I blame my sister (costume edition)

When I was in elementary school, my family would get really into decorating the outside of our house for Halloween. My older sister, who was a teenager at the time, was especially into making it legitimately creepy.

One year, when I was in fourth or fifth grade, I had just gotten home from trick-or-treating, and my sister and her boyfriend were passing out candy. I was dressed as a gypsy girl. As we stood on the porch waiting for the next round of kids, my sister had a vision. “Kelly!” she said. “Go sit in that chair and pretend to be dead!”

Obediently, I draped myself across the chair, eyes closed, mouth slightly agape. I must have been like that for a while (and possibly fallen asleep), because by the time I heard the rustle of candy dropping into plastic bags, I was over it. I abruptly stood up – at which point the little costumed boy on our porch let out a blood-curdling scream. Apparently he’d been a little too convinced by our ruse, and thought I’d either woken from the dead or was a dummy come to life.

His mom was pissed. It was very awkward.

WTF, sis?

Fast forward ten years…

This time it was not actually Halloween. However, I was home on break from college, and my sister excitedly called to tell me that she and her neighbors were throwing a Napoleon Dynamite-themed costume party. I was pumped and started crafting the perfect outfit to be Deb: calf-length leggings, a short, pastel tie-dye dress, fanny pack, slouchy socks with sneakers, and of course – the piece de resistance – a major side ponytail.

I showed up to the party feeling pretty good. I walked in, and it was a scene straight out of a movie – music blaring, everyone’s heads turning in slow motion to stare at me, and my heart thumping with the realization: no one else is in costume.

Soon my sister emerged from the crowd, covering her mouth with her hand to hold back laughter. “Oh my god,” she said. “Oh my god, I forgot to tell you we changed it.”

Shortly thereafter I grabbed hold of a bottle of wine, and thus began an epic failure of a night, the details of which do NOT need to end up on the Internet – but all of which I do blame on my sister.

Happy Halloween, sis!

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The scent of memories (Or: Proust and lemon lollipops)

The other day, I came across a display of essential oils. I recently heard it’s a good idea to stash a little bottle of a pleasing scent in your purse and smell it when you’re feeling overwhelmed. So I stopped to peruse the labels and see if any caught my eye. I saw the usual suspects – lavender, jasmine, ylang ylang – but for some reason I immediately reached for the lemon. I unscrewed the lid, lifted it to my nose, and bam – a smile of pure delight spread across my face.

You see, the second I smelled it, I was no longer a grown woman standing in the aisle of a store – I was a little girl sitting in the backseat of my mom’s car. We had just gone through the drive-through at the bank, and I had delightedly witnessed what I considered the most magical engineering feat of all time – those air chutes that went whoosh! and whisked my mom’s deposit slip from where we sat in the car to the teller inside the bank.

And then whooshed back a single lemon lollipop for me.

Yellow Lemon Lollipops: 5LB Bag

I have no idea how many times this actually happened, but in my memory I ran errands with my mom and was rewarded with that sweet lollipop at least a hundred times. In my memory the bank teller even knew my name. For all I know, this may have only happened five or six times total, but it doesn’t matter – when I smelled that lemon oil, I was four years old again, being handed my prize.

I can’t remember the last time I thought about those bank trips, so it took me by surprise to have them so vividly spring to life in my mind. But smells always do that, don’t they?

Several years ago, I was in Victoria’s Secret and saw a pear body spray. Oh, I love the smell of pears, I thought, spritzing some on my wrist. Bam! I was at a middle school dance. I had forgotten I wore a pear body spray all the time in seventh grade, and the memory hit me so hard it was disorienting. Like I had actually time travelled, just for a moment. Whoosh.

This has happened many other times. There’s a certain shampoo that transports me to a shower stall at a campground in Montana during the best month of my life. And a cologne that, when I smell it on a passerby, makes me nauseous with the memory of a bad boyfriend. I once got into my sister’s car after not seeing her for a long time and was flooded with memories of a place we used to live.

I know most people have experienced this, but I didn’t know it had a name. Apparently, it’s called the “Proustian phenomenon” after a book by Marcel Proust in which the smell of a madeleine cookie causes the narrator’s whole childhood to come rushing back.

A phenomenon indeed. Lots of things can call up memories, pleasant or painful – a song, a picture, an article of clothing – but nothing hits you quite so hard as a smell. And it’s not something that can be reproduced over and over – it’s that complete element of surprise that takes you back in time when you least expect it.

Still, I think I might buy that lemon oil for my purse – or maybe just some lollipops.