Flash memory.

It’s not something you can plan for. How often do we consciously draw it in and say, “I’m going to file this away for later!” But it happens when we least expect it.

Few things are as evocative as a sudden scent.

Our sense of smell has amazing effects on our memory, doesn’t it? The smell of, say, rain setting dust after a hot summer day, the unexpected odor of some familiar comfort food being prepared, a waft of something dead, the scent of a baseball glove, a whiff of a perfume or cologne that recalls a person long missed, … can trebuchet you into a memory long untapped. They can be sweet or make you afraid all over again. They can bring smiles or tears with a force that cannot be rivaled. It is as if you aren’t seeing or hearing your actual present for a moment. You are instead somewhere and somewhen and sometimes someone else.

This morning I had one of these flashbacks.

The candles in the chapel were down to the nub, the brass followers practically touching the metal holder. There was no extracting the followers, so I pulled the waxen glob and the hot metal out of the candlesticks and took them to the house, whereupon I wrapped them in paper towels and put them on a sheet of foil in the oven.

When I opened the oven again, …

Melted beeswax.

I was 12 again at the kitchen table with my grandmother making Ukrainian Easter Eggs.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Lily says:

    What a wonderful memory! You just warmed my heart, Father, in the middle of a challenging morning. Thank you.

  2. Patti Day says:

    During Lent 2008, My husband and I attended mass on Holy Thursday at a church, which sadly is one of those gymnasium style arenas, no tabernacle that I could find, no crucifix, no statues, just a single banner, but, the church was filled with incense, the walls seemed to slip away, and only the solemnity of the Mass surrounded us. The procession to repose the Blessed Sacrament was to a separate building that was like a Roman villa, and it too was shrouded in a fragrant cloud. When I smell the fragrance of that incense, I am back in that feeling of closeness to Our Lord. Sadly our pastor uses some acrid smelling incense that is nasty, evocative of brimstone.

  3. APX says:

    I love the smell of making Ukrainian Easter eggs! I went to a fine arts school for a few years, so we used to get to make them during art class.

    I have a weird one. Somehow my translucent powder brush in my purse picked up the scent of the incense that’s used at the FSSP’s Mass I attended when I had closer access to Calgary so I could attend said Mass. All summer whenever I’d use my powder brush, I’d get a whiff of the incense and be reminded of Mass all over again. Even more strange, I do not get this same reminder from incense used in my current city. It smells terrible and putrid.

    The worst one for me is the smell of deployed airbags. I was in a few bad crashes that could have easily gone the other way. Now whenever I run into a crash (not literally) and stop to assist, if the airbags have been deployed, the smell causes me to have flashbacks to my crashes and re-live them all over again. Not fun.

  4. Clinton says:

    About a month ago I was traveling with my sisters, and revisited our childhood home.
    We’d all been away for over twenty years. We stopped at a lake where we had spent
    many childhood summer days. The area is deep in a pine forest, and as we stepped out
    of the car we were all simultaneously swept back in time by the distinct scent of pine
    needles and lake water combined in the summer sun. As a kid, I wasn’t even aware that
    there was such a distinctive, beautiful scent making its impression. I suppose one never
    knows what will become one’s madeline. [Proust!]

  5. AnAmericanMother says:

    Smells are surer than sounds or sights
    To make your heart-strings crack–
    They start those awful voices o’ nights
    That whisper, ” Old man, come back! ”
    That must be why the big things pass
    And the little things remain,
    Like the smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
    Riding in, in the rain.

    – Rudyard Kipling

  6. MJ says:

    My grandma on my dad’s side passed away when I was 15, but she had this perfume she used to wear – and I loved the scent of it. I never knew what the name of it was, and I had never found any perfume quite like it – until a couple years ago, when I was at the grocery store. A lady brushed by me on an aisle, and she was wearing the same perfume…I was so shocked, I just stood there, and was transported back to that time and place when I was little and grandma would come over to visit. I wish I had had the presence of mind to speak to the lady and ask her what the name of the perfume was! I so regret that I didn’t speak to her and find out, because I’ve never run across that scent since. :-(

  7. Banjo pickin girl says:

    MJ, If you are in America, I bet it was an old Coty fragrance like Emeraude. They are not so common any more but they had some great ones. You can frequently get tiny sample assortments of them at stores like Big Lots (in the US). They are fun to try. Though my mom always used Wind Song. She was easy to shop for. Though I remember her using Chanel No. 5 in the early 60’s. I once accidentally spilled her bottle of Guerlain when I was 4, I will never forget that smell, I reeked floral for days. Bees wouldn’t leave me alone.

  8. Frankie says:

    I’ve been following your blog for some time and have been tempted to go through the registration process just to comment on one post or another. This post prompted me to finally take the plunge. I loved the post!! It reminded me of the way the smell of lilacs in the spring gently transport me to my childhood neighborhood in southern Ohio, the way my grandma’s empty compacts smelled just like her (she would give them to us when they were almost empty), the way certain vanilla-y aromas make me feel like my mom is just in the other room instead of gone 10+years, etc… Your post also made me smile because I was raised in and still attend a tiny Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church and fondly remember all the little Ukrainian ladies (sadly most of them long gone) making pysanky (sp?) to raffle off at the church dinners. When we were little kids, some of the ladies would let us have one of the Easter eggs for a hug. Wonderful memories. Thanks for this post and sorry for the too-long comment – should have registered sooner.

  9. Mike says:

    My brother bought an old suitcase at a flea market, and when we were in college, we used to say its cedar-like, woody scent reminded us of the moment when you walk for the first time into a cottage on the coast of Maine…in a second, we were in our early teens, ready to walk on the ragged coastline

  10. lizaanne says:

    Fresh rising bread will always remind me of visiting the plant where my grandfather (RIP) was manager. He was the plant manager for many years for the Wonder Bread plant in Detroit. He took three of us grandchildren for a tour, all wearing our little paper hats, through the plant. The fresh hot loaves traveling on conveyor belts over head, the super cool slicing machine, and the way the air puffed into the bags to open them up for the newly born bread. Mmmmmmm!!!!! I’m 46 now, and still that place can come back to me in a flash when I smell fresh hot bread.

    Beeswax – The work of bees!!!
    Will always remind me of visiting Greenfield Village as a child. One visit we got to dip our own candles, the warm beeswax sticking to my hands, leaving its honey scent.

    Ah – of all the sweetest memories, I think those brought to us by scent are the best. They somehow are more pure and accurate than any other. Our nose doesn’t let our mind wander far from the truth.

    Thank you Father! This was a lovely little memory trip! :-)

  11. Martin17773 says:

    Yesterday morning. Bushwalking. Middle of Rosary – intention “vocation?” Smell of incense from nowhere. Had the feeling of “Come home” indeed.
    Said in fact out loud: “You will lead me home” (I was at a crossroads on the trail)

  12. RickMK says:

    Way back when I made my First Holy Communion, in Philadelphia at Holy Child Church (which isn’t there anymore), all the kids got a little, child’s missal (it was the ’65 version). It was printed on high-quality, heavy white paper, with a very distinctive smell. Every once in a while I’ll come across a book with that same unique smell, and it takes me right back 40+ years!

    Smells are important. Smell is how you find a good-tasting honeysuckle flower to suck or tasty peaches. In high school took chemical technology at a vo-tech school, and in our senior year we got to pick out projects to do, and one of the projects that I picked (one of the few that I had any success with) was esters – because I got to make such nice smells. And you can often see references to smell as being one of the major differences between Heaven and Hell.

    One of my very favorite smells is a bookstore that sells old, used books. And of course petrichor.

  13. Denis Crnkovic says:


    WHY is it that the poet tells
    So little of the sense of smell?
    These are the odors I love well:

    The smell of coffee freshly ground;
    Or rich plum pudding, holly crowned;
    Or onions fried and deeply browned.

    The fragrance of a fumy pipe;
    The smell of apples, newly ripe;
    And printer’s ink on leaden type.

    Woods by moonlight in September
    Breathe most sweet, and I remember
    Many a smoky camp-fire ember.

    Camphor, turpentine, and tea,
    The balsam of a Christmas tree,
    These are whiffs of gramarye. . .
    A ship smells best of all to me!

    — Christopher Morley

  14. Charivari Rob says:

    Many fragrances and memories for me.

    Perhaps the dearest would be tea. When I was little and Grandma would come to stay for a while – those were great times for me. I was youngest in the house and youngest of her grandchildren. My sister would be at school, Dad at work, Mom running errands, and I’d get to stay home and have Grandma to myself for a while! We’d play cards and Scrabble, I’d thread her sewing needle for her, and I’d make tea for her. I forget if she had a particular favorite brand of tea, but to this day (and she’s gone more than 30 years now) opening a canister of tea takes me back. I stand there and inhale deeply, basking in the memory.

    Frankie, I was thinking about lilacs and debating whether to post this, but once I saw your post I figured I should go ahead. Here’s a little something from Sister Mary Amnesia and the gang:

  15. Radagast the Brown says:

    Good ol’ pysanky! My mother used to make Ukrainian Easter eggs with her grandmother many years ago. They are still on display and make for a wonderful decoration in the home. Ah, where does the time go?

  16. chironomo says:

    For me it is the smell of tempera paint… reminds me of my kindergarten class at the now long gone Prairie Elementary School in Prairie Village, Kansas. The finger paintings hung along the walls made the entire school hang heavy with the scent of Crayola Tempera. Of course, there was also the very memorable smell of the asbestos wrapped pipes that ran along the ceilings. The school was a retrofitted Indian Mission that was itself a retrofitted outpost dating back from before the civil war, and unfortunately burned to the ground sometime in the early 1980’s.

  17. AnAmericanMother says:

    Meant to mention earlier, but forgot, that I have had really good luck getting wax off candlesticks etc. by popping them in the freezer. When they get good and cold, the wax just pops right off in a lump with a thumbnail or the edge of a plastic card.
    The oven method isn’t a good idea for me because I’m a bit of a klutz and tend to spill the melted wax all over, thus winding up with a worse problem than I had to start with . . .

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