real life

There's a new company that can bottle the smell of a lost loved one forever

This is how it came about: insurance saleswoman Katia Apalategui’s father died. She missed him – and one of the things she missed most was his smell. Her mum held onto pillowcases he’d used. An idea was born: what if the smell of a person could be bottled?

Enter chemists from Havre university, who worked with Ms Apalategui to develop a distilling technique, and Kalain was born.

“We take the person’s clothing and extract the odour – which represents about a hundred molecules – and we reconstruct it in the form of a perfume in four days,” the university’s Geraldine Savary told The Guardian.

Kalain says the perfume can be a comfort for people who've lost someone close. It's also being suggested for working mums who miss their babies and their snuggly baby smell. The company can even distill the smell of your dog, if that's what tickles your nostrils.

I find it all a bit much.

But there is one thing I do agree with them on: smell is the most evocative of the senses. And their sales video, which shows a bereaved woman smelling her dead loved one's pillow case, does touch a nerve.

It's the mid-80s. I have just broken up with my second serious boyfriend - the first one I truly loved. I am sobbing in that way that's often described as 'wracking', propped up on my bed. My father is whistling, as he does when he's upset, and hovering anxiously at the doorway, not quite game to cross the threshold (all that female emotion), but not quite sure he should stay out.

Then, outside, the car door slams and mum arrives back from wherever she's been. She takes in the scene and in an instant I'm pulled into her ample, squishy boobs, wrapped in her soft, dimpled arms and comforted. The smell of her - Rexona, Johnston's baby powder, Cedel hairspray - combines into an unidentifiable combination that's just, well, mum, and calms me instantly. And I cuddle in like a three-year-old, not the 20-something I am, and I bawl.

Watch the full video of it's inception below. Post continues after video.

Video via Florian Rabeau

And next to it, her favourite: Safari, by Ralph Lauren, almost exhausted and the source of much amusement to me and my sister. 'I had a farm in Africa', my sister would say in her best Karen Blixen imitation, and we'd recall Meryl Streep in khaki and riding boots, staring over the veld, and then our mum, short, round, eternally reluctant to go near a horse and even more reluctant to do much at all in the great outdoors.

But when I sprayed myself with that Safari, she could have been next to me, standing in her big knickers as she pondered what to wear to Coonabarabran (our nearest shopping town), telling me to hurry up or we'd miss whatever appointment was on the cards, putting on her lippy.

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And I cried. Again.

A full 10 months after that, we decide it's finally time to take mum's clothes, which have been sitting in a green garbage bag on our back verandah, to the op shop. We open the bag, just to double-check there's nothing we want to keep. And there mum is again, daubed in her Safari perfume, a mist of Cedel settled lightly on her hair. Dad wipes his eyes and walks away. "You girls just do whatever you want to do with them."

He's quiet for the rest of the day.

That's the thing about smell. It can transport you to a different place, evoke sledgehammer emotions, in a way no other sense can.

Of course, there's science behind it. psychologytoday.com describes it thus:

The answer is likely due to brain anatomy. Incoming smells are first processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory:  the amygdala and hippocampus. Interestingly, visual, auditory (sound), and tactile (touch) information do not pass through these brain areas. This may be why olfaction, more than any other sense, is so successful at triggering emotions and memories.

All very logical. And yet so very emotional.

Personally, I find the thought of wearing a perfume that smells like my dead mum repulsive, and there is no way while this earth still spins I'll shell out upward of $700 for the privilege.

But as I argued about writing this ('it's interesting'/ 'it's revolting'), I realised so many of my memories are intrinsically bound to smell. My first serious boyfriend and his Rexona for Men: I'm back at country shows with boys in moleskins and Driza-Bones, and girls in Liberty prints and dropped waists. There's rum and coke, and utes, and circle work.

My weekly swim at an indoor pool laced with chlorine: There I am, eight years old, self-consciously proud of my first lycra swim suit (in club-colour purple), ready to race the 33m breaststroke, desperate to beat the kids who swim IN 50 METRE POOLS (!!!) from big towns like Dubbo.

Freshly-poured asphalt on a new road: I'm standing in my seven-year-old thongs, stuck tackily to a road that has melted in the heat of the endless western NSW summer, and we're prodding the tar with sticks and pulling molten strands through the gravel, then picking our way across grass full of bindis into the house where we're roused on by mum for walking the black muck onto the steps.

It's endless. And the memories are intense.

My dad came down to Sydney's Royal Easter Show this year, and as we walked around the sheep and cattle he talked about bringing stock down in his semi trailer for 40 years, negotiating Sydney traffic and feeling like a 'bushie who'd come to town'.

"You know, every time I smell this smell, I think if you," I said.

"What - cow shit?"

"Yep."

We laughed. Because we both have the memory - of a little girl so skittishly excited to see her father that she sticks her pig-tailed head through the venetian blinds every night until they snap in protest, and a dad who gives her a cuddle as soon as he walks in the door, wearing the overalls he's worn climbing in and out of the stock crate.

And if someone can bottle that, maybe I should say 'bravo'.

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