Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Senses of Genealogy

This week a very touching experience happened with a dear friend. Afterwards it reminded me how all our senses play a part in family history research.

This friend came to me for assistance with a knitting project. Seems her mother, who passed away last year, made one more scarf that had yet to be finished. Cindy knew I knitted so she asked if I could tuck away the ends.

The next day I brought in a needle and before you knew it the scarf adorned my friend's neck. While we were chatting about the items her mom had made I noticed Cindy placing the scarf to her nose and inhaling. Just by her expression you could tell she was being transported to another time and place.

When she realized what she was doing she looked at me with such a lovely smile. On the scarf were traces of her mom's scent, which wrapped her in a feeling of joy.

Right away this reminded me of a time where I found myself in a similar situation. Our son was in the United States Marine Corps and stationed in Okinawa, Japan. We talked to him on the phone and wrote letters, but not seeing him in person for so long was indeed a hardship.

One day my daughter and I were walking up and down the aisles in the grocery store. While reaching for a can on the shelf a gentleman walked by with his cart. As he did I caught the scent of my son's favorite cologne. For several minutes I stood absolutely still with a strong feeling of Justin's presence. In fact, I must admit to following behind the man for several minutes just so the sensation would stay alive a little longer. My daughter thought Mom had lost her marbles!

Yesterday over on Facebook I briefly outlined what occurred with my friend. Well over 40 friends "liked" the story, and several offered their own experiences with sensory memories. One talked of her dad's scent on his New England Patriot's hat. Several talked about the special perfumes they remembered. One shared how she has a bottle of the perfume, but it smelled different on her sister.

Then there was the story of a friend's grandfather playing the fiddle. She tells how every time she hears this instrument she can visualize the smile on his face.

These experiences have reminded me that family history is not just the facts we gather along the way. All our senses should be engaged to have the entire picture. The sound of an instrument played, the smell of a perfume, the taste of a special dish, or the feel of a grandparent's cheek.

What are the senses of your genealogy?


  1. The smell of fallen pine needles on a warm day sends me right back to my childhood. I take in a deep breath and I am at my grandmother's house playing in her yard. Love that smell!

  2. Such a good post, Deb. Our senses do play such a big role in our lives but I had never really thought about it in terms of genealogy. Even though every day something I smell, hear or see reminds me of someone I love! This could really make for some interesting blog posts. Thanks for the idea!

  3. Wonderful post, Deb! Just yesterday I bought a bar of lavender soap because it reminds me of my cousin. I also have some table linens of hers and whenever I open the storage bin, it's as if she is right there with me. Thanks for the post!

  4. Yes! Deb, I noticed that very thing so long ago, when my own dad died. It was his cologne that did the trick. Although...I have to admit, for me it was not such a joyful experience...more melancholy, to think he was irrevocably gone.

    Linking this to genealogy, it would be interesting to catalog our observances of the memories evoked by familiar smells we associate with the special people in our lives. We've all noticed it--but as with so many things we see as everyday life, we fail to make a special note of it.

    Thank you, Deb, for reminding us to stop and take notice of what is going on, right under our noses!

  5. I just blogged about this very thing regarding a song and my husband. Senses play a powerful roll in our memories.
    Good post. Thanks FranE

  6. Great post, Deb! There is a musty sort of smell that reminds me of my grandparents' lakefront cottage, where I spent so many summer nights growing up. The place was shut tight all winter and even with a good airing in the spring, it never quite lost that closed-up scent. Whenever I smell something like that, it takes me back instantly. Thanks for reminding me about it!

  7. Old coke signs and old coke vending machines sometimes conjure of the smell of my grandfather's garage where he kept his taxi cabs. He used to let me ride along with him, and when we returned, he'd buy a coke. I can hear the glass bottle tumbling down.