My Dad: A Tribute Through Scent Memories

11140129_10152852556073214_169184343958637322_oToday is the fifth anniversary of my father’s death. Above is a photo of my parents on their wedding day on New Year’s Day, 1966. Dad is only 23 here, handsome, and looking full of life and happiness. As several years have now passed since Dad’s illness and death, it’s easier to remember and reconstruct memories of who Dad was. When someone is so ill for so long, as my father was, you start to define the person by the illness they are afflicted with, and almost forget who they were before they got sick. Time does heal though, and my thoughts and memories of my Dad are more complete and balanced now as time passes. Smell is an undervalued sense. We normally remember people with photographs, videos, objects and stories. But what of the scent of a person, or those smells associated with a person that you hold dear? In tribute to my Dad today, I want to pass on a few scent memories associated with him…

Wood, Leather, Rattan

The smell of varnished, antique woods. Dad was an early collector of fine and unusual antique furniture. The smell of varnished cedar or mahogany or pine was everywhere in my childhood home. One of the pieces that defined my Dad was his enormous antique desk. Dad was one to always bring his work home. The desk was made of a polished, dark wood, topped with red, gilt-edged leather that smelled sweet and warm. Dad’s office chair was made of honey-coloured wood and had a woven rattan seat that smelled of dry hay, a smell that always made my nose itch a little.

Motor Oil and Metal

Whenever I catch a whiff of motor oil I think of my father. For years Dad ran a business importing spare parts for Italian cars, and ran a small mechanic’s workshop on the side. Dad also collected and tinkered with old cars, including a 1939 Packard, 1950s Thunderbirds, and rare Fiats. Old and collectible cars and their smell pervaded my childhood and adulthood. The collective smell of motor oil, metal, and fine interior wood, leather and fabric (the smells of vintage cars) reminds me of Dad, every time.

Chewing Gum

When I was little Dad would chew P.K. gum often. He would always offer me two pieces of “chewy” at a time, one too many for my small mouth. The cool, minty freshness of gum reminds me of my Dad.


Dad was an avid wine collector and at one stage his cellar housed 3,000 interesting and rare bottles. The cellar was unusual, cut into the side of the hill under our two-storey house. It was long and narrow and cool and dark, and smelt of damp, wet earth and salt from the water softener. There was the smell of wooden shelves and cork too.

Hamburgers and Chips

Back in the 1980s, you could really only get burgers at chain outlets or at Australian-style fish and chip shops. We occasionally enjoyed the latter as a family treat. The smell of one of these burgers always takes me back to my childhood, and waiting with Dad in the fish and chip shop for our food to cook. Dad loved burgers, no tomato or sauce, thank you very much, and he would (embarrassingly) do a series of twists and stretches in the shop every time we waited for our food. It was always a delight to open the paper at home and release the fatty, salty, steamy odour from within. I loved the smell of the over-seasoned mince meat and greasy chips straight out of the paper as a kid.

A Warm Hug

I associate Dad’s hugs with the smell of a clean, woolly jumper. I love the comforting, slightly fatty, animalic smell of wool. It’s a smell that always makes me feel cosy and loved.

RIP Paul White: 20/10/1942 – 9/4/2010. Scent memories are an important part of remembering and paying tribute to loved ones and helps keep their memory alive. Smells are so immediately evocative and help us recall people, special moments and emotions, often without much interception from the rational or thinking brain. I hope you’ve enjoyed me sharing some scent memories related to my Dad with you today. I hope that you will consider writing down (or sharing with me) some of your own scent memories of those who are special to you, and that together we can start to revalue the sense of smell and all that magic it conjures up for us.


Smell Walk No. 1


Photo of dog’s nose by Piotr Grzywocz

The purpose of these walks is to acquaint myself and my nose with the smells of whatever environment I’m in, to pay more attention to these smells, beautiful or not, and to attempt to describe them. Think of them as meditations based on the sense of smell.

Tuesday Evening: 6:45 pm. En route to the compost bin.

I start my adventure in smell walks today with a short walk from my kitchen to the compost bin. Living in the country on a large sheep farm, I’m subjected to all kinds of smells that I never encountered in my city-dwelling days. I decided that it would be interesting enough, therefore, to start by exploring the smells immediately around my house. Today I will describe the smells that I notice while taking out the compost.

First, I inhale the aroma of the bowl of organic scraps that I want to take out to the bin. It contains banana skins, rotting strawberries, mint tea and eggshells. It is musty, sour, fermented, mouldy, sweet, sulphurous and savoury all at once. It’s not a pleasant smell: it’s confused and contradictory, but it is interesting.

Down the hall I walk, and through the laundry, where towels are going round in the dryer. I associate the smell of washing so closely with the concept of cleanliness, so I’m not very objective about what I’m actually smelling, other than something that has become, to my nose, generically “clean-smelling”. Today I pay a bit more attention. As the towels are still quite wet in the dryer, I’m getting a smell that’s a bit like the smell a steam-iron gives off, crossed with a slightly toasty smell; a little like a vanilla cake cooking in an oven, far off in the distance somewhere. It’s a bit sweet, a bit toasted, and warmly wet.

As I open the back door, a blast of fresh, cool, evening air greets me. I deeply inhale the sharp green smell of grass, acres and acres of it, mingled with the faint scent of soil and sheep manure. It’s crisp, earthy and slightly animalic, all at once.

Past the rose-bush I go, towards the compost bin. It’s only just in bud, so the flowers themselves are disappointing and don’t give off much aroma. I have to crush a leaf to smell it – it’s green, fresh and watery and a little like cucumber. Next, I pull out a weed and shake the soil from it: the loosened soil smells of warm patchouli, chopped raw mushrooms and humus. It’s delightful and forms a counterpoint to the vegetal smell of the freshly plucked weed roots.

A fresh peppermint leaf offers much olfactory delight, but I have to break it to really smell it. It’s more complex than I’ve ever noticed before, now that I’m properly paying attention. It smells earthy, zesty, spicy and cool. It also smells a little bit like cedar wood, and there is a surprising sweetness to it. I can’t resist eating it, and when I pop it in my mouth and chew, the aromatic oils dissolve and deliver the pepperiness that this variety of mint is known for.

I round the corner of the path and lift the lid off the compost bin. It reeks of ammonia from the cat litter that is decaying in there. It’s repulsive, off-smelling and foul! I empty my bowl of waste from the kitchen into it, and notice the sweet, acidic smells of banana and strawberry mingling briefly with the ammonia of the cat’s urine. But it’s too much; it’s making me physically recoil. I put the lid back on.

We have a septic tank next to the compost bin, but I detect no fecal wafts from it today, even when I go up close and inhale. Disappointed, I look around for something else to smell and spot some sheep’s wool on our wire fence. The sheep stick their heads through to eat our lawn, and little tufts of wool often remain on the wire afterwards. I pluck off a couple of pieces and hold them to my nostrils. Ah… that comforting, sweet, warm, animalic smell of wool! It’s just like a cosy woollen jumper, but in its raw state, combines with the faint aroma of waxy lanolin and dirt. It’s beautiful and I take it inside with me so I can keep smelling it.