Aromatic Memories 

Shortly after moving back to Costa Rica in 2016, I was walking in my neighborhood when the pine-like aroma of scrubby cypress trees and damp earth unexpectedly and vividly transported me in time and place to my childhood years in the yards of cousins and friends.

I don’t even remember the trees themselves. One must have been beside the smooth wood planked porch where we spent hours “cooking” with leaves and flowers and raw tortilla dough, because suddenly I was there laughing and playing. And there were images of tag and hide-and-seek under shade trees and around narrow side yards slick with moss and redolent of everything green—cypress trees certainly included.

An instant kaleidoscope of happy childhood moments was triggered by a specific combination of essential fragrances of cypress and moss! It stopped me in my tracks and had me looking at the house and yard I stood beside as though my past might materialize before my eyes.

Our sense of smell is the most primeval of all our senses, bypassing all rational thinking processes in order to flood our consciousness with information. Exposure to a significant odor can trigger more detailed memories, going back further in time, than any other stimulus. You can close your eyes, be in a silent room, or refrain from eating or touching, but you cannot not breathe. Therefore, you cannot avoid registering the smells around you.

Any odor that is linked to survival or an emotion is archived in our brain cells, particularly in the amygdala, our stimuli/response decision-making center. Consider this, we have only 4 types of receptors for sight, but at least 1,000 for smell. Pretty awesome, I think.

Returning to Costa Rica to live was bittersweet at first, because my Abuela (grandmother) is gone, as is her house. In fact, none of the houses from my Costa Rica childhood have survived. Yet, I’ve discovered that many memory triggers of those days are alive and well. I am fascinated by the way a simple walk down the street can light up my brain with memories I didn’t realize I had.

Abuela’s garden smelled of grapefruit blossoms and roses. She preferred the small but strongly perfumed pink roses because she said the regal red ones were all looks and no essence. In many areas today, the white blossoms of coffee bushes, lemon, and orange trees send their delicate sweet fragrance wafting on the breeze everywhere, conjuring up entire chapters of memories.

I haven’t encountered a freshly waxed wood floor in decades. Tile is the floor material of choice nowadays and even wood floors are now protected with polyurethane. I’m not sure the cellophane wrapped bars of soft carnauba wax are even sold any more. In any case, I imagine that eventually I’ll enter a house that exudes that unique, spicy odor, and when I do, I’ll likely be transported to the top of the floor buffer where I sat laughing with glee while the housekeeper half-heartedly tried to shoo me off as she guided it from side to side down the long hallway. I know many ticos my age share this priceless memory!

Then there are the familiar smells of foods. Every now and then I’ll catch a particular combination of them in the air at lunch time. The olores (aromatics) onion, garlic, sweet pepper, and cilantro remind me of late mornings at my Abuela’s house when lunch was being fixed. When I was little, freshly made tortillas came to the table wrapped in soft plantain leaves, and those too lent a special layer of fragrance to the meal. This was all topped off with the delicious smell of sweet plantains sizzling in the pan, something that still makes my mouth water.

The hot, steamy smell of damp fabrics being ironed originated in my Abuela’s sewing room, where countless hours were spent on rainy afternoons, and clothes sometimes had to be ironed to get them dry. While steamed cotton shirts released a clean pleasant fragrance, damp wool was not nearly as nice, yet they are both preserved indelibly in my brain’s catalog of odors.

Abuela’s furniture was made with aromatic Costa Rican woods and she used bundles of vetiver root in her wardrobes to repel moths. These woody scents permeated everything, including the little cardboard boxes that held mementos. Airmailed packages containing clothes that she made for me exuded that lovely “smell of Abuela’s house” for days, and I begged my mother not to throw the tissue paper away until the aroma was gone.

Amazingly, even today, that unique fragrance still lingers in the drawers of furniture pieces I inherited, and in boxes of old letters and textiles as well as the tissue paper they are wrapped in. I have several soft cotton handkerchiefs she kept in a small cabinet, and burying my nose in them always bring a rush of memories of this Abuela who meant so much to me. For a moment, I’m in her bedroom, dark and cool, or in her sewing room, where drawers were filled with fabrics, threads, and trims. It is the perfume of comfort, contentment, and love.

How amazing that a memory, complete with its emotional attachments, can be magically conjured up by a momentary exposure to a group of molecules drifting on the air. Such is the power of a scent. I’ve been exploring the elements that make up our sense of place in recent months, and it seems clear to me that the smells of our childhood can evoke some of the most emotionally powerful responses.

I regularly walk past the house in my neighborhood with its cypress trees and mossy yard, and I smile and breathe it all in as deeply as I can every single time. If only for a moment, I am a carefree little girl delighting in the pleasures of childhood, and that’s a pretty cool thing.

I’d love to hear about some of your olfactory memories, especially if they involve Costa Rica, but in any case I’m curious. How have you experienced the fragrance of your childhood?