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BERKELEY'S NEWS • JANUARY 17, 2023

Year! Review! Read our 2022 Year in Retrospect Issue!

The power of smells

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DECEMBER 03, 2022

T
he walk from my dorm to class is a long one. Long enough for me to take off my sweater as I start overheating and listen to about seven songs start to finish — though I always end up skipping them halfway through. Walking along frat row and down Bancroft Street brings an array of aromas my way. Although most aren’t necessarily enjoyable to stumble upon, I am always taken aback when I am hit with a smell associated with a loved one in my life. 

I’m never sure where these smells come from; maybe it’s someone walking past me or a smell carried by the wind, but somehow they find their way to me. These serendipitous moments bring me home, reminding me of memories attached to these people whose smells seem to appear out of thin air. Maybe it’s a mix of their laundry detergent and soap, but even as their clothes are discarded or bought from a new brand, the smell attached to the people in my life seems to never fade. They take me back to quality time with each of these people: watching TV with Nati, driving with Emma, eating dinner with Tammy’s family and reading in bed with my mom. These places of safety are wrapped up and brought to me on special occasions, whiffs of memories that hit me when I least expect them to. 

These places of safety are wrapped up and brought to me on special occasions, whiffs of memories that hit me when I least expect them to. 

Smells embody our days, our favorite foods, our friends, our families, our homes, our clothes. My favorite and most memorable smells are associated with my friends and my mom. After years of trying different perfumes — from Clinique’s Happy to Santal 33 by Le Labo — shampoos, detergents and hairsprays, my mom seems to still end up with the same smell: a constant that I will forever treasure. She is home to me. Each hug is a sensory overflow. It is warmth, love, sweetness and care all wrapped into a bundle. 

I used to sit in her room on the carpet just soaking in her smell. I remember asking her the name of her scent and sure, when she held up the bottle there was a familiarity to it, but because she wore it, it was her own — a smell that truly couldn’t be bottled up, packaged, put on a shelf for purchase or replicated exactly the same on anyone else. This smell is a background tune to most of my memories and holds the magical property of time traveling me back to a loving hug. 

My friends’ scents have always been able to find their way into my life. I know their smell, their essence. I look forward to it. I wear their clothes holding onto the familiarity and the hope that I get to have a part of them with me. Somehow the smell never seems to fade even after the washer and dryer have tried their best to remove it. This fact rings truer now than ever before. 

I learned the true value of smell at the age of 14, when my grandmother passed away. Even though her body died, her spirit lived on and with that, so did her smell. Walking into her empty apartment was always a strange experience after she died. Everything was in the same place: her books, her pictures, her clothes, her toothbrush. Her favorite earrings awaited their next wear on her night stand and her smell had stayed strong. Although quiet, nothing had changed, apartment 11J was just waiting for its owner to come back home. It was as if any minute the multiple key locks would click open with the push of the thick door and the wheelchair would be welcomed back home with the roll over the first hump in the ground. The house was filled with my Grammy’s essence, her padded feet that used to roam before her memories slipped away. 

Standing in the apartment after she passed with her lingering smell filled each corner with a memory. When looking at the empty dining room table, I saw my mom and grammy gathered around playing Scrabble as I pretended to play, creating words that you wouldn’t find in the dictionary. At the side window bench, I was brought back to kneeling with my grammy as we held up binoculars looking at the tiny people 11 floors below us. In the living room, there I was with one of grammy’s fans performing the Spanish chocolate piece from “The Nutcracker” as she watched and cheered me on. I am this home. I hold onto her smell. I wear her sweaters, her dresses, I keep her bags in use and have given her changing curtains a new place to stay in the corner of my room. I slip back and forth between the smells that latch onto these items and the memories attached. The idea that she will knock on my door asking to wear it all again never leaves my mind. 

I slip back and forth between the smells that latch onto these items and the memories attached. The idea that she will knock on my door asking to wear it all again never leaves my mind. 

The value of smells and the importance they have played in my life has come back to me during my first semester at UC Berkeley. While being here, smells have grounded me, kept me present or taken me back in a nostalgic haze; all washing over me and being greeted by surprise, but also excitement. Remembering a memory when smelling something passing me by has thrown me off course. Not a bad course, per say, but a course of reminiscing. It fills me with a past gem hidden in my memory that only the smell could uncover. And now, as this first semester comes to a close, it is memorialized with the crisp air filling the car and hints of a smoking chimney, the coast redwoods that are dotted throughout campus and the swirling smells of pumpkin spice and “winter wonderland” candles, cookies, microwaveable food and perfumes that are room 102. These smells hold me tight, bringing me into a new season, a new era of my life.

Contact Keely Chambers at 

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DECEMBER 03, 2022