Smell. Do you remember how your mother smelled, or your father? I don’t mean the perfume your mother wore, or the pipe tobacco your father smoked. I mean the actual smell of them. Do you remember their personal, genetically-determined signature odorprint?
In a 2009 conversation with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, we had a long talk about the sense of smell. Keith grew up in Dartford, England, where he had a very close relationship with his family. His father, Bert Richards, was a veteran wounded in World War II, and even though they had a period of estrangement, Bert played a significant role in his son’s life, and spent his final years at Keith’s home in the United States. As we chatted, Keith told me that, when he was a young lad, how much he loved it when his father put his arm around him in a nurturing act. Keith’s nose fit right into Bert’s underarm – it was one of his favorite smells.
From the time we are in the womb, small odor molecules envelope us, guiding our behavior. A baby knows its mother’s scent while in the womb, and at birth the smell of her milk guides the infant to her breast. Life-long bonding between parents and children occurs early through pheromones (steroid hormones produced in the skin), creating the chemical alchemy of bonding. Neuroscientists and chemists have found that our bodies instinctively react to oxytocin, vasopressin, prolactin, opioids, and other chemicals to form close, nurturing, and happy relationships. Additionally, frequent touch between baby and parents – and all family members – helps cement this non-verbal communication throughout life.
Bert was 84 years old when he died, and Keith kept his box of ashes around for 5 or 6 years. In a 2011 CBS News interview with Anthony Mason, Keith confirmed the rumor that he had snorted his father’s ashes. Bert didn’t believe in ceremonies, and Keith said he couldn’t part with him by just tossing him to the wind. He also knew has father would be unhappy in a cemetery – Bert didn’t believe dead people should take up space that could be used for planting. Finally, Keith decided to plant a “sturdy” English Oak tree in the garden, and placed his father’s ashes with it “to make it grow firm, strong” – just like Bert had done for his son, one of our culture’s greatest survivors.
As he took the lid off the box of Bert’s ashes “fine bits of my Dad flew onto to table.” He quickly weighed out what to do – he couldn’t just let him blow away. He went with his first impulse: he wiped the ashes up with his finger, brought them to his nose, and snorted, saying, “See you Dad.” (In the CBS interview, Keith jokingly said he used a straw, but in recounting the event to me, he said otherwise.) The rest of Bert was planted with the oak tree. In his book Life, Keith wrote, “Ashes to ashes, father to son. He is now growing oak trees and would love me for it.”
One could hypothesize that in Keith’s behavior – this act of smelling – he found a successful resolution to the mourning of his lost parent. Until that moment, the death of his father was an unresolved loss, and he had been ambivalent about what to do with his ashes. Although to some it may seem like an extreme response, it is something that makes sense within the context of the life Keith has lived, and in honoring the relationship that he and his father had shared. By saying, “See you Dad,” he expressed his feelings of closeness and solidarity with Bert, accepted the loss, and made it part of his autonomous state of living.
In the alchemy of long-term parent-child relationships, smell plays a continuously unconscious role, even after adult children have left home. However, it may only be when the closet door is opened after a parent has passed away, and their natural scent pours out, that the adult child becomes once again conscious of that unspoken connection. This is why people often keep the clothes of someone close to them who’s died – those odor molecules are a crucial comfort to the living person who is trying to come to terms with the permanence of separation.
Most people think attachment hormones are only present between a mother and child at birth, but attachment bonds between entire families are established via the chemical sense of smell, and this fundamental aspect of bonding is with us throughout our complete life cycle.