The night my first son was born I stayed awake until dawn. My husband fell asleep at once on the hospital-issue couch and did not move until morning, but I couldn’t sleep. I was scared that if I drifted off, something—I wasn’t sure what—would happen to the six pound person positioned between my knees. Instead of sleeping I stared at his face and his fisted hands. I stared at his eyelashes and his nostrils and the arc of his nearly invisible eyebrows. I watched as his chest moved almost imperceptibly up, down, up, down. More than staring, though, I smelled him. I touched my cheek to his and gently sniffed the tiny bowl made by his collarbone. I unswaddled him and filled my lungs with the scent of his stomach, his legs, his hands, his feet.
There are no longer tiny fingers and toes to smell, but since that night the extraordinary power of smell has been brought home to me again and again. Last month, when I was reorganizing our guest room closet, I briefly conjured the dead. I pulled my grandfather’s bucket hat, with its pale blue stripe, down from the dresser, where it has been perched since his funeral nine years ago, put it to my face and took a long, slow drag. It was faint but it was there: the commingling of his aftershave (brand unknown), dry vermouth (white, not red), and Wrigley’s spearmint gum. There was something else as well. Lemon, maybe? Some sort of soap? I couldn’t say for sure, but in that one breath multiple versions of my grandfather materialized at once. I could see him standing before me in the very hat I was holding, winking, and proffering a half stick of Wrigley’s, warm and soft from his pocket. I could see him throwing grounders to me in the backyard when I was in fourth grade, his knees bending as he demonstrated the proper positioning for my softball glove. There he was, clunking his third martini of the night onto the table and grunting at my grandmother to bring him dinner. All these iterations of him entered the room as I inhaled and dissipated as I exhaled, my breath blowing him back into the ether.
Scientists call the phenomenon I experienced in the guest room the “Proust effect,” in homage to Marcel Proust, who was prompted to write pages and pages of childhood memories by the smell of a madeleine cookie. The extraordinary capacity of the sense of smell to trigger memories is likely linked to the location of the olfactory center, which nestles right next to the memory hub in the human brain. When molecules are released into the air—by cookies or cologne or anything, really—they travel to a small patch of sensory cells up high in the nose, which sends the information on to the brain, where the smell is identified and the associated memory is stored. I don’t know what a madeline cookie smells like, but the slightest hint of gardenia makes me think of my mother, and Drakkar Noir takes me straight back to my high school boyfriend. Star anise whisks me to the early December kitchen of my childhood, and when I asked my husband to describe his dad, who died when he was eight, he replied immediately: “He smelled like Benson & Hedges cigarettes.”
My son turns twelve soon, and I recently read that his scent will change dramatically when he goes through puberty. I know, of course, about the basics of body odor. I know that we’re running straight down the track toward a puberty-induced profusion of sweat, along with all the other expected changes. But I also read that the new hormones produced during puberty contain chemicals that are not present in early adolescence, and as these chemicals break down, they generate new odors.
Learning that my son’s smell will change unearths something entombed in the private spaces of my heart: a knowledge that feels primal, animalistic. I know what my son smells like. I can recognize his scent independent of laundry detergent, deodorant, diet, soap, even shampoo. If challenged, based on smell alone, I’m certain I could pick his blanket from a lineup. He smells like Trader Joe’s European Style Smooth and Creamy Yogurt. Ever-so-slightly sour and creamy, and when we first put our finger on it, when he was still a baby, my husband and I reasoned that since I was eating a lot of yogurt, it must be passing through my breastmilk. As he grew, we attributed it to his own consumption of the probiotic breakfast staple. But by the time he was five, he had all but given up yogurt, yet the aroma lingered. “It’s him,” we marveled. “It’s just him.”
It’s what I inhaled through the endless hours of nursing during the first winter of his life. It’s what I breathed as I carried him down the hall for bedtime as a baby, and in the blurry-eyed, break of day when he was a toddler up before the sun. It’s what I smell now when I score the occasional hug, fix his “fauxhawk,” or furrow my brow as he fills me in on all things Nintendo. It’s who he is, on an ontological level. A change in the way he smells, I’m afraid, will change him. Or maybe I’m afraid it will change me. If my boy no longer smells the same, maybe it’s some sort of primordial signal that he no longer needs me the way he used to—close enough to identify him, protect him, nurture him.
I feel this change rising like the winds that always come in late October to blow the last leaves from the maple tree in our backyard. For now we are nestled somewhere in between. He still smells the same, though not as strongly, and he still needs me, though not as much. There is some solace in studies suggesting that a person’s scent is as unique to them as their fingerprints, that our smell is determined by genetics. It can be influenced by external forces but it remains chemically unchanged. So maybe my boy won’t change as much as I think he will. Or maybe he’ll change more but somehow, despite the pull of puberty and the inevitability of growing up, he’ll still smell the way he always has.
I consider this as we shuffle around in the kitchen one morning, mixing batter for pancakes and watching the sun strain its neck behind the far away mountains. He reaches around me to lift the syrup off the shelf, and I inhale instinctively as he comes near. I close my eyes and catch his scent, just barely. I take another breath as he flits from counter to fridge to table, and I can nearly feel the neurons exploding—in agony and elation, exquisite pain and unending joy—as they make their way to my brain, and my heart, for safekeeping.