Childhood remembered through its sounds and smells


April 21, 1992|By Bruce Goldfarb

CHILDHOOD ISN'T what it used to be. Looking at this world from my 4-year-old son's perspective made me realize that our times have become disturbingly artificial.

When I was a child, it seems, the sounds and odors -- my most powerful memories -- were all different. Every time I smell the fragrance of lilacs, I am transported to the glorious white blossoms outside the bedroom window of my childhood.

The house burned down long ago, but the aroma will be forever imprinted in the cluttered attic of my memory. The smell of lilacs will always connote the security and comfort of home.

One of my son's favorite things is sugarless grape chewing gum. It is a strong and sweet imitation flavor that tastes nothing at all like real grapes. Max is thrilled when we buy a pack. I often let him pay the cashier like a grown-up, something he may tell his own children decades from now. Though he is happy, I'm not sure I like being associated with such an obviously fake flavor.

Last summer, Max and I went camping with my brother and his two boys, 9 and 12 years old. Since they live in Toronto, we only get together once a year or so.

One evening, as we sat talking around the campfire, my brother gave each of us a plastic-wrapped translucent mint. It was the same kind of mint that Grandmother kept in a blue enamel covered dish, like a hidden treasure we kids found in the study. I hadn't eaten one in years.

At the first taste, I was unexpectedly flooded with memories -- not just of Grandmother and the distinct grandmotherly smell of her house, but of putting my arms around her frail frame in a gentle hug, and running circles around the massive oak tree in her back yard with my brothers. For a moment, it was almost as if she were alive again, smiling as she opened the door to welcome us to her home.

This is why we are together, I explained to my nephews. Our purpose in camping is not merely to hike and fish and sleep in tents, but to create impressions, fragments of memories to sustain us for the rest of our lives. We probably won't remember the jokes we told, but perhaps Max might one day link the flavor of roasted marshmallows with having a good time with his cousins.

Sounds also remain indelibly impressed on the mind long after the full reality is lost to oblivion. When I think hard about my childhood home, I can hear the peaceful drone of a window fan.

I wonder. Years from now, what will Max remember? Beeps from the computer, the whir of the video cassette recorder, chirps from the fax machine. Our house is filled with noisy gadgets. What a strange foundation for nostalgia. I wish I could raise him amid sounds that are less mechanical, more natural.

And now scientists have confirmed what I feared: Smells that people remember from childhood are becoming increasingly synthetic. Researchers at the Smell and Taste Research and Treatment Center in Chicago surveyed almost 1,000 people about their earliest childhood memories.

They reported that people born between 1900 and 1929 most often associate their childhood with smells of nature, pine, hay, sea air, meadows and horses. But those born between 1930 and 1979 tend to most strongly recall synthetic odors -- plastics, scented markers, airplane fuel, candy and Play-Doh.

Reading about the study filled me with sadness. As we crowd into cities, more people are denied the aroma of freshly mowed grass. Our exposure to horses and other animals is mainly through books or television. Artificial flavorings have become so pervasive that within a generation people won't remember what grapes really taste like.

Does it make a difference? I think so. What sort of appreciation will we have for the environment if we don't even know the smell of fresh air and the taste of clean water? What will be the value of wholesome, natural foods when people prefer processed, flavor-enhanced imitations?

I've lost my child's first four years, but it is not too late to salvage his childhood memories. Never before have I felt this urgent need to turn off the computer, buy some real grapes and find a horse for us to smell.

Bruce Goldfarb is a Baltimore writer.

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