The wafting fingers of smell will connect me instantly to places in the past via the invisible subway of time, coursing through memories that otherwise would be lost. Or maybe they were never there. For the strangest reason, chopping an onion invariably takes me to the corner of two streets whose names I can no longer remember — Rio Grande and 13th? — near the University of Texas in Austin. I’m immediately standing in front of a small convenience store on that corner. Not inside the store, just standing outside looking at it. Why I travel to that spot when I cut an onion I have no idea, but I absolutely can verify I never cut an onion standing on that corner 55 years ago.
The smell of French perfume, which is unique compared to American scents, takes me to the New Hebrides, where we’re anchored stern-to in our sailboat in front of a colonizer’s grand home. Across the early morning still waters is a small island where women are cooking yams and the staples of the day over their cookfires. I can hear the cry of babies drifting across the still waters. I was pregnant at the time with my second child, and the smell of that perfume reminds me of the morning sickness I suffered.
The smell of marshland transports me to a childhood playing freely along the creeks of Maryland, while the smell of booze and cigarettes leaves me hiding in the darkness of night. On the rich sap smell of a pine forest, I travel to hot afternoons arriving at unnamed mountain campsites. The sweet smell of a salty ocean and creosoted wharf pilings carry me quickly to Cape Cod for the summer, while the whiff of fresh horse apples transports me on horseback to the foothills of Santa Barbara.
Why should I buy a plane ticket to travel when so many smells carry me away for free?