I’ve read that our sense of smell is one of our strongest memory triggers. It’s sure true for me. Revlon Aquamarine lotion = my mother. Grapes on the vine = home, where we had a grape arbor running along the back of the house. Fresh mulch = gardens, spring, fall, everything good. Certain perfumes = certain people, for better or worse.

My family has even dubbed a certain scent “babydolls,” and we all know exactly what that is. I can sit here and remember the smell of my dad’s old records. I can think open that door of the buffet where they’re kept and breathe it in. I love that smell.

Think about what scents are triggers for you. Is it a certain flower, a season, a place? Some smells I can’t even define, yet they take me back. A certain fuel oil smell reminds me of being on the ship at Semester at Sea. Some disinfectant smells like grade school. Incense and church — Catholics know that one. And of course there’s “l’air du PAT bus,” a smelly remnant of all those years of commuting.

Imagine the power in all this. If you could assign a scent to something you wanted or needed to remember. “Why, the future value in 20 years of $1500 invested today at 6%? That’s as easy as cherry pie — $4965.” Or, “It’s the darnedest thing. I think of the smell of cinnamon and I can remember everyone’s birthdays.”

If only it worked that way.

Of course, you have to take the bad with the good. Not all smells trigger pleasant memories. But fortunately for me, nearly all of them are.

Simon & Garfunkel gave us the sounds of silence. I present the scent of memories. Breathe it in.

God gave us memories that we
might have roses in December. 
                                      ~ J. M. Barrie


Mike and I visited a local Oktoberfest celebration this past weekend. Hearing the authentic German band brought back so many memories. Oddly, more of my childhood than of my own wedding just two years ago, which took place at the same site. Old memories trump new, apparently.

You see, I am German on both sides: mom and dad, and all 4 grandparents. My dad was so proud of his German heritage. He knew a smattering of German from his paternal grandmother, who lived with them while he was a child and spoke only German, and he loved German music, amassing a large collection of records (yes, actual vinyl) and later CDs of German marches, polkas, and ballads.

Every Sunday, we ate dinner to “The German Hour” on the radio. The host spoke in German, so we kids didn’t understand a thing, but we all remember his name, “Gerhart Matthias,” his sing-song “Thank you very much, Zhim” to Jim the announcer, and his credits to the program’s sponsor “Hugo’s Fine Foods.” (He sounded a lot like Lawrence Welk, another of my dad’s favorites.)

Between this Sunday music ritual and my dad’s frequent playing of German records, I recognize many German songs, humming the melodies and butchering the words. How fitting that my alma mater, The University of Pittsburgh, has its alma mater set to the melody of the German national anthem.  

Hearing the Oktoberfest band, toasting with the traditional “Zicke-Zacke-Zicke-Zacke Hoy, Hoy, Hoy!”, watching the few (largely older) couples who knew how to dance polkas and such…it was bittersweet, conjuring fond memories of Sunday dinners past and of my dad, now gone nearly 6 years. In many ways, Dad was a stranger to us. It wasn’t until his later years that he grew closer to us kids. But his passion for all things German, his love of music, his family name (so integral to who I am I couldn’t bear to change it, even though I married someone with an even more German name) are all part of who I am. I’ll never hear German music without thinking of him and feeling bittersweet about this man I didn’t really know, but who left me a legacy I treasure just the same. Danke, Dad. Have a Straub with Uncle Walter for me. Prost!

What lies behind us and what lies before us are
tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
                                      ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson