I first experienced this when stepping off the airplane at Hong Kong International Airport. I was on my way to Bangkok and we stopped to refuel, stepping out onto the tarmac at a covered (but open-sided) waiting room. Hot, humid air engulfed me and I almost swayed on the spot with sudden, overwhelming memories. The murmur of fellow college-aged voices around me disappeared and I was ten years old again.
I stand in front of the Chinese wicker chest and gently disengage the broken hinges. I open the lid towards me, carefully bringing it to rest at an awkward angle, wondering for the thousandth time what happened to the key for the lock and wondering, too, why I never asked.
The smell of the Orient waves over me. Musty spices, incense, heat and storms and sweat: all part and parcel of the items themselves.
I have been granted Mom’s permission to look in the chest, to take out the Chinese lanterns, the wooden Japanese Kokeshi dolls, the gatas and obie and kimono. I am heady with this seldom-given opportunity, knowing full well the consequences of looking without authorization.
Fingers tingling with excitement, I bring the treasures to light, gently lifting each one into the Pacific Northwest air, this cold and pine-filled climate so different from the one they came from. There are no mongooses here, no sewing girls, no specter of death as Dad flies to rescue downed airmen, ambushed soldiers. These are the stories I have grown up with, though I wasn’t born yet when they lived in Okinawa.
I shiver with the thrill of it all as I pull open a dark red lantern, its paper crinkling, its wires protesting. “What does this Chinese character mean?” I wonder, tracing the black swirls with a finger. “Food,” I think Mom said. I imagine the hole-in-the-wall place where it hung; wispy-bearded men sitting cross-legged at low tables deftly manipulating their chopsticks as they eat mysterious vegetables and sticky grains of rice. I think of –
“Time to reboard! The plane is ready!”
I slam back to reality.
Dizzy with the clash of the years, the speed with which I have traveled – mentally – I rub my eyes, heft my backpack, and stumble to the plane, my head still whirling. Where am I?
Yes, it was that intense. The power of scent.
Have you smelled a box of Crayola crayons lately? Or playdough? Talk about swirling memories – both of my own childhood and of my children’s. And then there’s baby powder, a scent which Madison Avenue hopes will inspire us to buy their boring products. Trouble is, it’s been so overused that baby powder doesn’t really count as nostalgic anymore because it just reminds me of arm pits. Perhaps if they really want to connote those cozy baby feelings in a woman then they should make Cheerio-scented deodorant because, by golly, if I catch a wiff of that particular wheaty-breakfast food, I am right back there at the messy high chair and I can actually feel soggy O’s on my arms. Mixed, of course, with mushed banana and milk.
Ahhhh…the scent-filled memories.