Scent and Taste
Two invaluable aids to memory are scent and taste. The mere whiff of a long-forgotten
aroma can instantly bring to life associations reaching far back into human consciousness.
Take kitchen smells.
One of my earliest memories is called forth almost daily when toasting bread for breakfast.
Now the bread emerges from a pre-sliced, pre-packaged loaf, and the toast is shot upward
from an electric toasting machine, a far cry from the scotch loaf or pan bread that emerged
from John Joe Lawn's horse-drawn bakery van, and the hand-held fork used to dangle a slice
of bread over a live fire in an open grate.
Somehow the scent created by the electric toaster isn't quite the same as that made by
glowing coals or ashy turf. And the outcome is predictable, a sameness repeated day by
day. Set a knob at a certain reading, and the certainty of bread being toasted to a certain
crispness is assured. Compare that with first using a breadknife to cut a slice from a
loaf, inserting the two prongs of a toasting fork carefully into its middle, then holding
the fork over the coals and manipulating it back and forth, and sideways if necessary. In
that way the fire and the bread generated the real smell of toast.
Of course, from time to time a slice slipped off the fork onto the coals, was at once
flipped out, the ash brushed off it, the fork reinserted, and the toasting resumed. Usually
when this happened, the tines of the fork made a hole in the bread, and getting the slice
to remain balanced when the fork was reinserted presented difficulties, and sometimes a
second fall. That was a bad start to a day, and on such occasions ejaculations of an
unholy sort passed for morning prayer.
Cardinal Newman, whose "An Idea for a University" is still a model of concise reasoning,
knew something of such early morning activities when he penned these lines in his "Morning
Baking bread at home provided an even more comforting scent. Worldwide, the smells
emanating from bakeries are the most satisfying of sensations. Onophiles wax eloquent
about wine bouquets, but all their cliches poured in a tun can't do justice to the
olfactory appeal of a bakery, any bakery, in any clime.
Daily bread, daily toast, daily memories. But I do appreciate the advent of the toaster
and sliced bread.
Also evocative of scenes from childhood is the scent of flowers. Where I live now, in an
apartment block on the edge of the Rideau River, a lilac tree bursts into bloom each year
in early June, and for two weeks its scent wafting upward to my balcony brings back
recollection of the lone lilac tree in the garden my mother heroically attempted to
maintain behind the old "Vindicator" newspaper office in the Purt, in Ballyshannon.
Then, as a small boy, I looked up at the tree. Someone would bend a branch and let me smell
the scent. Now, as a grown man, I look down from my balcony on the top of the tree, and
lean over to breathe in its topmost blooms.
One small note. Looking up, one does not as readily discern the advent of decay as when
looking down. From above, the rust brown that heralds the coming doom can easily be seen
as it starts to attack the coned crest of a blossom and, in the course of a week, work its
way down the bush in the annual cycle of death and rebirth.
Other flowers trailing childhood memories are snowdrops, bluebells, buttercups, and
daisies. Snowdrops bring back the river bank above Kathleen's Falls, just in front of the
ruins of an early monk's church which had a tenuous association with Colmcille himself. For
some reason, the soil beneath the trees at that location brought forth the earliest
snowdrops. Bluebells also grew there in profusion. The whole area now lies fathoms deep
beneath a man-made lake.
Buttercups always gave rise to chuckles when toddlers were about.
"Let's see, do you like butter? Come here. Hold your chin up! Yes, you do. You like
When a blossomed buttercup was held beneath a little chin and the skin reflected the yellow
of the cup, there was only one conclusion: "You like butter!" For some reason it always
drew a giggle.
Oliver St. John Gogarty in his highly valued poem, "Golden Stockings", shouts of the joy
of seeing his daughter run through a field rich in wild flowers:
"And the gold-dust coming up
From the trampled butter-cup."
Making daisy chains was a favourite pastime for young mothers and their children, even in
the heart of a city, in St. Stephen's Green, Dublin, which I later traversed daily on my
way to work in Dáil Éireann.
Taste is the second sense that tempts a wayward memory into sharp focus, though in its own
way it has a harder task with the passing years and changes in the taste buds of the mouth.
Sweets, or, if you prefer, candies, can conjure up recollections long submerged in human
In the late 1920s and early 1930s two confectionary delights implanted a life-long memory
of the craving they aroused in one small boy, "Black Jack" and "Peggy's Leg". "Black Jack"
was a flat licorice-flavoured toffee bar, and "Peggy's Leg" a tan coloured cylinder of
creamy candy that melted, just melted, in your mouth. These were treats "to die for", to
use our current vernacular. Back then they were "to be good for", for if you were good,
and I mean very, very good, you might be rewarded with one of them.
Sweets were not given with the same liberality as parents now distribute them. For one
thing, they cost money, and money wasn't plentiful. For another, there was a commonly held
view that too many sweets weren't good for you. It was a very commonsense view, too!
Fruit can be a powerful conscience reviver, and the clogged drains of memory are sometimes
unplugged when the tongue tingles with a forgotten taste.
For me, nothing is more powerful when it comes to reviving both conscience and memory than
the humble tomato.
Adam and Eve came to grief over eating an apple.
I came a cropper over a tomato.
"How was that?"
Not hard to tell. It was just before an important event in my young life.
Apparently my Dad liked a tomato sandwich with his tea. One day Mother put an especially
good looking one away, to keep for his tea.
I found it.
When Mother took it down to slice it up to make the sandwich, lo, there was a great big
bite missing from it. The tomato itself had been turned back to front to hide the missing
"Does a tomato have a back and front?"
Smart. Very smart!
Came the big event, my First Communion and, preceding it, my first Confession.
Into the box. Back went the shutter behind the grille.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."
"Yes, my son. And what are your sins?"
"I stole a bite out of a tomato, Father."
"And whose tomato was it, my son?"
"It was for my Daddy's tea."
"I see. And are you sorry you did it?"
"Good boy. And why are you sorry?"
"Mammy was cross with me!"
There was a bit of a cough at the other side of the grille. He must have had a cold.
"And what about Jesus? Are you sorry you offended him by what you did?"
Everybody has his or her First Confession story. This is mine.
Adam and Eve got thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Me? I eventually landed up in Canada.
Believe you me, I got a much better deal. And I can eat all the tomatoes I want, if only
I can live with the memory of the day I made my First Confession!
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