Smells of the Past

While bicycling along the Charles this past week, I smelled cigar smoke. The smell brought a smile to my face – or at least to my mind. It’s not that unusual while I’m out on my bicycle to smell the smoke of someone’s cigar. Usually – like this time – the person smoking the cigar is sitting on a bench by the trail. There was a time, though, while riding in northern Virginia that I began to smell the cigar several minutes before I overtook a man enjoying his smoke while riding leisurely on his bicycle – the smoke wafted behind him for a mile or so, and the smell got stronger and stronger the closer I got to him. I encountered him several times over the years, and usually smelled his cigar long before I saw him.

I typically don’t like the smell of tobacco smoke, but cigar smoke is different because of an early life experience. My father was a minister, and when I was very young (up until I was four years old), he served a church in a small west Texas town. I have only vague memories of living there, but for several years after moving away from the town we returned at least once a year to visit the dentist. I didn’t realize it then, but I suspect now that the small town dentist offered my family a clergy discount. But our visits weren’t limited to the dentist. We also went to the local dry goods store, where a large man (was he called Big Tom?) held court as manager of the store. He greeted my family warmly, waving his cigar around his face. The building had a well-worn wooden floor, and shelves stacked with everything from men’s shirts to kitchen appliances to shoes. But what I remember best is the smell of Big Tom’s cigar which filled the building. Smelling cigars now brings back memories of a simpler time in my life, when my worries were limited to things like whether I would like the color of the shirt my parents bought for me while visiting the store.

I wouldn’t say I like tobacco, or even that I like the smell of cigar smoke. But I do find some comfort in being brought back to a simpler time, and olfactory memories seem stronger than other sorts of memory somehow. Surely there must be some evolutionary advantage hidden there.