Monday, January 24, 2011

Magical Thinking*

Sometimes, I smell my father. It never comes from a purposeful thought, but random and unbidden. Unlike my memories of his voice or his face, which always come slowly like a sunrise, the smell comes fast and furious, like a punch to the gut. It happened this morning, as I turned in my seat to unbuckle Julia at preschool. It was like he was there, sitting next to me. As always, it sends me into a panic as I search for a source - my coat, the seat, my hands. Other mothers must have walked by the car wondering about the crazy woman sniffing her air vents. And then slowly, it fades away, gone completely back into my memory by the time I've turned into the driveway.

Daddy was a fastidious man. Always neat and carefully groomed, the result of a disciplined nature reinforced by the United States Marine Corps. He ironed his jeans with an crease so sharp it sounded like a crack of lightening when he put them on. Even after a hard day's work, beneath the dirt and dust and sweat, you could still smell it. You could smell clean.

I read once that the sense of smell is the strongest, the one most bound to memory. Daddy must have read that somewhere, too. My mom told me he would always rush to put on cologne before we came over, so he could bury the memory of himself deep in toddler Katie's brain. Hoping that the memory of the way he smelled would linger after her true memories faded into the false ones of stories simply retold.

I spent the last year of his life memorizing the lines of his face and the way his hands felt. So that, when I needed to, I could close my eyes and see him next to me and feel my hand swallowed up in his. I never bothered to think about his smell. I didn't need to.

I know it is a trick of memory. There's probably even a name for it. It is the hardest memory - this mental blip is the closest I will be to him again in this lifetime. It's also the best, because for a moment, he is with me. For a moment, I choose not to believe that it's a false memory, a physiological hiccup. I choose to believe that he watches over me and my children. That he sends me signs and signals and smells. Maybe it's faith, maybe it's magical thinking.Whatever it is, it is mine, and I'm holding on to it.

*The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is a look into her life in the year after her husband's death. Really insightful and beautiful.


  1. One day in a store, a smell of pipe tobacco gently and ever-so lightly kissed my nose. My Grandfather's tobacco. I have no idea where or who it came from but it was an instant memory of him. It reminded me of how much I missed that safe, strong smell when he hugged me or when I sat next to him and his jacket (and tie) wrapped me in his essence.

    Thank you for sharing your heart. You are so fortunate to have a father like Mike.
    Linda C.

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  3. Beautiful post! Your father sounds like a great man. I agree about the strong memory with smells, I often smell things that recall memories from when I was very little. Like the smell of my very first school, that I only attended for about a month.

  4. thanks for your post. I'm a sniffer also. I have a generous nose I guess...I can really relate to the whole smell memory thing you write about so eloquently. My mother died a couple of years ago and I can remember the smell of her neck. Necks have it all. Now I'm teary...I was about to mention something else but I'll do that later.
    I'm okay now. I have a really strong memory for each door closing in the house I grew up in - which was sold when my mum died. Thanks for your beautiful post.

  5. Necks DO have it all, Julie. Thank you so much for your comment. This is one of my favorite posts, and it is nice to see someone reading it. :)