Monday, August 21, 2006

The Smell of Home

Every couple years there's a rash of articles in the press about how smells are the most powerful memory-triggers, which anyone who's ever caught a whiff of their grandmother's perfume on the other side of the world in a crowded bus station will know. That one little smell sets off a flood of memories.

I feel like I have more than my fair share of weird smell memories, though. My high school was across the street from an industrial park that hosted BOTH a garbage dump AND a soup factory. The smell of either reminds me of being 15. Since the soup factory was always cooking first thing in the morning, when I arrived at school at 6:50 a.m. for my early bird jazz band class, the smell of vegetable soup always makes me think of cool morning air and jazz music. Not that I could eat vegetable soup for ages after high school, because smelling it every single morning first thing, sometimes mixed with the odor of garbage, was really stomach-turning.

Also in high school, I worked in a different industrial park for two years at a company that did water testing and treatment for industrial air conditioning systems. (Best. High school job. Ever.) We were across from a place that actually manufactured artificial scents for industrial use, and they were working on strawberry for almost an entire year. I can't STAND the smell of artificial strawberry, and there are just so very many ways to get fake strawberry wrong. Banana wasn't so bad; it smells more or less like bananas even when it's not quite right. But there was this few months where they were working on some sort of buttery scent, which reeked of burnt popcorn with stomach-turning overtones of spoilt butter. Burnt popcorn still sends me running from the house, but always reminds me of my job there.

I was thinking of scents this morning because I went out to get the paper, and the ethanol plant is cooking and the wind is blowing right to bring the faint scent of ethanol to my house on the crisp (almost-fall!) air. And all in a rush, I'm back at Notre Dame, with a waterfall of memories of icy sidewalks and football Saturdays in fall and cozy dorm laziness and parties and classes and quads and yellow-brick buildings. As any Notre Dame student or graduate can tell you, the defining smell of Notre Dame is ethanol. The university is downwind from a big plant. There were other smells - if the wind was just right, you could smell the river, and very rarely, when it blew up from the southwest and the time of the year was right and the ethanol plant wasn't cooking, at night you could smell the Wrigley's mint farms' fields! But 99% of the time, the wind carried the sickly sourdough odor of ethanol to campus. It turned my stomach so badly my freshman year that I didn't eat breakfast all year. The smell was strongest in the mornings, and my stomach isn't such a fan of morning to begin with. But by my sophomore year it was familiar and comforting, and now, in Peoria, when the wind blows just right and I can smell the faint scent of distant ethanol, it smells like home.

No comments: