Every once in a while I'll stand next to someone who's wearing Shalimar perfume and the scent of it will stop me dead in my tracks. Really: dead in my tracks.
I will stand there, impaled on the past like a trophy butterfly, quite unable to think of anything except my mother who wore only Shalimar perfume. It's the smell that woke me up in the morning and put me to bed at night when I was a child. And it has the power to evoke my mother's essence more sharply than any photograph ever could.
Friends report similar experiences; moments when a scent or odor suddenly hurled them back across the years to some instantly familiar place.
For example, a man I know speaks passionately about how he feels whenever he smells a well-worn, leather catcher's mitt: "God, it's like I'm 10 years old again and back in the old neighborhood -- playing on the lot near Allendale Street."
And this from a woman: "I have some of my mother's pressed powder, which smells like the dresser drawer she kept it in. Opening the compact instantly reminds me of her."
For another it's the smell of tar that uncorks the genie of memory: "When I visited my grandmother one summer they were tarring her street -- and since then I never smell tar without thinking instantly of my grandmother," this woman says now.
Of all the senses, scientists say smell is the most elemental. It is capable of immediately triggering powerful emotions undiluted by language or intellect.
This is so, explains Diane Ackerman in her book, "A Natural History of the Senses," because the nose is the only sense organ that "sends a message straight into the limbic system, a mysterious, ancient and intensely emotional section of our brain in which we feel, lust and invent."
But while we all share this sensory ability, a recent study suggests that generationally we do not share the same set of nostalgia-triggering odors.
In other words, the generation gap that exists in such areas as music (think Frank Sinatra vs. Hammer) and technology (think records vs. compact discs) also exists when it comes to memory-evoking scents. At least that's what Dr. Alan R. Hirsch of the Smell and Taste Treatment Research Foundation concludes from a survey he conducted.
Here's a sampling of some of the generational differences turned up by Dr. Hirsch. See if you can detect the major fault line that divides the generations.
For people born in the '20s, '30s and '40s, some of the most nostalgia-evoking scents were: hot chocolate, Cracker Jack, lilies, cut grass, cinnamon, ocean air, hay, honeysuckle, manure, attics, baking bread, soap, clover, tweed, meatballs, split pea soup, fresh air, burning leaves, violets, roses.
For those born in the '60s and '70s, the list went like this: Play-Doh, chlorine, marijuana, tuna casserole, Downy fabric softener, smoke, airplane fuel, disinfectant, motor oil, tacos, Cocoa Puffs, Windex, hair spray, refineries, SweeTARTS, plastic, suntan oil, scented Magic Markers, mosquito repellent, candy cigarettes, burning tires.
Give yourself a score of 100 if you observed that in the older generation most of the memory-evoking scents fell into the "natural" category as opposed to the more "artificial" scents selected by the younger generation.
Still, there's no doubt in my mind that in terms of nostalgia, one man's (woman's) memory of the smell of airplane fuel is the equivalent of another woman's (man's) memory of the scent of baking bread.
A Baptist minister, whose name I can't remember, once observed that after a man makes a visit to his boyhood town he finds that it wasn't the old home he wanted, but his boyhood.
Something similar happens, I think, when we tap into that deep, primitive limbic system through the sense of smell.
We realize, for instance, when we are stopped dead in our tracks by a whiff of salt air and sea that it's not the weekend at the beach we want back, it's everything that went with it:
The station wagon loaded up with coolers and beach chairs; Dad driving and Mom in the front seat pouring lemonade from a thermos into paper cups; the musty smell of the beach house; the sand on your bare feet; the spray of a wave at your back.
Or to put it another way: When we smell the sea air and salt water as adults, what we want back is ourselves. Ourselves as we used to be, that is.
But a little of this goes a long way. You can't go around being stopped dead in your tracks too often.
Which is why I have never been able to wear Shalimar perfume.