When the nose does not always know
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” said Juliet in Shakespeare’s play.
Well, Juliet was only half right — she never had COVID-19.
Last week, I wrote about my COVID lingering effects, including the loss of taste and all its frustrations. But as the symptoms hang on, I have come to realize that taste is only half of the loss. I’m keenly aware of the sensory pleasures that smell provides, but I never really thought about them until I couldn’t experience them.
Normally, the day begins with the rich scent of coffee floating through the house. Although I love drinking it, I think I enjoy the pungent aroma of coffee even more. It announces the morning – reliable, warm, another day.
But not today. And not any day since about Dec. 10.
By Christmas week, I realized I couldn’t smell Christmas. For me, the aromas are almost as important as the lights and ribbons. Although we switched to an artificial tree years ago, I always make sure we have mantle decorations and centerpieces of fresh aromatic greens. Add candles, chocolate and baked goods, and pretty quickly the house can smell like Mrs. Claus just took up residence.
This year we were quarantined, so buying greens and creating Christmas magic were off the table. In my recuperative state, I was truly feeling sorry for myself.
I’d been unable to put up a tree — no family, no baked treats, no present exchange or holiday dinner. If we weren’t going to have a Christmas, please, God, at least let me smell it.
Some dear friends and my son each sent arrangements of fresh greens and flowers; one sent a festive tabletop tree with lights. They were heart-filling beautiful and Richard said the whole house smelled like a pine forest.
Pine forest? I smelled nothing.
Dear Richard is the Sunday chef for our one full breakfast each week. Last Sunday, as he brought a second cup of coffee into the den, I asked him if he was going to put the bacon on.
“It’s been in the oven for over 10 minutes,” he said. But I couldn’t smell it. Not smell bacon cooking? That’s positively un-American.
I started thinking about the aromas that make up our days, that fill our homes with our families’ tastes, interests and ethnicities. Family kitchen smells linger in the air — sometimes even hang on to the walls and draperies. When I was young I loved visiting the lamb and lemon-scented homes of my Greek friends; the garlic, olive oil and oregano aromas at our Italian neighbors; and the smells of linguica sausage and oranges waiting for me when I visited the old Portuguese couple across the street. I think to this day that if I were blindfolded and walked into the Giannakoulis’s, the Ferrante’s or the Andrade’s, my nose would know exactly where we were. I could probably even sniff out some mothballs or furniture wax underlying the sage growing on their windowsills.
Yes, I really do appreciate my nose, and I want it back.
I want to smell gasoline being pumped. I want to smell the popcorn that Dear Richard makes on Tuesday evenings. I want to bake brownies and know, just by the smell, that they’re ready to come out of the oven. I want to smell the leather in my car, Richard’s aftershave and our sheets and towels as they come out of the warm dryer.
I want to smell all my everyday cleansers — the citrus body wash, the silver shampoo, the peppermint Crest and the Arrid Extra Dry. I even want to smell Clorox.
Before this, I never thought about how much our noses reassure us about cleanliness.
They certainly inform us of the offensive odors in our lives. For example, I know enough not to open the plastic container lurking in the back corner of the fridge. The white and blue fur growing on the surface of whatever it used to be could gag a maggot, so I toss it, container and all. My nose knows.
Just not so much lately.
And I really miss my perfume. Even when I’m down, it’s a reliable messenger that part of the day will be beautiful.
I still spritz it on every morning, hoping, hoping, that today might be the day that it wafts into my nose and announces to my brain, “I’m back!”
I’ll know that I’m on the road back to normal.
I’m ready to cook some garlic and onions so my nose can get back to its full-time job – detecting delicious aromas and whetting my appetite. Pure pleasure.
The nose knows. Now if it could just tell me.
Marcy O’Brien lives in Warren with her husband, Richard, and Finian, their bi-polar Maine Coon cat. Marcy can be reached at Moby.email@example.com