I handed my grandmother the bunch of lavender I had brought thousands of miles, from my summer in France. She laid back in her hospital bed, inhaling the distinct fragrance, and then looked up. “Tell Dorothy to water the lavender along the driveway.”
Of course, she no longer lived in that home with the lavender. She and my grandfather had moved to the next state, to an apartment close to my uncle and aunt. And her health was failing. But the scent of lavender was a powerful reminder – of her own garden and home.
That was my last time with my grandmother, but it is a sweet memory, because we had a moment of shared experience, and love for the beautiful scent of lavender. She died the next day.
When I had planned my itinerary for that summer after my junior year of college, I purposely booked my return flight to Chicago, then South Dakota, since her health was fragile. During my summer in France, I found a few souvenirs (the French word for memory) to bring back to my family. I couldn’t think of anything to buy her, but near the end of the summer, on an walk in the mountains, I found lavender and that seemed like a perfect gift. I never imagined that it would be a deathbed gift. I still think of her when I smell lavender.
Smell is a powerful sense. The smell of certain flowers and food bring back memories and take us to a particular time and place. They either awaken a feeling of comfort – or distress – depending on the memory. I was curious why smell is such a memory-prompter and learned that the anatomy of our brain means that our olfactory bulb is directly linked to brain areas connected to emotion and memory. Visual, auditory, and tactile information do not pass through these brain areas.* Thus smell, more than other senses, triggers emotions and memories.
Of course, God created our sense of smell, so he knows that about our brain. Smell is even part of the rhythm of worship for the Jewish faith, with the burning of incense on the altar. Incense also plays a part in liturgical Christian traditions. Perhaps incense is important because the familiar smell can take a worshipper to a place of memory of God and connection with his presence.
Now, when I walk by a lavender plant, I squeeze the blossom and bring my fingers to my nose to smell the lavender oil on my skin. The fragrance lingers on my skin, providing a ongoing reminder of the sweetness of lavender.
The Apostle Paul noted the lingering impact of a pleasing aroma, in terms of people who add fragrance to life through their interactions: Through us, he (God) brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way of salvation—an aroma redolent with life. 2 Corinthians 2:14-15 (MSG)
I admire the lavender plant, and the lingering aroma of lavender oil on my skin. In a similar way, I want to be a person who brings positive fragrance to those around me. I want my interactions and relationships to be life-giving and aromatic. I can’t do that out of my own capacity, it’s the fragrance of Christ in me that is pleasing and full of life.
I don’t know what my grandmother experienced on her last days here on earth, from her perspective. I hope in some way the sweet scent of lavender lingered on her, an aromatic memory of love of family here on earth, and of the promise of life eternal.
*Brain anatomy and smell from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-babble/201501/smells-ring-bells-how-smell-triggers-memories-and-emotions
Pictures taken at Chatfield Farms, Denver Botanic Gardens, July 2017.