Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Smell of Memory

I'll have to admit, winter got to be too much. I escaped to funny, sunny Austin, TX with son #1 to visit my sister for a long weekend. What a treat. We hit many a playscape, ate BBQ and Tex-Mex on the porch, and got caught up. It was sort of a reunion weekend, unintentionally. A few friends were able to sneak away from their winter quarters, a few more still lived in Austin, one had a meeting for work. Live-action Facebook.

I lived in Austin in the early '90s. It was the location of the first what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life crisis; leaving art history, a quick stop in fabric retail, then moving onto a Costume Design M.F.A. So, I revisited many memories: spied on old homes (all still standing, a bit more run down, one hideous paint job), visited the University of Texas Costume Shop, dined at favorite restaurants, wandered familiar Zilker Park trails. Meeting up with old friends was a trip, and it seemed as if no time had passed at all until Eamonn--the son--came wandering by, to remind us all that life moves on. "Mom, where's my Cars sticker book?"

What stopped me dead in my tracks was the smells. They say scent evokes strong emotional memories, and this trip was no exception. Flavors in the air kept catching me by surprise. High on the list of favorites was Mountain Laurel, a very purple-y smelling flower (like Grape Bubble Yum) that is a harbinger of spring in Texas. The most startling was the smell of the theatre building on campus (completely undescribable--dust+dancer sweat+grease paint+scenery paint+etc etc etc). I breathed it in as I climbed the stairs to the costume shop and I was immediately struck by a feeling of dread--deadlines, incomprehensible draping instructions, irritating student actors, imagined (hopefully) academic inadequacy.

Odd, since the costume world has served me very well in the decade since grad school, and yet that building smell reduced me to an insecure student. Instantly. It suggests that there are some unresolved issues from that period, although I'm not sure how I would deal with them. It was a very interesting moment.

This combination of smells and faces made it a vacation of much reflection. Interesting to unpack some of that baggage, but I was also glad to put it away once I got home. I keep being confronted with the past--my and other's recollections on fb--and this visit was another manifestation of that. I love checking in with things that happened in previous chapters, finding out how people's lives have unfolded, reestablishing contact. I'm a little rattled by the emotional responses still lurking.

Material for the book, I guess. I wish I could publish this in scratch-n-sniff:


LP said...

Austin is also recovering from your trip, perhaps wistful as well--it's been 40 degrees and rainy since you left. We miss ya'll.


Dixlet said...

"the smell of the theatre building on campus (completely undescribable--dust+dancer sweat+grease paint+scenery paint+etc etc etc)"

It's not undescribable - you described it perfectly. Just reading it I could almost smell it...kind of a virtual scratch and sniff.

So many years away from the theater but it seems like it was just yesterday. *sigh* ;-)

Great post!

Your mom said...

You reminded me of a puzzlement when I visited Austin a week before you. Everywhere I was seeing these bushes with purple flowers that people were calling "mountain laurel." As a native Pennsylvanian, I am quite aware of what mountain laurel looks like (it's our state flower, for Pete's sake) and it's an evergreen with clusters of pink buds that open up to become white flowers with pink markings. You see it in the woods and as a Girl Scout, you learn it's against the law to pick it.

Now Wikipedia has come to my aid and explained that what they call mountain laurel in Texas is really Texas Mescalbean. Have a look at

Brenda P. said...

Like Guada-LOOP, Amaril-LO, and Man-SHACK (Manchaca), maybe Texans decided Mescalbean sounded like Mountain Laurel and left it at that.

A lot easier to say, doncha know!