What the Body Remembers

October 15, 2020 § 22 Comments


By Amy Grier

Two years ago, I lost most of my ability to taste and smell literally overnight. A stubborn sinus infection knocked me low, requiring antibiotics. I cooked up a pot of chunky chicken soup: vegetables, broth, spices, fresh garlic and onions, all the good stuff that’s supposed to help fight an illness. One day, I heated up a bowl in the microwave, anticipating a steamy, comforting meal. I took a bite and tasted nothing. The bits of potato felt like sand on my tongue; the chicken like chewy rubber between my teeth.

I wasn’t worried. It had happened before, also during a sinus infection.  When the inflammation had receded and my sinuses cleared, I could smell and taste again. So I thought, I remember this. It’s okay. It’ll come back when I’m better.

It didn’t. I saw my ENT doctor, who slid a scope down my nostril and declared my sinuses healthy. He gave me a lengthy scratch-and-sniff test, tabulated the results, and looked genuinely shocked: You were right, he said, you’ve tested very low; as if I’d been exaggerating the loss. An MRI found no anomalies. The default diagnosis is nerve damage. Prognosis: my senses may, but probably won’t, return.

Now that COVID-19 has robbed so many of taste and smell, perhaps more people can understand the strange grief that accompanies this loss. I used to wonder: if I had to give up either wine or coffee, which would I choose? I couldn’t imagine it. These days, I drink quick espressos, grateful caffeine still works, though I can’t enjoy the flavor. Wine is like liquid iron on my palate, acrid and metallic. A sip of Cabernet makes me want to cry.

It’s hitting me now how much I rely on taste and smell as I write memoir. These senses ground my memories in a particular way. As the neurologist Donald Wilson explains, “The olfactory system, anatomically, is right in the middle of the part of the brain that’s very important for memory. There are strong neural connections between the two.”

Remembering the taste of the tart green apples that fell from the tree in my family’s back yard leads inevitably to my mother’s obsession with keeping the yard clean; how she sent me out to collect the good apples and claw the rotting flesh of the bad ones out of the grass and into a bucket with my bare hands. The edible ones she’d smash into a thin sauce and serve as a side dish. My lips puckered when I ate it. Those apples and my mother’s obsessive nature are inextricably linked in my memory.

Two years of this loss, though, and I’m beginning to lose some of my sense memory. I want to write how the scent of Oil of Olay—my mother’s favorite lotion—reminds me of her narcissism, of her soft body and how she’d stand too close to me, coopting my personal space, of her smothering, critical presence. It also brings to mind my childhood longing for the warmth and affection that lived only in my fantasies of her, of the mother I could make her into if I were good enough.

Struggling to write about this, I realized: I can’t remember what Oil of Olay lotion smells like. I can’t go to CVS, buy a bottle, open the cap, and take a sniff to remind myself. That particular scent is lost to me. I never thought I could forget it, but here I was, trying to remember the scent that kindled such longing and repulsion in me. Was it floral? Powdery? What does that mean anymore? They are words mostly disconnected from my reality. Perhaps my memory of smell and taste had lost its reality, too. Can I still depend on them for writing memoir? Can I trust them?

I sat with this question at my desk recently, staring at the monitor. How do I write about something I can’t remember? I closed my eyes and imagined the large pink bottle with the black cap sitting next to the bathroom sink; how every Christmas my mother would buy it for herself, wrap it, place it under the tree, then open it Christmas morning, grinning at her self-generosity.  I imagined her smoothing the lotion over her face and neck, and I suddenly felt the answer: my muscles were tense. My lips curled as if I’d tasted something bad. I felt claustrophobic. And I understood that all that all I’d experienced as a result of that smell still lives in my body. The sense memory manifests in my physiological response regardless if I can remember how the lotion smells. The nerve damage is in the front of my brain. The memory, as Wilson says, is in the middle—still alive, still accessible.

My body knows, and will probably always know, how the scent of Oil of Olay makes me feel sad and suffocated. My face will always cringe when thinking of a blob of mashed up green apples on my dinner plate. I can still feel all of this, which means I can access the memory of smell and taste. Which means I can write about it with as much truth and clarity as ever.

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Amy Grier earned her MFA at Lesley University. A singer and classically trained pianist, she has taught music and English in the U.S. and Japan. Amy has a master’s in East Asian Studies from Washington University in St. Louis and one in Literature and Writing from Rivier University. Her prose and poetry has appeared in Poetry East, eratio, Streetlight Magazine, xoJane, and Dream International Quarterly. Her current project, Terrible Daughter, is a memoir about surviving childhood with a mentally ill mother.

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§ 22 Responses to What the Body Remembers

  • Kristen Paulson-Nguyen says:

    Wonderful piece and discovery you made. Congratulations. Loved reading it. Hope the memoir is going well. xo.

  • Our brain remembers. Our body remembers. Even if we think we have forgotten. Great realization. I’m glad to hear you were able to calm your mind when it comes to your ability to write.

  • Beautifully written with an important message about the depth of memories.

    • Amy says:

      Thank you so much. Calming my mind has never been a particular strength of mine. But I like to think I’m getting better at it.

  • Amy Yelin says:

    Amy – this is beautiful and sad and powerful essay. Thank you for sharing your story. I read it and was imagining what a difficult experience it must have been to lose your sense of smell and taste. My taste changed for a bit during chemo treatments, but thankfully came back. My memory after treatment, however, not so great. Congrats on the publication in Brevity!!

    • Amy says:

      Thanks Amy 🙂 That’s the thing about illness and treatment, too. I took oral chemotherapy for many years, which knocked my immune system down enough that I got chronic sinus infections. I’m on different treatment now, but I think this one infection was the last straw for my olfactory nerves.

      I think memory would be a very tough loss to navigate.

  • wayneude says:

    Powerful and insightful.

  • Cathy says:

    This is beautiful and very powerful, thank you. We all know that scent can trigger memory. Here you have your memories without the scent, it is interesting and I am so glad you are able to access these memories so well. The description of the scent itself is not so important to us readers, but what it conjures….yes! I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with chemo and hope you are on the mend. Beautiful thoughts.

    • Amy says:

      Thanks, Cathy. I appreciate that insight, that what scent ‘conjures’ is what matters. I like how that sounds almost alchemical.

  • Wow–crazy potent. It never occurred to me that even if you can’t smell it, just thinking about it and visualizing the events around it can make your body relive it.
    I’ve always heard of memory and the olfactory sensations… but even when diminished or gone, that’s just amazing.

    • Amy says:

      Hello fellow introvert 🙂 I think we always have that bodily response, but we don’t take notice of it until we have to. At least that seems true for me. I do pay much more attention now to my instinctual, physical responses to things/people and trust those instincts more.

  • Robbie Gamble says:

    Amy! This is such a precise, poignant piece! I know that olfactory recall has had some pivotal moments in my own writing, and I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose its power. Well done. And it’s so exciting to see you in Brevity!

  • Heidi Croot says:

    Inspiring and reassuring story about how loss latches to resilience to uncover hidden pathways that take us to the same destination in surprising ways. Thank you for this!

  • mizlatea says:

    Amy, this evokes such memories for me as well. Eating homemade lunch sandwiches tasting of Nivea in elementary school. Or the smell of Lilies of the Valley wafting around sandy floorboards in our old house….Thanks for sharing an amazing story!

  • “It also brings to mind my childhood longing for the warmth and affection that lived only in my fantasies of her, of the mother I could make her into if I were good enough.”

    Amy, this piece is moving and resonant in its reflections on memory, and how it lives in both brain and body. Wishing you well in the memoir writing. I am a fellow Lesley MFA grad, too. Nice to make your virtual acquaintance. 🙂

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