The last thing you gave me

Smells, I think, may be the last thing on earth to die. 
Fern Schumer Chapman

I was a room attendant in a large upscale hotel, and I’ll never forget Room 514 over that winter break of 1998. The time I walked in and was stopped in my tracks for a minute. That’s too long to stop, when you need to clean 15 rooms in 8 hours. But the room didn’t smell like all the others usually did before cleaning- that mix of stale air and a dirty bathroom. This room smelt exactly like my Oma – my grandmother from Austria, who I had not seen in many years – and as it would turn out, I would never see again.

The scent was not the unpleasant, ‘old person smell’ people often joke about. This was something to do with a brand of soap perhaps, maybe a washing powder and heavy woollen clothing. I cleaned the room, but did not, as I normally would, spray the sickly air freshener in the room. I wanted to keep that room as it was, because it had awakened a deep sensory response in me.

I checked the length of room 514’s stay on my allocation sheet, and saw that the guest was staying  for another 8 days. At the end of that shift I went to my supervisor and requested that I work fifth floor-north side for as long as possible, so that I could clean 514 every day. I never met the occupant. I never wanted to.

This memory came back to me when, in moving house this weekend, I opened a box that contained the last thing my father gave me. It is a mechanical tachometer for watchmaking, in a purple satin lined leather box. It smells strongly of cigarettes and the musty odour of Dad’s workshop. It smells of Dad – a smell that in our final days together was always there, from the moment I walked in each morning, to the crushing intensity of each night’s farewell, wondering if I would see him the next day.

It’s a smell that overpowered me in the same way that the old man himself so often did, in that beautiful, frustrating and magical way only a person who first held you and loved you can. I held the box close to my nose and it enveloped me, and the thrumming discomfort of grief mingled with the sense that he was near. When I opened my eyes, wet with tears, I wondered how long that smell would last- to be my security blanket.

When that trace of him goes, just as he did, there will be other smells just as powerful, I realise now. Smells that will help me defeat grief and deny death, if just for an instant.

  • Fresh cut mushrooms in a pine forest
  • Woollen socks
  • Extrawurst and gherkins on kaiser rolls
  • Steak sizzling over campfire coals
  • The smell of wind over fresh snow in the Austrian Alps

We preserve images and videos with an obsessive focus. Our smartphones and tablets often sort these as ‘Memories’ in their digital galleries. And yet, smell can transport us in a very powerful and encompassing fashion that a thousand photo albums would fail to do.

What memories do you find arising from smell? How can we convey and preserve the value of smell, to give it the same significance in our culture as the visual and the aural currently occupy? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.




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