The Sillage of Life

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.

  • Z says:

    I’m deeply touched.

  • gail says:

    How many of us are courageous enough to understand the joy and necessity of living life on our own terms?

    I’m sure your MIL is spritzing and dressing fabulously in her new phase.

    Meanwhile, I send you fond thoughts. gail

  • March says:

    Everyone — thanks for your kind words (I was having computer trouble last night.):(

    I spent much of yesterday at the church arranging the flowers for the service. There was something lovely and comforting about standing in front of the altar in that dark, quiet church, placing flowers stem by stem.

    We are having a reception at our house following the service. Should be quite the party.

  • Flora says:

    What a lovely tribute, I was very moved. How fortunate for you to have had such a person for a mother-in-law. She sounds a bit like Rosalind Russell in “Auntie Mame” – all gusto and high standards.

  • CindyN says:

    What a warm, compassionate eulogy. And my compliments to you as well for developing and accepting with grace what seems to have been an astonishing yet sometimes trying relationship with a unique and formidable woman. Hugs and prayers to you and BC tomorrow.

  • sybil says:

    March…everyone should have a mother-in-law like yours, but everyone should also have a daughter-in-law like you. What a lovely tribute. My thoughts are with you all.

  • Marina says:

    Dear March,
    This is such a wonderful tribute. I am so very sorry for your loss. Big hugs,

  • violetnoir says:

    What a dame! What an incredible woman! I would have liked to have met her because she sounds like my kind of woman.

    And by the way…Chloe was my signature fragrance in the 70’s and 80’s. It smelled as divine on me as I know it did on your wonderful mother-in-law.

    Hugs to all of your family, March!

  • Robin says:

    What a lovely post, M.

  • Patty says:

    It is indeed a wonderful, unexpected thing when someone you did not expect arrives in your life and has such a big part to play. And what a gaping hole there is when they leave it. A beautiful tribute to a life well lieved

    I have a feeling she was as enriched by knowing you, but probably not so much the pert breats. 🙂

    What a great journey life is and how much sadness we have to leave at the side of the road as we go through it.

    Hugs to all of you.

  • Pam says:

    March, I’m not a wordsmith like you and Patty and some of the other posters here. Can barely put two words together. But I want you to know how deeply moved I am by today’s post; the screen is so blurry I can hardly see what I’m writing. I want to say something about the emptiness now in your family and something about your memories of your MIL, but, I swear, I can’t get it together well enough to say it so that it makes sense. Instead, I’ll simply say thank you for sharing this part of your life with us faceless strangers out here who meet in cyberspace and share sentiments over a bottle of perfume.@};-

  • Donna Linton says:

    Thank you for sharing your memories of such a lovely lady.

    My thoughts and prayers are with you in your time of sadness. May it pass quickly.