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The nose knows: Nothing is really ever lost if we remember it

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JUNE 19, 2023

My mom used to come into my room at night when I was half asleep. She would dab a roll-on perfume that smelled like herbs along my skin: once on each side of my neck and once on both of my wrists. 

She believed the gentle scent would help me get a better night of rest, so I didn’t think much of it. But at some point, I began to look forward to the soft creaking of a door and gentle footsteps approaching my bed late at night. At hearing my mom coming in, I would even instinctively roll to my side and tilt my head slightly. Waiting. 

One dab on the right. One dab on the left. 

I would rhythmically slide one arm out, then the other, placing my palms upward so that my wrists would face the ceiling. Waiting. 

One dab on the right. One dab on the left. 

I’d then shuffle around a bit and slide so deeply under my blankets that even the tip of my chin was covered, and like the final note of a lullaby, I could hear my mom smile as she tousled my hair, gave me a kiss and quietly left the room. 

The softness of bed sheets cradled my frame, and the scent of herbs floated around as the light hum of night’s breath and the hushed whispers of the stars slowly faded out, cueing the song of tomorrow. 

If someone were to ever ask me what scent I found worked best in calming people down and putting them to sleep, I would tell them herb-scented perfumes are very effective and have done the job for me. In my heart, however, I would explain that the best sleep-provoking scents smell like the warmth of a blanket and the sweetness of a mother’s touch; like the freshness of cool sheets and the lightness of a goodnight kiss. 

One summer, my cousin stayed at my house for the first time. We went to our local mall to buy some new perfumes from Bath & Body Works. Feeling a need to have our “summer scents,” we both bought a perfume called Sunkissed — which was the most cliche and basic summer perfume we could’ve chosen, but we didn’t care. In fact, we spent the entirety of her stay that summer dousing ourselves in that scent every time we left the house, every time we just took a shower and every time we were bored. 

By the time she left, my room reeked of Sunkissed. 

Eventually summer ended, and Sunkissed packed up her things and walked out the door. Fall rolled in, and the familiar routine of early morning wake-ups and late night studying began. 

I didn’t use Sunkissed until about a year later, when I found it tucked in the bottom of a drawer. Forgetting what the perfume smelled like, I sprayed a little on my wrist, raised it to my nose to smell, and like a wave crashing on the sand, I could’ve sworn I felt the sun shine brighter through my window. The floors beneath my feet grew warmer the same way the sand does as you run toward the ocean at a beach. 

Memories of baking cookies with my cousin, binging Netflix series and going on walks at sunset ran through my head the way a vintage film strip does: memory after memory, scene after scene, everything from that previous summer just frantically streaming through my head in a matter of seconds. 

I brought down my wrist, and I was back in my room again, the sun’s rays a little meeker than how they felt before and the room a whole lot emptier than it was in my head.

Perfumes have always been something I have adored since I was incredibly young. From the beautiful bottles they come in to their poetic names, I love every aspect of them. My favorite part about perfume, however, is its ability to absolutely encapsulate a season’s worth of memories or an entire experience into a single spray of a certain scent. 

The power of smell is simply so evocative and powerful that it is able to remind us of periods of time and certain experiences, allowing us to understand the true joy of memories. Whether it be the scent of sandalwood reminding me of my trip to Cancún (all of the bathroom products smelled of it), the scent of cinnamon and pine causing individuals to feel more in the holiday spirit or the scent of fresh leather reminding someone of when they first bought a new car, scent has played such a key role in everyone’s lives by allowing us to never lose moments of our lives that we treasure.

Nothing is ever lost if we remember it. 

Sometimes, when a moment is just so cherishable, I get scared I won’t truly remember how special it felt. But my nose always knows. It always recalls some kind of scent from the moment, even weeks later, when I am just randomly walking past a building or a shop, and all of a sudden, I’ll smell it from somewhere. Just like that, I’m taken back.

Waves of love, of joy, of gratitude, of liberation, of revelation wash over me, running up my spine and blowing through my hair, so strong and so vivid that I feel like I’m going to pass out from experiencing such extreme déjà vu, but it doesn’t matter, because just like that…

I remember.

Naomi Hsu writes the Monday column on childhood comforts that have shaped the person she is today. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

AUGUST 05, 2023