Smelling a memory



I walked into the building that I’ve worked in for the last four months and took the stairs like I intend to do every day (but don’t hit my intentions most days). On route to the 6th floor, I passed a man on a ladder working on the heating pipes. I heard a hiss, and then I smelled… a memory.

I grew up in a house that was heated by a boiler. If you’re not familiar with boilers, think of a very large square cooking pot in the basement that distributes hot water through pipes and radiators in the house. A true indicator of the change in seasons was when the boiler was fired up in the fall.

When the water in the boiler was hot enough to flow throughout the radiator system, my mom would fetch a straight screwdriver and an empty soup can. Mom then went from one radiator section to another, opening a small valve with the screwdriver. The open valve let the air escape (hisssss) to ensure a full loop of water throughout the system. And you wonder what the soup can was for? It was to catch the first squirt of water as the last bit of air was expelled. I don’t know if it was the air or the water, but the oily odor was very distinct.

As you can tell, this memory from 40+ years ago is still very clear in my mind. Had I just read a notice that the business facilities team would be doing boiler maintenance, I may not have recalled this memory. But the smell of the workman’s activity brought it all back to me.

And with that in mind, here are some random points of interest on the importance of our sense of smell and memory.

  • is a great website that describes the connections in our brains that lead us to equate smells with more than just a person (perfume) or a place (bakery) or an event (bonfire with friends). Smells help us to remember and connect the details. Broadway pizza isn’t just pizza – it makes you remember a fall Friday night after a football game with a group of friends. This is quite a feat when that event happened when you were in high school, and now your children are in high school!


  • The need for good smell/memory connection has a “survival” side as well. In the more primitive days for humankind (“yes, my child, there was life before electronics…”), farmers could smell rain coming, hunters could locate prey by following their scent, and food gone bad screamed “don’t eat me!” Our urban setting today has dulled many people’s sense of smell as we work hard to ignore the smells in porta-potties or the competing aromas of co-workers’ colognes, hair sprays, fabric softeners, etc. In order to “survive,” many of us have shut down our instinct to take some time to smell the roses.


  • As we age, most people lose some memory recall. However, doctors have taken this knowledge a step further, and now recognize a smell test might detect the early onset of Alzheimers. On Dr. Oz’ website (, there is a list of 12 items that are generally recognizable. If you are concerned about your memory, have a friend collect the items and give you the test. Note: It is also possible to lose some or all of your sense of smell due to a variety of issues, including recurring sinus infections, a bump on the head (concussion), etc., and some children are born without a sense of smell.


  • The smell/memory connection is not just of interest to doctors and scientists. Real estate agents have long used the smell of freshly baked cookies or bread to help sell houses. When holding an open house, the agents are counting on those smells triggering fond memories of a home that also hosted those smells when you were younger. Corporations pay experts to tell them what scents they should use in their restaurants, stores, shopping centers, etc.

With the arrival of fall, we are entering a season of great smells: pumpkin lattes, wood burning in outdoor pits, banana bread fresh out of the oven, peppermint candles and live Christmas trees. A cornucopia of aromas will soon be spreading around our neighborhoods. Take some time in the near future to just smell what is around you. Think about what memories those smells make you think of.  Share your stories of your favorite smells and memories with family and friends. If you care to share with our Camden News readers, send your stories to and we will run some of those memories with readers in an upcoming edition.


This article was written by Linda Steck Stewart