I met the Big Cheese right out of college, shortly after my mother had died. I was definitely not In The Mood for Love but he wooed me and all these years later we are still together, and parents of four, a fact that makes me quake with laughter.
Anyway, in that long-ago time his mother had a list of Suitable Young Debutantes for her Golden Boy, and it was clear from the start that I was not on that list. She was pretty much immune to my charms, placing little value on the attributes that seemed to captivate him (my bookishness, my pert breasts, my dark sense of humor.) But she was a shrewd woman, and once it looked like she was getting a daughter-in-law, she opted for the silk-purse route. I was not a total loss: I was petite, well educated, I cleaned up nicely. She took stock and got busy.
She took me shopping. She took me to Neiman Marcus and Saks, literally the first time I had ever been in either. I was astonished to find myself standing on a platform in a large private dressing room in front of her, more or less naked, while her cadre of personal shoppers came and went and she eyed me critically. She thought my feet were absurdly large (size 7) but bought me gorgeous silver YSL sandals anyway, my first pair of luxury shoes. I felt like Cinderella getting ready for the ball.
And so it began. Over the years, as we understood each other better, we each got something from the other that we valued.
She, mother of sons, got her own full-size doll to dress in all sorts of fabulous get-ups, suitable for evenings out on the town and nice cocktail parties. She surprised me with numbers like a leopard-print silk tunic, python-print pants, a pair of stretch flare black velvet slacks that would have been shocking if they weren´t so luxe. My friends got nightgowns from L.L. Bean and blenders from their mothers-in-law. I got knee-high embossed leather boots, beaded evening bags, and a stunning violet silk sweater that laced (!) up the back, the effect being entirely worth the effort.
I got not just a great wardrobe but a gift of knowledge from a woman who learned one of life´s big lessons on a primal level: how to make lemonade out of the lemons handed her on occasion. At an early age, she found herself a widow with small boys and limited prospects. She held it together. She sketched out a picture of future happiness for her young sons and then marched them toward it. She wasted precious little time looking backward for the rest of her long, eventful life. We had our ups and downs, but I never lost my admiration for the iron fist in her genteel velvet glove.
She was a devotee of luxury. She liked all the finest things in life; she lived with gusto. She never settled for less than the best table, never second-guessed herself, never deferred to someone else. She could be completely exasperating, and frank to the point of rudeness, but she was never dull. From her I learned to love big, loud parties, to appreciate great food and fine champagne, to argue for more when I felt I deserved it. She was interesting, and well-read, and fun to travel with, because she always had five fabulous outfits and an adventure in mind.
She believed in me, and eventually I believed in me, too.
She loved fragrance. She had Luxury Skin; she could make a bottle of L´Air Du Temps EDT smell like a custom-blended fragrance from JAR. On Mother´s Day, during what would be our last visit, I browsed her fragrance collection (she´d been wearing Hermes 24, Faubourg recently) and we got to chatting about perfumes. I asked her, what is your signature fragrance, the one you´ve worn for years, that one I associate most with you? Because I couldn´t pick it out. It is my most vivid memory of her – she wafted sillage like nobody´s business, and she smelled like heaven. On the occasions I borrowed a shawl or sweater it smelled unmistakably, beautifully, of her.
She said her signature fragrance was Chloe. I said it wasn´t, because I know what Chloe smells like -” Eau de 1980s, one of those big-bang numbers like Poison or Giorgio (although it was born in 1975 – notes are: lily of the valley, honeysuckle, orange flower, ylang ylang, hyacinth, jasmine, rose, narcissus, carnation, tuberose, sandalwood, amber, oakmoss — basenotes.) It was Chloe, she insisted. I argued back. Eventually I got up and grabbed her bottle off her dressing table and sprayed it on both of us. She was right, of course. On me it smelled like Eau de 1980s. On her it smelled like a very expensive blonde in a fur wrap on a private jet headed for the royal wedding at the palace, surrounded by champagne and chocolate.
I brought a few of her things home – a scarf, her favorite purse, an absurdly fake mongolian-lamb stole I used to tease her about. They smell like her, and therefore they are beautiful. She made my life richer. I loved her in a deep, complicated way I am only beginning to appreciate, and I will miss her very much. Her funeral is tomorrow. I will be wearing Apres L’Ondee — the parfum, not the EDT. Because sometimes in life your sillage should be a little over the top.