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Scents, You Ask

Whenever I unpack something of my grandmother’s from storage, there wafts a soft, powdery fragrance that calls her to mind and I can see her as though she were standing next to me, black hair pulled back in a headband and wearing one of her signature pastel shirts with perfect darts and a crisp collar. It’s a scent I perceived as a child anytime I was near her dressing table and am always surprised that it still permeates her things some 30 years later.

When my mother, a visual artist and attorney, passed away in 2018, I brought home all her paintings, sculptures, stained glass, and pottery as well as family photo albums, handmade quilts, knitted items, antiques, modern art pieces and, because I am an avid reader and a writer, almost all of her books.

Her library is uniquely singular and includes that which she most admired and includes everything from Frankl to Jung to Picasso to Stein. One of the ways I keep her close is by periodically choosing one to read and study. Slowly and surely, I am working through the collection and each time I open a box and riffle through it, I have the same uncanny experience as when unpacking something of my grandmother’s, and for a few moments, it’s as if my mother is there beside me offering a suggestion for what to read next.

Yet, I cannot name these fragrances.

Naturally, my writer’s sensibilities urge me to identify them as a way to fully capture my mother for the poems and essays that I write just as my role as daughter calls me to carry on cherished matrilineal habits and practices. Knowing the names of these fragrances is, in my mind, a way to summon my mother’s metaphysical presence whenever I need a little extra support to face something difficult.

One of the ways mom expressed herself was with essential oils. As a child, I remember her picking up bottles here and there from art fairs or music festivals. It was the 70s, so Sandalwood and Patchouli were popular, but so were blended scents like China Rain and Nag Champa, scents that weave through my memories of her, connecting otherwise disparate moments of our lives.

A full-time student, and always the free spirit, Mom frequently admonished me to relax and have fun when I was a child, urging me to make art for art’s sake and to embrace the frivolous over the practical. Not one to attend PTA meetings or bake cookies for my class, she instead took me to art exhibits (where there was often free food), indie art movies, and free concerts at a moment’s notice. Her way of supporting me was to enroll us in a variety of free or inexpensive performing arts classes and together we learned how to juggle and mime and perform puppet shows in the street. Her life philosophy was simple: do what makes you happy no matter what others think.

I wanted to believe my mother’s philosophy and, when we were together, life was exactly what she made of it: fun. But school was a stark contrast where what others thought did matter and the superficial was supremely important. I was often singled out and bullied because I was the new kid in class or because I came from a broken home. Kids made fun of me for having too many freckles, not enough hair, and pants that were too short. In constant survival mode, I couldn’t focus on school work and did not find value in doing so. I was miserable trying to navigate contrasting worlds and began resenting my mother for not behaving like other mothers who stayed at home and cooked and cleaned. Wistful thinking that directly contradicted with my mother’s goal to enjoy a level of freedom and independence comparable to that which men enjoy and to pursue her education and artistic pursuits without judgment or recrimination.

Since inheriting my mother’s collection of perfumes and essential oils, I’ve been trying many of them on and have begun to build an encyclopedic vocabulary of fragrance names that have begun to represent a kind of continued coalescing of our two lives. Here, a fragrance I recognize as one she often wore to the opera and there, one I remember her wearing on one of our many trips to the art gallery.

I realized not long ago that with age and ever greater responsibilities, I had grown distant and somewhat disdainful of my mother’s life philosophy losing track of what my heart truly desires. What I’ve learned is that mastering socially sanctioned skills for raising children, working for wages, and keeping up with politics, skills I believed important and central to maturity, come pretty easily with just a little work. It’s much more challenging, it turns out, to embrace frivolity and disregard what others think, especially when your desires pull you towards any kind of nonconformity or creative pursuit. I see now that I am fortunate to have experienced these freedoms when I was a child as so many are not.

Recently, while visiting my daughter and son-in-law in Arizona, we explored mountains and small towns, shopped odd curiosity shops, played games, and laughed at our own jokes until our abs hurt. It was the kind of trip my mother would have loved and orchestrated. When we loaded up into my daughter’s car to head back to the airport in the Toyota Yaris she inherited from my mother that last morning, she commented on how it still smells like Mom.

“What did she wear?” she’d asked, and how glad I was to include her in the mystery.

“Sandalwood for everyday,” I said, “and patchouli for going out at night. Ralph Lauren for the office, but sometimes Joy. Her favorite, though, which she wore to the opera and ballet, was Chanel #5.”

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