Smells Recreate the Past

I remember Nana’s apartment on York Street in Jersey City.  It was the second floor of a brownstone a block or two from the Colgate-Palmolive plant which housed the world’s largest clock.  Her apartment was heated by a kerosene or oil stove which sat in the living room and I remember that the smell it gave off was pleasant and soothing. 

Mom and Pop McGee lived in a ground floor apartment on Highland Avenue, also in Jersey City.  I remember their apartment as being dark and dingy and that it smelled of stale booze and a hint of urine.  I didn’t like going there.

Aunt Sue’s house on Ridgewood Avenue in Glen Ridge always smelled of cookies or cakes baking in the oven.  It was a beautiful house, a brick center hall colonial with plenty of room and beautiful gardens.  During the fall the smell of burning leaves there was always a treat.  I loved that house and the rooms I used to explore.

The house I grew up in on Ege Avenue in Jersey City, and was always ashamed of, brings no particular smell to mind.  However, when Mom washed the sheets and hung them on the line to dry I used to put my face in them and feel the cold cotton and breathe the clean smell with delight. 

Posted February 9, 2010


Smell is the forgotten sense. We are so little reliant on smell, compared to, say, dogs.

Yet they are so evocative, as you point out. Writers tell me that writing of smells is very powerful.

There’s a marvelous book about a (real, as in living) man who had an extraordinarily developed sense of smell; he ended up working in the perfume industry, not surprisingly, and investigated the science of how we smell, which turns out to be not at all easy to understand and is still the subject of some debate, apparently.

The author’s name is Chandler Burr, and the book is The Emperor of Scent.


How different our perspectives are. Isn’t it amazing how sitting in a different skin, through a different pair of eyes (and emotional experiences) can slant your vision?

The house on Ege Avenue (of which you were so ashamed) seemed like Nirvana to me! Crowded, yes. Not always in order….definitely. But, oh, so filled with energy; and — to me —-(being such an isolated, regimented, child) your house and your family always brought experiences that were so refreshingly unexpected.

As hard as my Mom’s bout with cancer was, staying with the McGees for that 1.5 weeks, when I was 8, stands out to me. In a fairly disciplined childhood, that was a great, warm, wonderful experience.

You were lucky to be there, down the street from Our Lady of Victory. Not just for the smells.


Post a comment

(You may use HTML tags for style)