musings from Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington ... home of The Write Spot

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

oh, traitorous nose!

Close your eyes and sniff:

Photo by Marisa DeMeglio | CC-BY-2.0

On second thought, don't close your eyes. Just gaze upon the pretty lilacs and let your olfactory memory go to work.

For many people, the image alone will be enough to trigger a vivid scent memory, a scent likely to conjure thoughts of springtime, sunshine, warm breezes and gentle rain.

I should be so lucky.

Oh, the lilac image does trigger a scent memory for me, no doubt about that. But no sweetly perfumed breezes come to mind. Instead, my traitorous nose conjures a dank and earthy funk.

It all began on a warm spring afternoon in 1986. Friends and family had been invited to the farm for a celebration of my parents' wedding anniversary. After days of intense preparation, the feast was ready. Our little house looked bright and fresh as could be. Even our three rambunctious sons had been scrubbed clean. As party hour drew near, I took a moment alone to admire the table. Set with grandma May's treasured Limoges china and our special occasion crystal glassware, it sparkled, ready for company.

"Mom!" The screen door slammed and middle son bounded into the house looking slightly less scrubbed than I remembered. "Dad wants to know if—"

He fell suddenly silent, his smile fading away and his nose wrinkling. Before I could ask what was wrong, he took a giant step back and said, in a horrified tone, "It smells bad in here, Mom."

As I moved to join him in the hallway, I caught a whiff of it, too. And there was no mistaking that smell. Dead mouse.

Mice are an inescapable fact of country life and, for the most part, we chose to live and let live, as long as the mice chose wisely and stayed outside. Inside, they were rodent non grata and definitely not welcome at our party, dead or alive.

Middle son rounded up his brothers and we organized a search. The odour was strongest in the front hall and near the cellar stairs but despite poking, prodding, and sniffing in every possible nook and cranny we had no luck finding the stinky culprit. Our guests were due to arrive in less than an hour. The smell was growing stronger by the minute. What to do?

The day was warm, with a gentle, steady breeze, so my first step was to open all the windows. That's when middle son remembered what he'd been sent to ask me. "Do you want Dad to cut some lilacs for the house?"

Yes! Our lilac hedge had some of the most aromatic flowers I'd ever encountered. Their sweet, long-lasting fragrance was exactly what we needed to disguise the presence of a not-so-dearly departed mouse. While I pulled out every vase I could find, plus a few big mason jars for good measure, the boys helped their dad cut lilacs. Masses and masses of lilacs. We placed them in the front hallway, beside the cellar door, in the living room and sunroom—even in the bathroom. They looked lovely and, more important, they smelled lovely… like springtime.

The party was a success—great company, good food, happy times. Everyone loved the lilacs. We even sent bunches home with a few people. Only later, with windows closed against the cool evening air, did the scent of mouse begin to insinuate itself again, mingling with the fragrance of cut lilacs until the two smells became one.

Days passed. As the flowers faded, so did their fragrance. The smell of death faded, too, and we never did find the mouse. Its dry bones remain entombed forever inside the walls of that old house.

lovely lilacs
Liam Moloney | CC-BY-SA-2.0

The following year when the first lovely lilacs burst into bloom in our garden, I was eager to visit them, to bury my face in the pale purple flowers and revel in the scent of springtime. That's when I first discovered the awful olfactory truth. And thirty years later, that truth still applies. For me, the sweet, heady perfume of lilacs will always carry a base note of mouse.


Mouse image by George Shuklin | CC-BY-SA-1.0

stillpoint is the blog of Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington

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At 9:35 am, Blogger Sandy Cody said...

I love the scent of lilacs too. Sorry they've been tainted for you, but at least the memory is a happy one - and a funny one. Our brains are amazing things in the connections they make, the memories they hold.

At 9:59 am, Blogger Cheryl said...

"Tainted" is a good word for it, Sandy. Also "blighted", "befouled" and "besmirched" - LOL. Thanks goodness for laughter because our brains do like to play tricks. Thanks for reading.

At 11:12 am, Blogger Joanne Guidoccio said...

Entertaining story! Love to read about all these brain connections.

At 2:23 pm, Blogger Colleen said...

Oh no, Cheryl! What a bummer. I know that dead mouse smell. Ick! I grew up in the country too and it's bound to happen, though we always found them. Lilacs are much better for sure!

At 6:38 pm, Anonymous Susan McNicoll said...

What a story Cheryl. Did you know that our sense of smell is our strongest sense because it is the only one that has a direct path to the brain. Cannot remember why but when I read about it, it explained so well why a smell wit=ll transport me instantly to some memory. I also know the dead mouse smell very well and sorry it has now ruined the scent of lilacs for you.

At 11:35 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

Joanne, Colleen, and Susan - thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. I agree, there's nothing like a scent to trigger memories. I still love lilacs ... will give them another sniff this spring. Will writing about it break or strengthen the connection? (To be continued...) ;-)

At 12:44 pm, Blogger Sydell Voeller said...

Yeah for the lilacs! You were indeed fortunate that you had mega-quantities to work with. Our one little bush in the side yard would have never cut it. Too bad that throughout the years, however, you've had to associate the luscious fragrance of lilacs with dead mouse.

At 4:27 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

You're so right, Sydell. We always had arm loads of bloom from the remnants of an old lilac hedge and it certainly saved that dinner party! The smell association is annoying... but it makes a good story! Thanks for visiting.


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