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Memoir of a Nose
When I was growing up, I learned very early that I had -- or was it that I developed? -- an unusually acute sense of smell. This was often a blessing -- I was able to sniff out hot wires before they caught fire, predict weather changes, and detect food on the verge of going bad. But my fifth sense also predisposed me to worry. Even before normal cues told me things had gone astray, my nose sensed danger, or fear. When I was a child, my father once severed a finger with a circular saw. I could smell his blood as soon as he rushed into the house, long before I saw the scarlet pools staining the wooden floor, or the tight panic of my mother's face. My sensitive nose could also make me sick: heavy perfume, diesel fuel, even the halitosis of someone nearby -- had the ability to make me nauseous, or give me a migraine.
My parents had four children, and we lived on a beautiful but isolated farm overlooking Oregon's Cascade Mountains. In the countryside, smells mark seasons -- of labor, of rest, even of grief -- as neatly as the calendar organizes months. One wet April, the air was weighted with the sweet, cloying scent of hyacinths. They bloomed in a nearby pasture, unmindful that just steps away the man who had planted them was dying. As he lay motionless, my father, his only son, picked handfuls of the short stocky stems and brought them to the old man's railed bedside in jam jars. His ashen face sank into the pillow, and he labored to breathe. Silently my father pushed get well cards and pill bottles to one side of the nightstand, and gently set down the purple blossoms. My grandfather's nostrils fluttered to life like eyelids flying open after a startling dream. With his bruised yellow hand he reached to grasp my father's outstretched palm, and his head turned slowly toward the flowers. "Bring them closer, son," he rasped. I stood in the corner, too scared to go near.
That fall, we dropped some of those bulbs into the ground near his grave. Symbols of spring, they summon instead a blur of stale dark hospital air, chiseled granite, and my father's red-rimmed eyes.
It was my father, after all, who taught me to smell. He is an articulate man, but words are not his language. And so I became fluent in the same way all children learn to communicate, by mimicking. On mornings when he'd take us to school, he would pause a moment before opening the creaky door to his pickup, coffee mug in hand, and inhale the air around us as if he were breathing in life itself. "Smell that," he'd command, and we would dutifully sniff, both trying to please and grasp the importance of what was unseen and unheard.
My father, a farmer like his father before him, had a devotion to the land so fierce you'd think God had given it to us and us alone, granting the deed at Mount Sinai. He fortified his ties to the farm with rituals, as if to convince him that what was ours would remain so forever.
Over time I learned just what he meant as he drew his great breaths, trying, fleetingly, to catch smells that the breeze would throw first one way and then the other. For odors told you when crops, from wheat to rye grass, were ripe; one whiff of morning air could convey that it was still too damp to run the combines, or too dry to fertilize.
On days when conditions were just right, growers ignited their harvested fields to kill pests and burn chaff. Naturally, those unattached to farming complained about the stink -- and danger. Smoke from those fires could, and did, easily traverse a highway with a slight change in wind, obscuring drivers' vision and causing fatal pileups. Yet whenever the newspaper carried stories of peoples' concerns, my mother, angry at any hint of disrespect toward farmers, would throw it down in disgust. Even when great black plumes swirled into the bright August sun and bits of scorched straw floated onto our clothesline, she would be righteous in her indignation. "Smells like money to me," she'd mutter, to no one in particular.
For with my mother, too, scents had totemic value. But they didn't represent our livelihood, or tell us when to harvest crops. They symbolized something much more esoteric: her state of mind.
In the winter, I could tell upon waking when the creek separating our house from humanity was about to overflow. When it rose in the rainy months, no one could come in, and we could only get out -- to school, to the grocery store -- in a rusted old four-wheel drive. With the swollen water came a sense of dread. To smell the wet, murky air and the muddy, mossy creek was always to know that my mother's mood would soon deflate.
Food smells, though, were the biggest portent of all. My mother, a product of the 1950s, was raised to be a lady, to wear nylons in airports and never raise her voice. She told us frequently we were her career; she didn't need another. Trained as a teacher, she was intellectually curious. But there was little time for reading if we were her job. And, of course, there was also the matter of helping to run a 4,000-acre farm. During harvest, she fed a hungry crew -- a responsibility that wasn't so bad on good days. Slender neck bent over steaming pots, strong hands kneading bread dough, she would disappear the way a person gets swept away in an engrossing novel, unmindful that hours have passed.
Once, I opened the door to find my adolescent logic put to a very adult test. My brother, a childhood asthmatic, was alone and prostrate on the couch, struggling to breathe. Acrid clouds of sugar-turned-carbon billowed from the oven, and my mother sat slumped over the counter, fingers splayed in her dark hair (overindulging in chocolate had triggered a migraine). She seemed unaware of everything, except her very real need for Darvon. I still don't remember what I did first: thwart a fire, attend to my brother's breathing, or track down, by two-way radio, someone who could get my mother to the hospital for painkillers.
In the summertime and on rainy weekends -- especially on rainy weekends -- my mother would take my sisters and me to my grandmother's beauty shop, a squat white building near the county airport. We all had long blonde hair, but mine was the most "difficult." It hung down my back in thick straw-colored bumps. "Can't make up its mind to be curly or straight!" Nana exclaimed, as if it were a character flaw. So she tried to help it decide, and squeezed me in between her other appointments. She would iron it so that it hung in curtains around my face, the faint burn of dried ends settling, deadened, into my nostrils. Or she'd spiral it into pin curls with her fingers, dipping her pointy comb into a jar of green setting lotion that smelled like the fake evergreen of tree-shaped air fresheners.
Once, she insisted on giving us all permanents. She wrapped our necks with scratchy white paper and secured plastic capes around our shoulders, then led us, one by one, through the row of dangling pink plastic beads that separated one room from the next. They swayed, clicking gently, for as long as it took to get our hair washed. Afterward, my hair reeking of permanent solution, I sat in exile under a hot plastic dryer, air blasting from its tiny holes. Women talked and laughed so hard they slapped their thighs, but you could never hear what they were saying over the drone of the dryer. So I thumbed through forbidden old copies of Cosmopolitan, and watched the planes take off and land like so many rickety insects.
The air of that shop was a swift departure from the gentle smells on the farm. There was nothing natural inside -- no fresh blackberries, no wood stoves crackling, no delicate roses in bud vases. Nana loved smells as far from the outdoors as you could get. She misted herself with White Shoulders each morning, and slathered peach-scented lotion on her reddened hands as her customers were "drying" in their pink Naugahyde recliners. On her break, she'd sit down, put her feet up, and pass around her pack of Virginia Slims. The women would flick cinders off their magazines into the tiny steel ashtrays embedded in the arms of their seats.
Smoke, nail polish, neutralizer, hair dye, bright blue barbicide. The smells were harsh and raw, but they were also freedom. If the farm felt like a bed-and-breakfast, Nana's shop was like a speakeasy. Women came to smoke and change their hair with permanents and peroxide. They'd come on payday (the fifteenth and thirtieth were always booked), after their shifts at the paper mill. Often, they had bad husbands, bad kids, or both, and my grandmother dispensed advice as freely as she fogged fresh curls with hairspray.
Some days, rank sulfur from the mill blew our way, overtaking even the chemicals inside the shop. But the worst was on muggy afternoons in summer, after a rain. A taxidermist worked in a converted garage down the road, and the stench of decomposing elks seemed to seep even through the walls of the shop. On such afternoons Nana lit incense she got from the Import Plaza and waved it around with the fervor of a preacher before the damned. But nothing was a match for the stink of rotting flesh, especially not cheap jasmine.
Smells, and the memories they inspire, have come back to me in inexplicable ways. On several occasions I've been taken aback by how powerful their effect can be. One hot, miserable morning in Manhattan nearly twenty years after I left my little hometown for good, I was on my way to give a speech to a group of bankers and psychologists. I hadn't prepared what I was going to say, and I began to feel very anxious as I plodded along the sticky streets. I passed a subway station and got a pungent whiff of urine mixed with roasting hot dogs and the sickening sweetness of sugar-roasted peanuts. A woman yammering into her cell phone walked by, leaving gusts of Eternity in her wake. I was really starting to panic when a Dominican woman opened the door to her crowded beauty salon. A waft of familiar odors -- dye, acetone, and neutralizer, came my way; inexplicably, I felt better. I forgot about my speech, and wandered back, to those long afternoons in Nana's shop where lunch was a raspberry Pop-Tart and a can of Fresca, as my hair, tethered to curlers, dried.
One spring day when my older daughters were little, I had them both with me in the supermarket. As we rolled past the cheap floral display -- it was decked out for Easter -- my eldest daughter stopped to sniff some purple blooms that were nose-high to a three-year-old. "Pretty," she said, and thrust a plastic pot in my face. No sooner had I taken a whiff than tears sprang to my eyes. For more than twenty years I had avoided hyacinths as a painful souvenir of my grandfather's death.
And a few winters ago I was walking up the hill to my house in New York on a cold Saturday. The kitchen window was cracked open, and a warm baking smell was drifting onto my suburban street. It was far from the winding gravel driveway of my youth, but the smell was the same, and my jaws tensed immediately. Before I knew it, my gait had quickened to a jog despite the bags I was carrying. I burst through the door, expecting disaster, only to find my husband and daughters giggling as they stole bites of slice-and-bake cookie dough. Only then did I realize why I, who love to cook, never bothered to bake. I had always blamed my indifference on the tedium of having to measure precisely. But the smell of that warm chocolate suddenly made clear why I had always avoided making cookies and cakes.
While smells, for me, were paramount to navigation, my nose was also influential in other matters. As the product of several diverse gene pools, it set me apart. In my sparsely populated universe, most people were descendants of Scandinavian and German immigrants, with swimming poolblue eyes and unassuming noses. My forebears, however, were slightly more exotic: my paternal great-grandparents, Polish Jews, had obscured their heritage so that their children might better fit in with their neighbors, and an American Indian grandmother on my mother's side passed herself off as a "gypsy." All this helped explain an obsession with the size of our noses, a vanity that seemed out of place amongst the abstemious Yankee and French Canadian ancestors we were purported to have. In any case, those disparate strands of DNA seemed to have a hand in shaping my nose into a remarkably unique appendage. By the time I was twelve, it was long enough so that, like a roll of film taken with a finger hovering over the camera lens, it was always in sight. But its shape didn't really vex me so much -- I look a lot like my father, and I admired his nose. I did begin to take notice, however, once others let me know they had. In seventh grade I entered a teacherless classroom to see a small blond boy writing my name on the chalkboard. "Ask Gabrielle," he had scribbled. I stared at the writer's back, my heart fluttering as I waited to see what else he would say. When he turned away, the boy grinned at the class, his mouth glinting all silver braces. "She Nose It All," the words read. Students burst into laughter, and I slunk to my desk, trying hard not to let anyone think I cared.
Throughout my adolescence, I consoled myself with tales of famous oversized noses. Jimmy Durante was so taunted by schoolmates that he vowed never to make fun of anyone with crossed eyes or big ears. Judy Collins, as a child, hated her nose so much she slept with a clothespin pinched to the tip of it, like Jo in Little Women. I had never heard her sing, but I adored Maria Callas after I saw a picture of her glorious profile in Time magazine. And my heart nearly leapt out of my throat when I read that Diana Vreeland said that people only liked small noses because they reminded them of "piglets and kittens." A strong face, she declared, had a nose with a real bone in it.
But celebrities were far away. I might have shrugged off indignities like the one in Mrs. Durfee's class if my nose had actually functioned well, but it didn't (and doesn't today). My genes also left me prone to all kinds of respiratory infections, especially sinusitis. My sick nose affected my breathing, my sleeping, and my time -- cumulatively, I've easily spent a year in doctors' offices -- and eventually deteriorated to the point of total dysfunction. I am one of millions of Americans who have had repeated sinus surgery (four). I've been hospitalized for serious sinus infections, and have spent weeks wandering around with lines stuck in my veins for intravenous antibiotics. I'm quite healthy otherwise (I've been checked for every possible frightening disease), but I shy away from people with the sniffles as if they had drug-resistant TB. For me, an ordinary cold can turn into an ordeal.
The most troubling aspect of my dysfunctional nose was the abrupt disappearance of my sense of smell. My sinuses were so scarred and swollen after one operation that for two years, no odor molecules could get where they needed to go. I was depressed and lost -- "smell-blind," as the ancients called it; for me, the period seemed a particularly cruel curse. I couldn't smell my children, my husband, my favorite lilies, or the food I loved to cook. Words, somehow, failed to describe my loss.
I was lucky. My ability to smell eventually returned, but only after several rounds of powerful steroids. One day the aroma of the garlic I was sautéing slowly, surely lifted into my nostrils. I was overjoyed -- I could smell again -- but my reaction was so primal that language didn't accompany the realization. What was it about the nose, this feature that doubled as a sense and an organ, that was so central to my life -- and to most of humanity? As I thought about the nose's interplay in my life, I began to see its prominence everywhere. Consumers could buy incense, candles, and room sprays even while shopping for jeans. From Gogol to Tristram Shandy, the nose loomed large in literature. It was an obvious feature in pop culture and politics. Bill Clinton's proboscis was the butt -- and focus -- of thousands of caricatures. Jennifer Grey told TV viewers and magazine readers that her nose jobs had left her a stranger to herself.
Suddenly, science was investigating the nose as if it were a hidden body part that had only recently been discovered. New drugs administered through it could stop migraines and the flu in their tracks. Women whose noses picked up the sweat of other women began menstruating in sync. Neurologists looked to the nose's olfactory neurons -- the brain's only contact with the outside world -- for larger clues about our gray matter.
The more I learned, the more I began to realize that the understanding of the nose, unlike that of the heart or the lungs or the skin, was in its infancy. Its reign over our memories, its rule over beauty, and its role in our health, were only beginning to be decoded.
My quest to understand the nose led me on a three-year odyssey that went from perfumers on Madison Avenue to dusty medical archives, and from tony plastic surgeons' offices to research labs across the United States. As I retraced the steps of the researchers who have struggled to understand the workings of the nose, I came to see how little we truly know about this essential organ.
Some of what I ran across seemed banal, at least on the surface. For example, one-third of American adults picks their noses at least once an hour. Despite its inclination for third-grade yuks, nose-picking has grave implications. The touch of a contaminated finger to the eye or nostril is a primary culprit in spreading bacteria and viruses -- ever more serious as germs become deadlier.
And some of what I found was shocking. As recently as the 1940s, doctors at Cornell Hospital in New York City treated their sick sinus patients with a variety of unusual approaches. In one they thrust electric prods up their subjects' noses to see how much "discomfort" they could tolerate. (The data later went into an oft-cited study on headaches.) One man, disabled by severe allergies, sought help from the doctors for his chronic sneezing. Rather than treat him with antihistamines, which were available at the time, they stuffed his nose with ragweed pollen, to "see" if he was indeed allergic. (He was; it took hours for his respiratory system to recover.)
My research also took me to the Mayo Clinic, where I met doctors who believe that the cause of chronic sinusitis -- from which one in seven Americans suffers -- may well be tiny, easily vanquished fungi. And on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where the rich and famous flock for nips, tucks, and facial overhauls, I met a plastic surgeon who was obsessed with the nose. He had grappled with his own large one for thirty-nine years before finally "fixing" it. His experience -- and anguish -- of traversing the role of doctor to patient gave me a special glimpse into the history, culture, and implications of changing our faces.
Researchers devoted to the study of olfaction, or smell, now know more about what happens when you take a whiff of coffee, or drive past a fish cannery, than ever before. New knowledge shows how important smell is -- or at least was, evolutionarily speaking -- to our very existence. Progress may have obscured the necessity of smell in surviving -- now chirping phones, vibrating beepers, and red e-mail flags seem far more pressing than any odor -- but eons ago, it was our species' lifeline. Science has now identified the initial path of synapses when we sniff, and how messages are transmitted to the olfactory bulb and olfactory cortex. But it is still pondering the larger question: exactly how tiny odor molecules prompt us to act, think, and remember.
In order to put it all in perspective, I had to turn to the distant past. I started with a gentleman whose training was both historic and cosmic: my rabbi, Lawrence Perlman. Rabbi Perlman is a tall, imposing man with elegant suits and a complex set of passions; Judaism, good food, good wine, and hockey (he played professionally). When I mentioned my research, he said the nose was threaded throughout Jewish texts, and invited me to come for a discussion. Our appointment was on a cold day in March, just as spring was beginning to flirt. Given our subject, I thought I'd bring something thematic along, so I sliced a couple of branches of daphne off the plant outside my window -- its scent, a cross between lemon and cinnamon, is my favorite -- and put them into a small vase.
When I got to the office, I set the glass near the window and sat down opposite the rabbi's giant antique desk. I could hardly keep up with his thoughts as he reached for first one and then another book marked with Post-its. We traversed texts from Genesis to Maimonides, and topics from respiration to odors, nasal shapes and nose rings. God created man by blowing into Adam's nostrils "the soul of life" (Genesis 2:7). The Hebrew word for breath, neshima, shares a root with neshama, soul. A Hebrew expression used to describe wrath, haron-af, evokes the nose: haron means rage, and af is the word for nose; together, they paint an image of someone so furious their nostrils are flaring. Only men with prominent noses could be chosen as priests. Even God, the rabbi said, had favorite smells.
As the weak afternoon light waned, the heat clicked on and the spicy scent of the daphne, perched above the radiator, infused the office. It seemed a fitting backdrop, as the rabbi began to sneeze. Between Kleenexes, he found a reference in the Talmud even to the meaning of sneezes.
"The nose," said Rabbi Perlman, "is never just a nose."
And he is right. It moves through art, science, and popular culture from the sacred to the profane, and back again. From hieroglyphics to modern medical journals, the nose has been both an enduring mystery and an obsession, as fascinating to Pliny as it was to Picasso.
Copyright © 2002 by Gabrielle Glaser