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Sensory Memory #2: Love of my life

Updated: Aug 8, 2020

Mrs Russell, or as she is/was in my head 'my Russy', was Norah May Russell. Russy lived next door to us. She was my best friend, she took me to and from school, to Sunday School, gave me lunch (ham, spaghetti and mash please), was my nurse if I was off school poorly, endured me treating her home as an extension of my own and l loved her fiercely and absolutely. I still have to look at my memories of her side-long, or it wrenches me right in my centre that she is no longer here.

Here is Russy, holding me. Sometime in 1974. I was not a pretty baby.

My sensory memories of Russy are mostly:

Feel: Buttons. She had a red Politi's Rahat Lakoum tin filled with odd buttons, and to calm down, or if I was poorly I would play with them. I loved the sound and feel of them; silky, slippery and cool. Apart from the ones with fabric on them. They were put to one side as inferior!

Smell: Mrs Russell had deliveries from the Laundry Man, Mr Taylor, the grocer (he called me 'smiler') and the pop man. The pop man would bring Dandelion and Burdock sometimes, and that was epic. The smell of it is still very much a Happy Smell.

Feel: Special pillow and eiderdown. When I slept over, I got to use the special pillow, which was full of feathers and had a cover with pink daisies on. It was always cold and heavy when it came out of the cupboard and had the starchy cotton smell of Special Pillow. The eiderdown was deep pink and silky and filled with feathers and weighed a ton. Going to bed was a squashy delight.

Smell: Lily of the valley flowers, which she loved.

Smell: Silvo polish; sitting on the stairs and watching her cleaning the big mirror in her hall.

Smell: Coffee and Nice biscuits. At 10.30 every morning, Mrs Russell would call upstairs to her lodger, another elderly lady "Mrs Phillips, coffee!" and they'd have coffee in the front room. It was made in china cups and she poured hot milk onto the coffee. The smell meant soon I'd get a Nice biscuit and a glass of orange squash.

Smell/Feel: The Things on the Mantelpiece (not strictly supposed to touch but frequently explored). A brass frog ashtray/match holder. The hinge was broken and he was held with a safety pin. He smelled of cold metal. A china statue of a boy, and a girl. I didn't touch these because I was scared of breaking them. A butter dish with a glass lid. Sometimes I would secretly scrape the butter and taste it. We didn't have butter at home, we had margarine, which seemed a comparitive outrage. An unglazed white porcelain pot with little birds on a tiny tree on the lid. I hated the noise of the lid closing and feel of it but it smelled sweet.

Feel: I swear I can remember exactly how her hands felt, I can see where the veins on the back of her hands were, the shape of her knuckles and how her wedding ring moved on her hand when I held it.

Smell: Nivea cream, which she applied at night. Max Factor pressed powder in the morning. Imperial leather soap.

Wanting to feel. Mrs Russell had on her wall an embroidered picture of a house in a lovely garden, that she had done when she was younger. I always wanted to touch it, to feel how the stitches felt but of course, wasn't allowed and it was behind glass. We agreed we'd live in it one day. I remember asking for it because I loved it, but she said 'she would leave it to me', which was Not For Thinking About. One day in November 1985, she told me I could have it,which I thought was a bit strange. My mum (I am so grateful for this) got her to write on the back. Not long after ( I think it was a matter of days), she had a stroke. I assume she felt a premonition which is why she gave me the picture. She had to go into a nursing home after hospital as she could no longer walk, or many other things, unaided. She died on June 15th 1987. I have the picture, but it is wrapped up waiting for when I can look at it every day without my heart imploding. If you squint, I reckon you can see us together in the window.

I'm amazed how an unexpected sensory moment; a scent, a taste, a touch, a sound, can fling us into a different time and place and disconnect us from the present. Fittingly, my memories of Mrs Russell can be summed up by the Welsh word 'Hiraeth'. This is not necessarily a word I'll use inthe project, but is a fitting and unique word meaning a nostalgic sense of desire, of homesickness. By looking at some of my sensory memories during this project, I hope to get a better understanding of what these sensations can provoke. As always, I'd love to hear from you; here or at lydia@niziblian.com

What taste/smell/sound pulls at you?

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Lydia Niziblian
Lydia Niziblian
Aug 01, 2020

Thank you ❤


Wow, the description of your friend could be about my grandmother who I loved dearly. The mention of lily of the valley in particular made me very emotional (and spurred me to comment if I'm honest) and reminded me that a few years ago a friend gave me a box of old broken costume jewellery to play with. It was all in a large round box that had contained lily of the valley products and lifting the lid and smelling the cardboard always takes me back to her warm embrace.

Most of my warmest memories evoked by smell and sound are of my grandparents and I miss them terribly.

At work every day I sing nursery rhymes and children's songs…

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