The Smells Of Your Past

Photo by  Olia Gozha  on  Unsplash

Photo by Olia Gozha on Unsplash


There’s plenty to love about spring—especially after a lengthy and brutal Iowa winter. But one of my favorite amenities of the season is the emergence of the peony bush planted in my front yard. As the days grow warmer, the stalks climb, and eventually, the bulbs appear, and each grows to the bulbous diameter of a marble. Then, if the weather obliges, just days before Memorial Day the bulbs begin to unfold, revealing the fuschia pink petals within.

I’m no gardener, so the reappearance of this bush each year is nothing short of a miracle. And when the blossoms finally burst, they extend to the fullest capacity, and the fragrance of them beckons for a stop and savor of the moment every time I walk by. I’ll usually place my face full-on in a blossom, burying my nose, cheeks, and chin into the petals to enjoy the scent and smooth feel of the soft petals.

The smell of peonies and lilacs (another personal favorite) not only signal spring but immediately transport me to childhood memories of pleasant days in small towns where I lived or visited. I smell these flowers and immediately think of large houses sporting wide front porches decked with hanging plants and people gathered to visit. I remember the rows of lilac and peonies bushes spread out across perfectly-coifed lawns on warm spring afternoons, and bees as big as hummingbirds buzzing from one blossom to another. The smell is an instant transport to an idyllic place in time.


In my work helping clients recall the past for life stories, I often turn to memory aids such as images, timelines, and mapping to spark recollections of the past. These tools work well, but given how powerful the sense of smell is to memory, I should perhaps consider adding a series of fragrances to sniff as well. In the article “Here’s Why Memories Trigger Such Vivid Memories” by Ashley Hammer over at Curiosity, it turns out that the sense of smell has a more direct path to our brain’s memory centers than any of our other senses.

In addition to lilacs and peonies, here is a short list of other favorites I can list:

Old books

New books



Baked bread




Those are some scents that come to mind for me, but you’ll have your own list which might include these or others. In the article “11 Smells You Either Love Or Hate” By Kelly Lynch over at Daily Break, she lists other interesting scent preferences you’ll want to check out.

I related to the basement smell, or what I refer to as a musty odor. You probably catch a whiff of it in old books and fabric that have been stored in damp places. I know this is due to moisture and matter coming together to form mold, but somehow, the smell is familiar, and I associate it with a positive memory.

Our brains are constantly at work assessing scent and connecting it to experience (and, thus, meaning).  And our sense of smell is quite personal. It’s hard for me to imagine someone not liking the smell of coffee, for example, and yet there are those with negative experiences around coffee who will remember those negative things at the scent.


Perhaps because our sense of smell is so powerfully tied to memory, it may also be the gateway to early detection of the risk of dementia as detailed in the article, “Sniffing Out Dementia With a Simple Smell Test” by Catherine Paddock Ph.D. over at Medical News Today. She explains that the brain’s olfactory bulb located at the base of the brain is the only cranial nerve exposed to the outside world, “offering a potential route through which the central nervous system might be harmed by pollution, pathogens, and other hazards in the environment.” A loss of smell could be a canary in the coal mine as it relates to cognitive health. 

As I write this post, it’s Memorial Day weekend, a time we’ve set aside in the U.S. to remember those who have served and fallen for our country. There are many holidays on our calendar where remembering is a significant focus, and this is true for most cultures around the globe. Surely there are some smells you would associate with someone we’re honoring this Memorial Day.

So, give a thought to your favorite smells, especially the ones that conjure up fond memories, and ponder those stories. Be grateful as you smell the peonies, the lilacs, and all the other fragrances of spring with the warmer days of summer on the way. The fact that you are here and another day has been added to your personal timeline is reason enough to be grateful for the privilege of remembering.