“The Smell of Loss”

Normally I post about fragrance on or around Fridays, in my weekly “Fragrance Friday” blog post. But this weekend’s New York Times had such a stunning, beautiful op-ed piece, The Smell of Loss, that I just had to share it.

The first time it happens is a dark winter’s afternoon, not quite a year after her death. I’m at my desk working, and there it suddenly is: sharp, glassy-green, with that faint, musky undertone that catches at the back of your throat.

I recognize it instantly: the scent that hung in our hall every time she came to supper. The perfume that clung to her coat, her scarves, detectable sometimes for hours on my babies’ hair after she’d been carrying and kissing them.

That first time, it’s a shock. Her perfume is something I’ve long forgotten (in her final months, mostly bedridden, she was beyond all that). But here it is — absolute and definite and quite overpowering.

The author, Julie Myerson, is describing the signature fragrance of her beloved, deceased mother-in-law, which she starts smelling at unexpected moments, for minutes at a time, with no apparent source such as clothing. She consults experts:

I email Jay A. Gottfried, a neuroscientist who runs the Gottfried Laboratory at Northwestern University, which investigates the links between brain activity and sensory perception.

Professor Gottfried tells me that what I describe is known in his business as “phantosmia” or “phantom smells.” The sense of smell, he says, is our most ancient, primal sense and has “intimate and direct control over emotional and behavioral states.”

You really have to read the rest of this article, it is wonderful. Enjoy! Have you ever experienced this phenomenon?

Illustration: Aidan Koch, for The New York Times

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