Today 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.
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.