The Persistence of Memory, Triggered by Smell


“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – William Shakespeare

“Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.” – Walter Hagen

“Oooh that smell, can’t you smell that smell?” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

Smell is a powerful sense. It can trigger a memory that takes you back to a different place and time, often as far back as early childhood. I have several vivid examples of this, and the earliest one has to do with roses. Which is why I picked two of the quotes that start this story.

My Grandfather’s Rose Garden

I grew up in my grandparents’ house in North Philadelphia in my early years. What is now a pretty bad neighborhood was a small enclave of Ukrainian families in the early 1970s, centered around Christ The King Ukrainian Catholic Church. You can still see the iconic gold dome on the left as you drive north on the Roosevelt Expressway approaching the Broad Street underpass.

My Babcha and Djadjo, as we called them (Ukie for Grandma and Grandpa), lived in a small row home at 1535 Blavis Street. They had a tiny back yard where my Djadjo grew grapes on a trellis. He made white wine from those green grapes. I don’t know if his wine was any good, as I was not even 10 years old at the time, but I remember seeing his 5-gallon glass carboys tucked into a corner of the dining room, where the wine would ferment.

Djadjo also grew red roses along the side fence of the backyard . These roses I remember, because of their smell. Djadjo was very proud of his roses, and on a hot summer day, their smell was intoxicating. Fast forward to the present day, where my wife Jess and I planted a single red rose bush in our side yard. One smell of those roses and I’m immediately transported back to Blavis Street. That’s a powerful smell! And a wonderful memory of my Djadjo. For this reason, whenever I walk around our side yard, I don’t forget to stop and smell the roses. I miss you, Djadjo.

Gino’s vs. McDonalds

Back to the early 70s we go. Before Burger King challenged McDonald’s for fast food supremacy, there was another regional chain called Gino’s. Founded by ex-football players Gino Marchetti and Alan Ameche of the Baltimore Colts in 1957, Gino’s Hamburgers was as ubiquitous as McDonald’s on the street corners of Philadelphia where I grew up. The one advantage that Gino’s had was that they also sold Kentucky Fried Chicken at their restaurants. Yes, that Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC co-branded with Gino’s in the Mid-Atlantic region back then. And this was before McDonald’s even offered Chicken McNuggets.

My Babcha and Djadjo, when they didn’t feel like cooking borscht and pierogies, would order out fast food for us kids. They would always ask us whether we wanted McDonalds or Gino’s. More often than not, I recall we would ask for Gino’s. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’m guessing it was because of the option of burgers or chicken. Or both.

Again, we fast forward to today. This time, literally today. I was just driving home with my son from picking up KFC for dinner, and the smell of that Extra Crispy goodness wafted through the car. Suddenly, I wasn’t driving in Bethlehem anymore. Again I was back on Blavis Street, licking my lips as Babcha laid out the chicken and burgers she had just brought home from Gino’s for dinner. Oooh that smell! Gino’s is now long gone, as are my Babcha and Djadjo, but they all live on through my sense of smell. I miss you, Babcha.

Blood Thinners

A lot of these smell memories are related to my early childhood in North Philly. This is a weird one. When my sister and I lived with our Babcha and Djadjo, we attended a Ukrainian Catholic private elementary school, Saint Basil’s. Our neighbor would drive us to and from school every day, along with their kids, Bohdan and Orest Zachariasevych. I’m still friends with Bohdan today.

About two years ago I had a mild heart attack. As part of my recovery regimen, I continue to take a plethora of medications, including Plavix, a blood thinner. I take all of these pills either once or twice a day, so I’ve gotten into a good routine. I take Plavix in the morning. Every time I open that pill bottle, I’m greeted by an overpowering smell. And then a memory. For some reason, the smell of Plavix takes me back to the halls at Saint Basil’s school. Strange, huh? I wonder what that smell is? I want to invite my friend Bohdan over to take a whiff of that pill bottle. I wonder if he’ll have the same recollection? We’ll see.

A Falling Out with Jack

For this next memory, I go back to my high school days. After my Babcha and Djadjo were gone, we moved to Swarthmore PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. It was a pretty idyllic place to grow up. Once I reached the age of 16, I started working at Yom’s Place, the local hoagie shop. Yom’s was owned and operated by John “Yommie” Costello, a little Italian guy with a taste for Frank Sinatra, Connie Francis, and vodka & orange juice. Yom was usually soused by the end of the lunch rush, so we kids had to take over running the place until closing while he went home and slept it off.

I learned a lot working as a short-order cook and doing basically everything to manage a hoagie shop at a young age. Yom had complete confidence in us to run the place, and we never let him down. I learned to appreciate good meats and rolls, and how to place a 3-team parlay bet with the meat delivery man, who also served as the local bookie. My co-workers and I would also throw the occasional party at Yom’s after closing time, just for ourselves and some friends. Oh boy, the booze and 80s rock flowed after dark at Yom’s Place!

It was at one of these parties that I was introduced to Jack Daniels. I believe I drank too much of it, but I can’t really remember. My co-workers later told me that I got pretty drunk, proclaiming that I was David Lee Roth as I sang and danced on the tables, puking my guts out, and eventually passing out. Good times! To this day, just the thought of Jack Daniels makes me nauseous. If I catch a whiff of the stuff, I am transported back to Yom’s Place, and then immediately start to gag. God forbid I actually drink some – I would probably start singing Van Halen’s Everybody Wants Some and promptly pass out!

Needless to say, I am not a fan of Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey. I’m also not a fan of most American whiskeys, probably because I associate them all with Jack Daniels, and my memory of that is not positive. I enjoy Irish Whiskey and an occasional Scotch, but spare me the rest. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

The Spice of Life in Bethlehem

Now that I’m all grown up, my family and I live in Bethlehem PA. Hanover Township to be precise. About 3 miles from our house, in one of the many industrial parks near us, is a company called Newly Weds Foods. They run a factory that blends flavourings and spices for the commercial foods industry. When the wind is blowing south, we can smell what they’re brewing up as clearly as if we were standing on the factory floor.

The smells from Newly Weds Foods are pretty pungent. And most of them smell pretty good, if not overpowering. Cumin. Maple Syrup. Vanilla. It can get a little annoying at times, if only because it makes me hungry!

My final smell memory just happened recently, when I smelled a new smell from the factory for the first time: coconut. Now, I’m a huge fan of coconut, in many forms. Mounds and Almond Joy bars. Piña Coladas, which I’ve been drinking more of recently, thanks to the recently discovered original recipe. Macaroons and coconut chocolate chip cookies. And German Chocolate cake, which is my favorite cake that I ask for every year for my birthday.

When I smelled the overpowering aroma of coconut in our backyard yesterday, my mind went in a bunch of different directions. The first was my basement Tiki bar, where I had just mixed up a fresh Piña Colada last week. The second was my birthday, which we just celebrated a month ago with my favorite cake. The third and most powerful memory was at the beach in Wildwood NJ, where my Babcha and Djadjo used to take us every summer when we were very young. Why the beach? Because of the suntan lotion! Back in those days, before SPF 50 sunscreen, Coppertone and other tropical suntan lotions were nothing more than cooking oil. And they smelled like coconut. To me, anyway. Leave it to a simple, powerful smell to take me back to my childhood. Again.

So there you have it. A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but a smell can trigger one powerful memory. Or several. Like our dogs know: the sense of smell is one of our strongest senses, and should not be taken for granted. Smell ya later!

One thought on “The Persistence of Memory, Triggered by Smell

  1. Elaine Paulson

    What a talented writer you are!
    Now you need to follow up with a piece that links a good sense of smell with good cognitive skills!
    You’ve got it made!!!😁

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