About eight years ago, a strange and disconcerting thing started happening to me. At random moments, I suddenly smelled cigarette smoke all around me. The first time it happened, I was at work, and my head jerked up as the pungent stink of smoke hit my nose. I immediately jumped up and went to the door to see what idiot had lit up in my vicinity.
But there was no one there.
This happened on and off for months before I finally typed the words "I smell cigarette smoke" into Google and the experiences of dozens and dozens of people popped up on websites all over creation. I'm sure that was the tip of the iceberg. Phantosmia, parosmia... phantom smells, olfactory hallucinations... all ailments and symptoms that can indicate a much more serious condition. Or, in many cases, it means you have a pretty screwed up sinus situation. A lifetime of sinus infections, and now I have the gift of "mystery stink" hitting my schnoz at odd times. While some of the odors can be exotic or comforting, most of the time it remains the harsh and overwhelming smell of cigarettes. It reminds me of a trip I took to the Yucatan with my late sister, where her chain smoking turned our hotel room into a toxic zone of rank, blue haze.
Once in a while this phenomenon presents fairly pleasant offerings, though. Sometimes I smell a plate of chicken and dumplings from Bishop's Buffet, a shopping mall restaurant in my hometown—it's salty, chicken-y, and I swear I can smell the dough. Other times, it's incense from a Thai temple that reminds me of trips to Bangkok back in the day. It's a powerful thing and most of the time I want my sinuses fixed and the hallucinations to stop. But when it takes me somewhere good, somewhere pleasant, where good memories are formed, I am reluctant to have it end.
A couple of days ago, the smell that hit me was of a coffee shop and the fragrance of freshly roasted beans. This pleased me. See, I've been sick with some sort of sinus ailment since Valentine's Day, when I fled my apartment and whatever "celebrations" might come from the angry, drunken neighbors on the other side of my thin wall. I checked into a nearly empty hotel up the road, looking forward to using the pool and gym and thick-walled silence. It was lovely. A swirling snow storm provided the perfect setting to shelter from the world for a couple of days, and lounging alone in the hotel whirlpool next to a large window reminded me of weekends at the embassy dacha in Moscow—sauna and snow and a bright-starred sky.
It really was lovely.
Until I got sick.
Feverish sick. Hacking and coughing sick. Lost voice sick. I returned home and found myself taking sick day after sick day, sweating out the fever on my sofa and drinking huge bottles of water to replace my burnt out fluids. And through it all, I was smacked in head with the smell of cigarettes to the point of nausea.
But now, as I'm getting better, the smell of coffee fills my nose. It is intoxicating and heady. But the scent doesn't take me to a memory of my own. It takes me to a memory I could not have because it happened 20 years before my birth. It is a fragment of a memory from when my family lived in Seattle shortly after World War II ended. My parents had Swedish neighbors there, and Mom used to tell me the same little story about them again and again as she brewed coffee for my father in the morning in an old percolator at the house in Moline.
The Swedes, she said, had a coffee urn that remained on all day and all night for family and friends who might drop by. The coffee was very strong, and the smell from the simmering urn permeated the whole neighborhood. Mom always said the urn was never cleaned until the coffee remaining had turned into a heavy sludge at the bottom of the pot. My older self wonders if the sludge might have packed the punch of Turkish coffee, like a shot of caffeinated jet fuel.
I know nothing more about the Swedish neighbors beyond their coffee urn. Were they immigrants? Were there a lot of Swedes in Seattle after the war? Before the war? What did the neighbors do? Did my coffee-averse mother ever try a hot cup from the urn?
I have no idea. I only have the urn. A fragment, and I never took the time to ask more questions. So many stories I have of my family are equally fragmented. I'm not entirely sure if all my siblings have the same fragments I do. What scattered pieces are triggered in them when they smell something or hear something? Are their stories, like mine, ones that happened decades before they were born?
I know about the relative who had a sick pony that was horribly bloated after gorging on tall grass. The pony had to be relieved of the gas, and a hollow tube was inserted into its gut to release the gas that had rendered the pony into a shaggy, earthbound balloon. Unfortunately, the relative handling the tube insertion was smoking at the time.
Did you know ponies can explode?
That's the lesson I learned from that vignette. Ponies can explode. It's the awesome power of chemistry, kids.
But what more do I know about that relative? Do I have a picture of him somewhere in the boxes of photos in my closet? I regret deeply not asking more questions when my parents were alive. I regret all the history I've lost and will never be able to retrieve, except as details in genealogical records. There are likely no exploding ponies there. Nor are there urns of coffee and Swedish neighbors.
The coffee scent has left my head now. The urn is shelved and the Marlboro Man is riding the range in my sinuses again. I sit here and think about what scraps of information and memory I can still gather from my older siblings and stitch together to fill the holes in our story.
Take time to listen and learn. Record what you can. I actively strive to hear my mother's voice in my head these days, so I don't forget it. I can hear her leaving me voicemail when, yet again, I wasn't home for her call on a Sunday night.
"Hi, Lissa. It's Mom. I'm sure you're out somewhere. Just wanted to call and say hi."
It gets harder to hear her voice in my head, but the Swedish coffee urn remains. Dammit.
Remember, remember. What is lost is lost. What we gain is heartache and memory and the need to create something joyful from what we cobble together through time. I have never been a good cobbler, but in this second half of my life, I'd best learn.