Today is my grandfather’s birthday — or, more appropriately stated, would have been his birthday. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 82.
I was very close to my Grandpop Len. He played wiffle ball with me when I was little, taught me to fish, let me hang around and watch him tend to his tomato plants and peonies, welcomed me with a big hug each time I visited his campfire during deer season, and imparted to me the origin story of our family’s Americanized name… or at least whatever he remembered or understood of the story and the name himself. (How anyone got “Rosell” out of something Lithuanian or Polish that ended in -avičius or -owicz, and how there are at least 5 or so known “versions” of the name that our relatives have come across, is something that later generations are still trying to fully understand...)
My Grandpop Len, in fact, appeared in the cover image of my very first post on Medium:
The Essence of Immortality
When I took a DNA test at Penn State in 2014, I didn’t plan to explore my family tree. I just figured I’d give my spit…
There’s so much I could say about his impact on our family and on me, even though it’s been nearly 15 years since he passed. At 34, that’s nearly half my life ago, and it’s hard to comprehend the fact that such a huge part of my world has been gone that long.
I still talk to him, though, as though he’s right there. My grandma, who passed away a little more than 12 years after he did, once told me that she often did the same: talked to him as if he were right there in the room… and she told me she often felt like he was right there with her.
That’s how big of a spirit this man had. Or, some might say, has.
In 2014, I did a DNA test as part of a study, and some of my relatives have followed suit, curious about their own DNA and what they’ve contributed to (or share with) my genetic stew. It turns out that, of all four of my grandparents, I inherited the most, genetically, from my Grandpop Len. And while I might not see any of his physical features when I look in the mirror (That distinction goes to his wife, my grandma Mary Louise, with whom I share a copy–pasted face and amazingly the least DNA of all.), the one “feature” of my grandfather’s that I do occasionally catch on myself is…
the scent of his sweat.
(Yes, when I sweat, I smell like a grandpa. Apparently.)
Thus it follows that one thing I can remember very clearly about my grandfather is how he smelled. It’s hard to describe. It’s not a pungent scent like “average” sweat at all — just earthy. Like root vegetables, or the ground they grow in, or the farm they come from, or the goats that eat them… or all those things. Which makes it not off-putting but almost somehow both cool (like a cellar) and warm (like the spring).
On a few occasions, believe it or not, I’ve smelled him after he passed away. Distinctly, definitely him—not me: despite the body chemistry we seem to share, there’s still an aspect of his natural fragrance that was all his own. A greater intensity, I suppose, or a projecting clarity that I, myself, don’t have. And whenever I catch it (which is very rarely), it surprises me, always welcome, (im)materializing from nothing in random corners of whichever house I happen to be inhabiting at the time.
Alas, I can’t remember having smelled his unique scent in years… until this afternoon, when I was getting ready to leave my apartment:
I noticed a strong, out-of-place, earthy aroma coming from nowhere. It smelled like goat cheese, minus the cheese. Just the goats… or their farm. This smell was powerful, and I knew it was NOT coming from anything I owned. I dismissed it, left the room to get a drink from the faucet, came back… and it was still there. Now I had to question where it was coming from. (Did I really need to do laundry THAT bad?)
Then it hit me: Oh my God… Grandpop! And all at once, I could feel him next to me, announcing his visit. Instantly I started to cry, in bittersweet gratitude. I whispered Thank you!
For the visit. And for finding a way to make sure I’d notice he’d dropped by.
I don’t consider myself “psychic,” but smell is one of the ways I connect with Spirit… or perhaps I should say “Spirit connects with me.”
Why? I’m not sure. We don’t really choose our gifts. We can only trust that we have those particular gifts for a reason.
This gift has usually had pleasant, or at least neutral, consequences, albeit with one very noteworthy exception: the day I toured Auschwitz two summers ago, I was followed by a salty/smoky/suspiciously-sweet aroma that floated subtly around the camp complex. It kept disappearing and reappearing until abruptly collecting with full intensity right next to the ruins of the crematoria. Until then, I’d assumed the fragrance was from some farmer roasting meat out in the surrounding Polish countryside… but I realized my mistake when I noticed that nobody else around was moved to cover their nose with their shirt once it became overpowering, and I saw the tour guide eyeing me with concern, trying to determine why I might be trying not to gag.
I was, apparently, the only person in the group who could smell this barbecue-without-coals.
That’s how I knew the scent wasn’t traveling across the countryside; it was traveling across time. A realization that made it all the more sickening.
Thankfully, morbid fragrance impressions like the phantom smell of roasting flesh have not been so common in my experience. Instead, ever since childhood, I noticed I smelled the living aromas of deceased relatives nearby, or the odors of their homes suddenly within my house.
Sometimes, I’d smell the psychic impressions of complete strangers too, like when I was in elementary school and toured a Victorian mansion. Smoking was strictly prohibited, but in the home’s library, the scent of pipe smoke was powerful (apparently to no one but 10-year-old me), and I couldn’t understand how that could be… until our guide told us a strange-but-true story later on about how one of the mansion’s employees recently traced a suspicious hint of smoke to one of the long-deceased owner’s (empty) favorite haunts in the home. Pipe smoke, to be precise.
At age 15, I went through a spell where I smelled roses at random in March (roses don’t happen in Pennsylvania at that time of year). This still happens periodically, and while I don’t understand how or why, it makes me smile.
After my Grandpop Len passed away, his natural fragrance reappeared once alongside the scent of mixed, freshly cut flowers — evocative of floral arrangements. Only after observing this hide-and-seek of phantom smells for several hours (or maybe days) did I learn that one of his younger sisters had recently passed away. My mom remarked that she’d been smelling the same things too. Perhaps — we can never really know this — he’d come back to the bridge between worlds and was greeting her with flowers.
There are some fragrances I also smell that are harder to understand. For instance, over the years, I’ve periodically smelled lilacs in mid-winter and have come to associate them with a specific past-life bond. How can one ever prove that such a bond existed, or that lilacs were significant in that connection? One cannot. But they still bring me a comfort I can’t explain.
When the Lilacs Start to Bloom
I don’t feel lonely when the lilacs start to bloom. The perfume reminds me of memories I can’t recall, but I know the…
Similarly, in my early- and mid-20s, I even had bouts of sensing Burberry Brit pour homme, usually in my bedroom, without even recognizing what the fragrance was — but had an odd, gut feeling that the smell belonged to a living man I had not yet met. Imagine my confusion and surprise when I hooked up with a guy 2 years later who smelled that way — and my amusement when, a year or so after that, we crossed paths one afternoon — and my room, after having been empty nearly all day, was OVERFLOWING with the same scent the moment I arrived back home for the evening and opened my bedroom door.
(Funny enough, I recall that same man — on the single occasion that he visited my home—picking up a bottle of my perfume and holding it to his nose. Did he ever smell phantom fragrances too? Did he also smell the perfume on my skin and stumble into unanswerable questions? Questions like: How?)
I have friends and relatives, meanwhile, who say they randomly smell me while going about their daily business. My best friend has occasionally caught a whiff of green tea where it shouldn’t be. He associates that scent with me because I drank so much of it during our late-night hangouts at Dunkin Donuts in the early days of our friendship. As for another scent, my aunt called me once last autumn to tell me she’d suddenly found herself enveloped in one of my perfumes while she was mowing the lawn. (How one can smell ANY perfume over lawnmower fuel and the scent of cut grass, I have no idea.)
Other times, people have told me that I smell like roses — even though I don’t wear rose-scented perfumes or use rose-scented shampoo… and this, too, sometimes they catch out of nowhere and think of me.
What does it mean when you smell things that aren’t there? I don’t believe it’s always a brain tumor, an infection, or an impending migraine. Perhaps our spirits have their own olfactory calling cards, our own signature scents.
We’re familiar with clair-senses like clairvoyance (seeing psychic visions), clairaudience (hearing psychic sounds)… but clairolfaction/clair-smelling isn’t really spoken of much. In my experience, though, it is very real. And it is sometimes how our loved ones — living on Earth or living beyond — make their presence known.
I feel honored that my grandfather took some time out of his earthly birthday to drop by and spend a few moments with me. I’ve experienced other synchronicities before in moments when I sorely missed him —a well-timed phantom phone call, some magical coincidences involving photographs—but it’s been so long since I connected “tangibly” with any aspect of his earthly being. And I have to say that when someone has left their body and you can’t hear their voice anymore or reach out and hug them, detecting that most ephemeral and subtle trace of their earthly essence — their scent—is a treasure, no matter how fleetingly felt.
Don’t dismiss “ghost” fragrances when you perceive them. Contemplate who they might belong to, and be thankful that their spirit is thinking of you and has gifted you with this moment to connect.