Like most mornings, one of the first experiences I had today was smelling coffee as it slowly made its way into my cup through a series of mysterious processes no one had dreamed of 30 years ago.
Today, most of us – I included – make coffee differently than our parents and their parents before them. For me, it’s almost too easy as I grab a small, sealed “cup” and place it in a contraption that pokes two holes in it, one on top, one on the bottom. After I hit “go,” water slowly travels through the tiny cup that holds the grounds and drips into a bigger vessel, my mug (coincidentally, a mug with my "mug" on it).
Yet, regardless of the way it's made, that distinctive smell still hits me, just like it did yesterday, last week, and well before I started drinking coffee, back in the days when mom made it the "old-fashioned way" in my childhood home.
And that aroma still resonates with me just like it always has, providing a sensation, a boost, and a memory from a different time and place. Granted, the aroma of brewed coffee doesn’t quite offer the same feeling I get when I take that first sip, that instance when body and brain immediately wake up thanks to both the caffeine and my mind triggering something physical and mental; something that says, “Yes, this hot bitter liquid is just what I needed.”
This morning, as I fed the dog and emptied the dishwasher while waiting for my coffee to brew, I thought about the power of odors and aromas, and their ability to direct our thoughts and actions. The smells of our lives announce things (“I made fresh bread”), remind us (“I need more deodorant”) and provide fair warning of what lies ahead, or in the shadows (“Skunk!”).
I don’t know this as fact, but I’m guessing that none of the five senses is more unique to each of us than the sense of smell. For instance, I love smelling things, both good and bad. To be clear, when I say that, I don’t mean I love the act of going up to something or someone and physically sniffing them. Rather, I like it when I experience a smell, even what others might consider “bad” or “offensive.”
Joan, on the other hand, is more sensitive to odors, and as such, we might have completely different reactions to the same aroma as it travels among us, eventually entering our nostrils and activating all those mysterious processes that create a "smell" in our brains.
After taking a few sips of that nice, smelly coffee this morning, I started writing down a short list of some of the odors and aromas that I’ve always liked, purposely thinking of things that might not smell good to others; things like diesel fuel, valve oil (from a brass musical instrument); wet, rotting leaves, churches, old books, cigarettes (especially when combined with stale beer and a hot grill) and asphalt.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Make no mistake, I also like "good" smells, things like cinnamon rolls, freshly cut grass, a baby after a bath, etc. But what I’m getting at is that our sense of smell is a powerful – and personal -- thing, not only for the ways it announces things, reminds us and offers warning, but also in the way it triggers memories, and brings back thoughts of the people we know (or knew) and experiences we’ve had.
For me, odors and aromas are like songs and photographs. When I experience them, they automatically take me to a different time and place: to my childhood, reminding me of an influential teacher, transporting me to our wedding day, or a trip we took with the kids.
The smell of the grill in summertime still takes me back to those Sunday afternoons when my dad would be in the yard cooking hamburgers or chicken.
I love diesel fuel not because it smells good, but because my brother was a truck driver, and that acrid, chemical odor brings memories of him pulling onto our street in his 18-wheeler to stop in and say hi before leaving for his next destination.
I love the smell of a church because it’s where I spent a good part of my childhood, and where my mom and I went every Sunday, sitting in the same pew and singing from the same hymnal (both pew and hymnal had their own with distinctive odors).
As I got older and was selected as an altar boy, I often had the responsibility of lighting the incense on special occasions, and as such, adding to the memory myself by spreading that aroma throughout the building.
This morning’s coffee also reminded me of other odors and the powerful memories and events that accompanied them: a leather baseball mitt, the smell of rain on the sidewalk, hot asphalt or that distant relative who always wore a little too much perfume or aftershave.
Those odors still trigger so many memories: from ball fields as a kid who played baseball to a parent who coached it, to delivering papers in the rain, visiting a massive amusement park for the first time (and all the smells it offered), semi-annual visits from my aunt and uncle who lived many states away or my first tailgate party outside a huge stadium.
Maybe you don’t think much about odors, or your sense of smell for that matter. I guess on a daily basis, none of us really thinks much about our senses, that is, until one of them is limited or damaged by age, disease or injury. I just thought I’d bring it up today because it popped into my head, and when I started to think about it, I began to appreciate my sense of smell, and all the things it can do, both in a practical way and also as a trigger to some of the most memorable people, events and experiences of my life.
So, regardless of what trips your olfactory -- campfires, Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s, lilacs, aged cheese or the countless other things we’re smelling every second of every day -- I hope you have a long list of items whose odor or aroma brings back strong, fond or useful memories for you, or better yet, that take you back to those fun, beautiful and gratifying moments of your life.
For me, I think it’s going to be a good day. I can smell it.
© 2021 David R. Haznaw