My Mother’s Purse

Unpacking my luggage from last week´s trip to New York, I found myself (surprise, surprise) trying to find the source of some unidentifiable, wonderful scent. I´d bought tea and goodies at Takashimaya, and chocolates, and I tend to have random paper blotters tucked into pockets of things I´ve worn, so the source of the loveliness wasn´t immediately clear. Eventually I found it: the candle Patty brought me from her visit to Paris — Annick Goutal´s Le Sac de Ma Mere (my mother’s handbag).

I´d mentioned this scent to Patty. I was wondering, while she was in Paris, if she might smell it at the boutique. I wasn´t sure what format it came in — I thought it was perfume or a room spray.

Patty being Patty, she bought me a candle, which as it turns out is how the scent is packaged. I tried to pay her for it, and she told me I could (insert mild obscenity here.) Patty gets a kick out of giving, and I still can´t believe she humped that candle all the way back from Paris and then to New York to surprise me with it. When I am with Patty, I feel like she brings out my best self. How many people can you say that about? Okay, I´ll shut up now before she tells me to (insert mild obscenity here) and get back to the candle.

From the AG website:

Childhood scents stay engraved in our memories. Camille Goutal has created the magic of memory by recalling the fragrance of her mother’s handbag. It is a scented candle in which the dizzying smell of tanned leather is mixed with powder blush and lipstick. Ingredients: Russian leather, iris, violet, oakmoss.

Coming upon it in my luggage, before I´d applied any other perfume, in my warm, sunlit bedroom, was the best possible way to take it in. It is as simple (and as complex) as it sounds. It’s as if she found my mother´s purse from my childhood and captured the essence of it. There is a rich, warm leather, comforting rather than “exclusive.” It´s a respectable handbag smell. And then there´s the sweetness – makeup, perhaps a small solid perfume or a purse atomizer, a handkerchief, some hard candies or mints. There is tobacco, and a slightly dusty smell, the smell of the mystery a mother´s pocketbook always seems to hold, even if you can´t put your finger literally on its source. It is a scent memory. It is a simple, quiet smell. If you share the memory, it is heartbreakingly perfect, a scent that makes tears spring to your eyes before you realize what´s happened. Like many interesting stories, it is partly about a kind of loss.

Adding to the aura surrounding my mother´s purse was that for years, underneath her car keys and cigarettes and other everyday items, it held a loaded revolver. She was from rural Virginia and guns were as much a part of her life as they were of my father´s, a farm boy from Oklahoma. Nothing was more useless than an unloaded gun. I knew it was in there. I never touched it. She carried it for protection, why (or from whom) I never knew. I don’t think the other neighborhood moms were packing, but what do I know? All their pocketbooks weighed a ton.

As a teenager I asked her once whether she thought she could, you know, really shoot someone with that gun? If somebody was, like, breaking into our house or something? She stared at me, puzzled, trying to understand where the trick part of the question was. The subtleties of my vegetarian, organic-cotton, Rumi-reading mindset were lost on her. My father told me years later she was a crack shot, something he admired.

Le Sac de Ma Mere. Is your mother´s purse a universal smell, with or without the metallic revolver note? Would it smell different inJapan?India? I am curious – is that a female thing? Do any of our male readers have memories of their mother´s purses as being some sort of repository of mystery?

My father thought I hung the moon. He still does. When I was young he was my advocate, my conversational companion, my occasional partner in crime. But my mother was the planet around which I revolved, every aspect of my life influenced by her cosmic pull. I smelled the candle, with its sense (its scents?) of secrecy, sadness, and comfort. I held Le Sac de Ma Mere in my hand and wished I could be, for five minutes, that young girl again, surrounded by my mother’s fierce protection — something I took for granted, like the rising of the sun, until it was gone.

Update: Aedes is rumored to be bringing out this scent in 2009.

handbag: soyouwearablevintage.com

photo of woman in red from a recent show inSouthCarolina about the history of handbags (the Anita Davis collection, 2000 objects!) that I would have loved to have seen, www.sc.gov

  • Molly says:

    Thanks for the welcome March! I’m very glad I found your site; I first stumbled upon “Now Smell This,” which I really enjoy as well, and somehow made my way here. I’m having fun reading and learning from you all!
    Molly 🙂

  • Girl-Woman says:

    Me again. The comments have been as interesting as the post…you have obviously struck oil on this post.

    • March says:

      Yeah, those are my favorites. As you’ve figured out by now, I’m interested in the places perfume fits into life, and I love to hear people’s thoughts and stories and [email protected]};-

  • Sara D Cole says:

    What a breathtakingly fabulous story. You are a very gifted writer. The best is when she is trying to figure out the ‘trick’ part of the question. I have never read anything before that made me actually _want_ to carry a gun. But I’m not hardcore and cool like your Mom, (sounds a lot like mine), and would be way more likely to injure myself than ever be attacked.

    The new website design is AMAZING– it’s the main reason I wanted to delurk. 🙂 I’m an artist and have a lot of appreciation for web design. Your old site was gorgeous but this seems even better suited to your style as a blog. Love, love love it.
    Sara Cole

    • March says:

      Thanks for the compliments. The site design has been a hit. I think the mistake Patty and I made is the error of a five-year-old, so to speak — just because we COULD do something doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do. We wanted a fun, wild design, and last time we had it. But I didn’t think about the problems it would present to people in terms of how long it took to load on some computers, and the fact that the semi-porny images (which I find funny) was an issue for people sneaking a peek at work. Duh. You can tell I work from home … we wanted something less flashy that maybe we wouldn’t get tired of. It’s so much less in-your-face. In terms of utility I think it’s a pretty good fit.

      And thanks for the compliments on the post. I put a lot of effort into those (sometimes that effort is more apparent than other times.) 😉

  • Molly says:

    Hi March,
    I’m new to your site (and perfume obsession in general). This was the first post I read, and it put tears in my eyes! Good tears, that is. 🙂
    You write beautifully.
    I must have that candle–that’s exactly how my mom’s purse used to smell when I was little: leather, gum, cigs, makeup compact, hand lotion…
    Thanks for invoking such a wonderful memory.
    Molly

    • March says:

      You’re welcome, and welcome to the blog! I hope you hang out and join us regularly, it’s fun. I love hearing about other people’s perfume obsessions.

  • Cheezwiz says:

    Ah, lovely write-up on your childhood memories March! What an interesting lady your Mom must have been. Annick Goutal candles are truly wonderful – I got to sniff a Christmas one they put out each year and it was amazing.

    Alas, I don’t have any sentimental memories of my Mom’s handbags, mainly because she favored huge slouchy bags that seemed bottomless. I do have a handbag fetish though, and just scored an adorable vintage number from E-bay. Vintage 50’s Koret chocolate brown suede with brass fittings. Completely untouched, and looks like something Grace Kelly would carry. I will have it forever, and must scent the interior with something nice! E-bay is a dangerous, dangerous place.

    • March says:

      Oooh! A Koret bag! You know, when I was looking for images to adorn this post, and I’d googled “vintage handbags” and the like, it kept taking me to various vintage sales places. I’d have bought the one up there but it was already sold!

      I am astonished at how strong that AG scent is on an unlit candle.

  • Girl-Woman says:

    Sorry…”small”

    I need bedtime spellcheck.

  • Girl-Woman says:

    As I do, too. I carry a handbag proportioned to my size. I love the oversized bags, but I am samll enough to camp out in one. Not a good look for me.

    • March says:

      Here, let’s see if I can make you giggle.

      You know what I *read* when I saw your comment?

      “I carry a handgun proportioned to my size…”

      I thought, wow. That’s an interesting way of putting it.

      PS you didn’t misspell it, you just got the letters in the wrong order! 😉 I do it all the time, I’m always typing “taht”

  • Girl-Woman says:

    Hi March. Love the signature look. Every time I peruse your blog, I am nostalgic for D.C./Maryland. My mother’s purse was the epitome of the Let’s-Make-A-Deal purse. I loved your post, metallic revolver and all. (Annie Oakley’s historic house was a few doors down from my Mom’s.)

    • March says:

      The let’s-make-a-deal purse! Great description. When the kids were really small mine was sort of like that. I try to carry a smaller bag, because however big it is I end up filling it up.:”>

  • pantera lilly says:

    March, you always take me back with your remembrances of your mother, and I get so caught up with you that I am in that moment with you, in that warm bedroom sniffing the candle. What a wonderful way you have with words. Thank you.

  • Andy says:

    Oh March
    What a touching post. Isn’t it exactly this innocent “taking for granted ” that makes being a child so special? I guess in a sense it is the greatest gift a mother can give to her child: This feeling of eternal protection.

    • March says:

      Yes, Andy, you are right. I miss … that incredible level of certainty about something. Of course, in a slightly different way, that is more or less what I am getting back from my kids — the smaller ones anyway. The feeling that I am the center of their universe.

  • tmp00 says:

    I would be interested to smell this; I wonder if it would smell like my mother’s handbag- Coach leather, face powder, mints and red lipstick. No gun, my mother preferred to kill with a whithering glare.. :d

    • March says:

      Yeah, your mom’s handbag sounds perfect! I have some old original style Coach bags which I love, back when they were simple leather and tack hardware (and the company was dying, okay, I know!) They smell great though.

      Well, honey, you got your fabulous wit from somewhere!

  • Robin says:

    Beautiful post, and what a beautiful sounding candle — now when are they going to make it into a perfume? That is really a perfect name for a perfume.

    • March says:

      Well, I thought it was a room spray, as I said. And I was wrong. This is my first AG candle and it does have a very nice throw, even when it’s not burning. You’re right, it’s a great name for a fragrance.

  • AngelaS says:

    Le Sac de ma Mere–how genius is that! I want the candle desperately now. And what a great subject for a post!

    My mother usually carried crappy vinyl bags, nothing as romantic as your mother’s, and no gun. A cheap wallet, food stamps, Revlon lipsticks (now there’s a smell), an emery board, and kleenex.

    • March says:

      I actually thought of you a couple of times writing this, because of the vintage-purse and smell angle. You’re right, though, I have a few and you don’t get the same effect out of vinyl, no matter how fabulous a fake it is. My mother carried essentially the same variation on the theme of the navy blue leather pocketbook, over and over, replacing it with another almost duplicate as they wore out. I never even see those things any more.

  • violetnoir says:

    Whoa! A pistol-packing mom, huh? I love it! Your mom sounds like my kind of woman, March. I am so sorry that she is no longer with you.

    Wish I “burned,” but I would love to smell that candle.

    Hugs!

    • March says:

      I miss her. I wish she’d been around long enough to meet the Big Cheese and my kids. I think she would have been a great grandmom and spoiled them rotten.

  • Marina says:

    What an amazing post! The candle sounds divine too.

  • Dain says:

    Oh, how lovely! Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • Anthony says:

    So good! This was such a great read! I hope I can share this candle with my mom some day… she’ll absolutely love it. Reading this, I coincidentally had my samples of a few fragrances lying next to my computer and one was Dior Homme and it got me thinking… I’m just curious if you smell lipstick and mom’s purse in the Dior as others do. Is it the iris that is playing this little sensory trick?

    • March says:

      I haven’t smelled the Dior Homme recently, but if I’m remembering it right I do think it’s a trick of the iris (and maybe some bright woods?) It’s got that same soft, powdery vibe.

      I am under the (possibly incorrect?) impression that the guys, at least on Basenotes, are not digging the Dior Homme. I am not an expert on men’s frags but I thought it was nice.

  • Patty says:

    Lovely post as usual, doll. Do I do mild obscenities? I could have sworn I usually stuck with the more hard-core. 🙂 Oh! You were being kind.

    Mom’s purse was awesome. It was always full of gum, aspirin, tampax, hankies and everything we needed in a pinch. It smelled like love because she would put things in there she didn’t use or need fo us.8-|

    • March says:

      Your obscenities adjust to suit the occasion! I didn’t want to make you sound all Pollyanna-ish, you know? Because there’s salt in there with all that sweetness, for leavening.:x

  • minette says:

    wonderful post. people who pick up my mother’s (and my) purses always joke about how much they weigh. the smell you describe is one i’ve often smelled while antiquing and shopping for vintage clothes and accessories… but i’m not sure i associate it with my own mother’s purse. the closest thing to that sort of recognition i’ve had was with chanel’s cuir de russie – but i knew instantly that it was my grandmother, not my mother, who’d worn it.

    if you pop open a box of coty loose powder, you can get a similar, time-traveling jolt to the ’60s and earlier – it’s the l’origan with which it’s scented – i think a lot of women carried/wore coty products when we were little.

    and i wanted to say that you CAN return to that time in your life – just focus on it and feel it. it’s as real to your brain and body as it was when you were a little girl. only now you have the added benefit of knowing how wonderful it all was/is. i know she’s not here in one way, but in another way, one that’s just as “real,” she is and always will be. xxx, m

    • March says:

      L’Origan!!! I have a vintage bottle. It’s a great, great smell. They really dumbed a lot of those Cotys down. L’Aimant and the others are pretty fab too. Yeah, that’s a joy of rooting through vintage purses, I love that smell.

      And you are right. Not to get too woo-woo on you, but she has always been here when I need her. I didn’t realize that, though, until my first child was born (who is named after her.) I felt her right there, in the room, holding us [email protected]};-

  • Christine says:

    What a great post, as always. I think it’s really great that your mother was packing some heat. We took lessons at a shooting range last year. Turns out I’m quite the shot. I was blink every damn time the gun goes off, which makes me probably the person least likely to ever use a gun effectively since I can’t keep my eyes open.

    Love the nostalgia of the candle, and now I wished I had tried to find it when I was in London in Harrod’s.

    • March says:

      Hey, how *was* London? Did you have fun?

      The gun made me nervous, and nervous, and nervous. For awhile. I think that’s a normal reaction. Target shooting was a blast, though. Eventually we worked our way up in caliber, which was also really fun.:”>

  • Inhale says:

    What an evocative post. My mother reminded me of a lionness when it came to protecting us from strangers. I don’t think I could bear the sadness of smelling the scent.

    Sikhs are very interesting people. May I add to his lessons? Never point it at anyone unless you plan to shoot them, and never shoot them unless you plan on killing them. Accidents and other unfortunate events prevented that way.

    I think I need a wonderful scent to cheer me up. That, and some breakfast.

    Debbie

    • March says:

      I hope you had breakfast! And yes, I got the gist of your two additional gun rules in my training … I personally am not sure whether I *could* do any of those things, and we don’t have any firearms in the house.

      • Inhale says:

        Yes, thanks, I did have breakfast. That helped, but what helped most was deciding to make it a Chergui day. :o)

        Debbie

      • Inhale says:

        I have no idea how I got a clown face when I intended just a smiley face. No clowns intended.

        Debbie

        • March says:

          Hey, glad to hear it!!! When I do the baffled face (hand on chin) I get a question mark. I don’t want a question mark.

          Let’s test:

          😕 That is supposed to be hand on chin.

          🙂 That is supposed to be a smiley face.

          :o) That’s the clown face. I’m going to press “save” now….

  • Malena says:

    march, now you got me hooked LOL i want that candle!!!
    just yesterday i was talking about scented candles with a friend, saying that i don´t like candles in general (among other things, bad memories of burnt hair & lashes come to mind…), but this one seems to smell delicious, my favourite scents combined!
    you really caused a new lemming!
    i loved to read your description of your mother & her handbag 🙂 i don´t have any special memories of my mother´s handbags – besides her complains about them – they are too small, too big, not practical enough…oh well, you get the picture 😉
    several years ago i used to carry a pretty huge, dark blue handbag from my grandmother everywhere i went – it looked…*uhm*…a bit ugly (to put it nicely) but somehow – though i don´t use it anymore – i still love it!

    • March says:

      Those big granny bags can be great, though. You can put a ton of stuff in them. And who knows why we fall in love with things? I remember wearing one of my father’s shirts in college. It was full of holes, and I loved it. He kept begging me to toss it, he offered to replace it. Missing the point entirely.;)

  • Divalano says:

    Great post, thanks! There is a certain Mom dressed up to go out smell that brings me a bit of nostalgia. I remember the way she’d smell on her way out, that’s part of it. And there’s also the way she’d smell coming home, with that dressed up smell & the scent of outside at night still on her – lipstick & kid gloves & night air. And there’s also a purse smell which I think combines her makeup box, perfume & leather. I don’t know how true my memory is, probably in truth there’s a lot more patchouli & musk oil (it was the late 60s after all) in the reality than my memory wants to acknowledge.

    Re: guns. We were peaceniks. I was encouraged to throw out all my war toys (I had toy guns that I loved) but I’ve shot guns on ranges & while I don’t want one for my purse I always did want to learn to be a crack shot. I think it’s sexy, kinda. And I so wanted that lady in red to be your mom, I think she’d be a way hot mom to have.

    • March says:

      Yes, that coming-home smell. Often the additional notes of liquor and cigarettes!

      Kids around here can’t have toy guns anymore that look like real guns. We’d be shunned from the playground. Growing up we had cap guns (6-shooters for cowboys) and Daisy air rifles…. and we turned out okay.:)>- My five-year-old bites his sandwich into a gun shape and shoots it!

  • March says:

    I would love to see your grandmother’s bags! I bet they are gorgeous. My mom didn’t have stuff like that. But I have bought, over the years, some great vintage bags that make me happy.

  • Judith says:

    Oh, wonderful! Your mother’s purse (in both real and candle varieties) sounds quite similar to my own (although mine was sans revolver):). I also have a number of beautiful old (dressy) bags that belonged to my grandmother; they only smell of the leather (and my stuff) now, but I love to wear them!

  • Elle says:

    What a beautiful post! Your mother sounds like she was a fascinating, wonderful character. And I’m definitely going to have to get that candle. I’m afraid I can’t even recall what my mother’s purses looked like, much less smelled like. My father was the planet around which I revolved and I very clearly remember everything about his briefcases, including their smell, which was of the pipe tobacco he kept in them. I still go out and buy bags of pipe tobacco to keep in my own purse so that it will smell like his briefcase.

    • March says:

      Hey, I think for most (all?) of us, our mothers were characters. She was larger than life in so many ways. As an adult looking back, I can see things differently, of course. But she *was* an interesting person. She’d had a rough childhood; she was a tough customer. But she managed to marry a lovely man and raise two fine girls 😉 on the strength of her intelligence and character.

      My dad’s briefcase! That’s like the bottega veneta candle, sort of. My dad had one of those huge, hinged sort of roundish, leather deals. He didn’t smoke, but pipe tobacco would have been a lovely addition. I like that you scent your purse that way.

  • Divina says:

    Really, reeaally gorgeously written, March. Brought back the smell of my own mother’s purses. I still borrow her purses when I go to visit, she generously will complete any outfit by handing me one of her bags and I always, without thinking, enjoy the smell for a few seconds every time I open one to get something from inside.. It is mostly sweet spearmint, mixed with soft, buttery leather and the trace of powdery smell her little makeup bag leaves behind… Thank you!

    • March says:

      Yes! That’s it precisely! When my mother-in-law was alive, she would often hand me a last-minute bag to go with whatever I was wearing, if we were heading to something together. I liked how her purses smelled very much like her. Her smell is slowly fading from the things I have of hers, which makes me very sad. I think Annick’s purse must have smelled like what we’re smelling, and moved her in the same way.

  • MattS says:

    What a wonderful post. Your mother sounds fabulous. Being from the South, I understand the concept of handgun as accessory. Many fine ladies I’ve known have packed a piece along with their compacts, cigarette cases, lipsticks, and the like. Usually these were business owners who perhaps felt that as successful women they were more likely to be targeted for attack. Vulnerability was never an interest or an option for these ladies.

    Ladies handbags are mysterious things. As a child, I would always plunder through my mother’s purse during church, bored, looking for amusement, and it does seem as though there is a distinct scent about it. How universal it is, I’m not sure, but I’ve always felt that Le Labo Rose 31 smelled like the inside of a ladies purse which is why I’ve enjoyed sniffing it, but never really worn it. It makes me think of a battered stick of Dentyne at the bottom of a cluttered purse with bits of tobacco and lint stuck to it. An interesting scent, but one I’ve not yet felt comfortable wearing. I’m not really sure why I get this from it, if maybe it’s my mother’s purse in particular or not. Maybe I’ll get her to sniff it and see what she thinks.

    Anyway, the candle sounds wonderful. What a sweetheart Patty is.

    • March says:

      Hey, that is such a great story. I resniffed Le Labo and I think your observation is spot on — it does smell like a stand-in for the inside of a ladies’ purse. And it sounds like you feel that sense of mystery as well.

      Somehow dad’s wallet never grabs the same feeling — although it was frequently the source the cash flowed from…

      😉

  • Sylvia Scarlett says:

    My scented memory of my Mother is not of a perse, but a scent itself: Estée Lauder Private Collection. She has had many perfumes but this is still her signature scent. She tells me that once many year ago, a lady chased her down the street to ask her what perfume she was wearing… It’s now impossible to find in my country but I got her a bottle last Summer. She still wears it [email protected]};-

    • March says:

      I just smelled Private Collection for the first time in New York! In the parfum strength. A powerful, beautiful, evocative scent. You are a lucky woman.

  • katia says:

    Hi March,

    Thank you for sharing ! I loved your post. Now I need a candle…:x

  • Louise says:

    Ah, March, you have me a bit weepy, in the good way. It still amazes me how I miss my mom after all the years. She wasn’t an easy one, and packed her own (though invisible, mostly verbal) pistol, too. But she was an amazingly bright, creative and independent lady.

    I have an old brown crocodile bag of hers, the kind that sits flat like a boxy hat, and inside I store a hanky of hers, and a very awkwardly-made ceramic heart, painted pink and etched with my 6 year-olds’ “I love you”. The odor of the bag is faint White Shoulders, the good old one, her everyday mom scent.

    • March says:

      Oh, now there is a perfect scent memory! I can see everything just as you described [email protected]};-

      Yeah, my mother also carried the verbal arsenal, frequently aimed at me. Unfortunately I inherited some of that weaponry … my life struggle is not to leave it to my kids, the bad bits, that is.

  • Lee says:

    Oh, March. Lovely. Touching words.

    I don’t have anything to add. My ma didn’t carry a handbag / purse often, and I never smelled it anyway. I was more interested in burying my action man in the garden.

    Patty – well, she is remarkable isn’t she? And you ain’t too shoddy yourself.:x

    • March says:

      Patty’s amazing. I think her personality comes through on the blog. She’s really fun, obviously — it’s easy to see that part. But when you’re with her over the course of a day, you see how totally kind she is.

      Okay, so *you’re * not helping out in my man’s purse survey — (as opposed to a man-purse survey.);)

  • Maria says:

    Beautiful recollections, March. Your mother’s purse must have smelled quite different from most of our weaponless mothers’ and yet it smelled like Annick Goutal’s! I wonder if Annick packed heat, :d and I wonder with you whether there is a universal mother’s purse scent.

    Trying to stir up debate, I brought up in my classes last semester the question of whether or not college instructors should pack heat. You’d be surprised at how many argued “yes.” I did point out that my eyesight is very poor and that some of their other instructors may be out of their bloody little minds. Not I, of course.
    :-b

    • March says:

      No way!!! College professors? I’d have figured that would have been a solid “no,” depending on the location.

      Hoping to avoid an argument on here, but the Cheese and I took a series of lessons once at a shooting range. The instructor was this really intense sikh. Lesson number one was, don’t pick up a gun unless you know how that particular gun works. Lesson two was, don’t carry it unless you intend to use it.

      • Maria says:

        You’d be amazed at how afraid students are today–Virginia Tech, Columbine, etc. They want someone to keep them safe from crazed peers.

        BTW, I hope your mother wasn’t packing in DC after the no-guns laws were passed. But it’ll be our little secret. 😉

        • March says:

          Um …. well … I forget when that law went into effect?!?

          :-$

          I think her attitude was, that law was an anomaly that didn’t apply to her personally.

  • lbd says:

    (I had never noticed the three versions of the site “look” before, so the Arsenic and Old Lace version that came up as the default this time was a surprise. Has it always been there???!)

  • lbd says:

    First, what a wonderful new look for the site! Love it!! Second, this post was very moving; I could actually recall the smell of both my mother’s and grandmother’s purses, and the recollection is bittersweet. Reading your words and remembering my own childhood brought back a time of wonder and security, and it’s a bit sad to know that was so long ago and far away. Thank you for sharing your own memories and bringing this scent to life.

    L

    • March says:

      Today is my husband’s birthday; and we were just talking about how long ago and far away some things now seem. Sitting on my brick front stoop, surrounded by the scents of my childhood, is almost like a dream.

      The Posse format dropdowns are for your viewing pleasure! 😉 The dirty girls was our last one (which apparently took forever to load and got blocked by some office porn-blockers); the cherry girls was the first. I think maybe some of the newer features (like comment threading) don’t work perfectly in them.