple thing. I’m not much of a decorator, but I can manage a bale of hay, a scarecrow, a few pumpkins, and some Indian corn out front. It’s something to look forward to and to enjoy as we come home. That happened the year that I watched all of those old commercials because I decided to make a moment special. Not something from my childhood to pine over, but something for now. Perhaps I’ll find other ways to make a moment special this Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Maybe I’ll sneak a little ginger into the cranberry sauce!