Opinion: Memories ride on scent

Though many might consider violets a noxious weed that is as hard to eradicate from their lawns as dandelions, I am among those who love their various shades of purple as well as white flowers and heart-shaped leaves that pop up bravely and hopefully in early spring.
Their roots are not delicate, one friend reminds me, as they curl around the roots and overtake other plants in the garden. They’re bullies. I even love that about them — they remind us that they were there before woods became lawns.
My gardening friends bemoan the menace of violets. Those pretty little devils are hard to contain. I cheer when they leap the low stonewall that borders the flowerbeds.
One spring, living in a faraway city that knows neither violets nor lilacs (my other favorite spring blossom), I received a photo from home of the violets. I could almost smell them. The photo sent me back in time to my childhood.
My older sister and I picked them for my grandmother on our walk home from school along the wooded road above her house. I clutched a bouquet in my five-year-old hands. I remember my grandmother telling me that she loved their peppery smell. My grandmother’s yard was a paradise of scents. At the corner of her flower garden stood a clump of deep purple lilac bushes. Apple trees blossomed around the back of the house.
Seeing a picture of violets, remembering the paradise of smells in my grandmother’s yard, and feeling the powerful connection with my grandmother evoked a vivid emotional memory.
Why do scents produce floods of memories? Our brains process smells in a different way from other senses. Smells get routed through the smell-analyzing region of the brain that is closely connected to the regions that handle memory and emotion. Visual, sound, and touch information do not pass through the same brain areas. Also, our bodies contain far more receptors for smells than they do for other senses like sight and touch. We are able to recall many more memories when they are associated with scent, and they tend to be older memories from the first decade of life.
For me, the peppery smell of violets, the smells of lilacs and apple blossoms evoke fond and pleasurable memories. Not all memories brought back by smells are positive. They also play a role in triggering disturbing memories.
Days after the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. “When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” was written as an elegy to the fallen president by Walt Whitman in the summer of 1865 during a period of profound national mourning.
Whitman was at his mother’s home when he heard the news of the president’s death; in his grief he stepped outside the door to the yard, where the lilacs were blooming. He used the natural imagery of the lilac to move from grief toward an acceptance and knowledge of death:
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings, Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green, With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love, With every leaf a miracle — and from this bush in the dooryard, With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green, A sprig with its flower I break.
Fourteen years later, in a lecture delivered in New York, Whitman recalled the conditions on the day that Lincoln died: “I remember where I was stopping at the time, the season being advanced, there were many lilacs in full bloom. By one of those caprices that enter and give tinge to events without being at all a part of them, I find myself always reminded of great tragedy of that day by the sight and odor of these blossoms. It never fails” (printed in Specimen Days & Collect in 1881).
Whitman’s encounter with the lilacs in bloom in his mother’s yard caused the flowers to become bound to the memory of Lincoln’s death. I remember my grandmother’s lilac bush, bent under a profusion of blossoms, and her hopes that the lilacs would stay fresh for decorating the cemetery for Memorial Day. I connect the humble Syringa with my grandmother, with the collective grief we express on Memorial Day, and with our acceptance and knowledge of death. Whitman put it this way:
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
Wherever I live, when graced with at least one lilac bush and a scattering of violets, I feel that it is the right place for me.
Johanna Nichols is a grandmother, a mother, and a retired minister who ponders how to live a meaningful life and who enjoys writing. She hosts a blog at riversidemusings.wordpress.com.

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