Scent Takes a Holiday – by Nava

The beauty of “Seinfeld” is that everyone has had, at one time or another, a moment in life that occured on an episode of this brilliant show. It may not be the exact same scenario, but close enough to evoke the spirits of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer.

I just returned home from an almost three week visit to my family and friends in Toronto. Ironically, the episode when Jerry and Elaine go to Florida to visit Jerry’s parents was on while I was there. The scene where Elaine is struggling to find a comfortable position on the sofa bed and sweating profusely because of the lack of air conditioning is a plight I’m sure all of us can relate to. It’s hard to complain when you’re at the mercy of hospitable relatives, but that’s not to say the accomodations will resemble those of a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons hotel. More often than not, they don’t.

I hadn’t been in Toronto for over seven months and had a bit of trepidation about what had transpired since my last visit. Usually, someone or something changes radically in my absence and I have to reconcile myself with the new circumstances. It’s not that I can’t handle change; I talk to my family and friends quite often and am kept apprised of all the goings-on. Inevitably, there may be tidbits of information that get omitted during conversations. One thing I can always count on is my aunt, with whom I usually stay, telling me before I get there to “not forget to NOT wear any perfume.” Roger that, auntie; I hear you loud and clear. But what surprises do you have in store for me?

This time, the pertinent information omitted was that my aunt had radically changed her eating habits and will now cosume only organic foods. This mode of behavior sprouted from her being a Weight Watchers devotee, progressed to fanatical bouts of exercising, and evolved into “Evangelical Foodie-ism.” I’m not certain this is a documented condition, but when I showed up on her doorstep, I was lectured sternly about what foods she will not allow into her home:

Her: Absolutely nothing that is not organic or 100% natural. That includes no processed cheeses, breads containing gluten, caffeine, sugar and anything that is high in potassium. Your uncle is on a very strict low-potassium diet. Also, we aren’t eating any red meat; just fish and occasionally some chicken. What is that I smell?

Me: Uh, the body lotion I put on this morning before I left the house?

Her: What did I say about wearing perfume?

Me: It’s not perfume.

Her: Well, please don’t use it. It’s giving me a headache.

Me: Are you sure? I can’t even smell it anymore.

Her: Yes, I can smell it!

Me: OK…

After a night spent tossing and turning on the ancient bed, getting tangled up and sweaty in the fleece blankets that still bore my cousin’s sewn-on name labels from sleepaway camp, I had that feeling of dread all houseguests feel when they realize they would have been better off staying at Bob’s Sleazy Motel, rather than dealing with their nutty relatives. In the morning, a breakfast consisting of a gluten-free organic bagel the size of a hockey puck with organic peanut butter and sugar free organic jam, accompanied by a weak cup of some atrocious herbal tea, convinced me that these were conditions I was not entirely willing to put up with. As I sat at the dining room table watching my aunt document every morsel of food she was consuming in her Weight Watchers food diary, I attempted to chew my gelatinous gluten-free hockey puck (I finally know what vulcanized rubber tastes like), and asked her:

Me: So, where does one purchase organic gluten-free bagels?

Her: They’re good, aren’t they?

Me: (struggling to swallow a rubbery mouthful) Mmmm…yummy.

Her: I get them at the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings. If I’m not there at exactly 7 am, they sell out.

Me: Don’t go to that kind of trouble on my account. I’ll go to Bagel World and get some regular bagels.

Her: No, you will not. What did I say when you got here last night?

Me: What’s so horrible about Bagel World bagels?

Her: They’re unhealthy.

Me: I’ll take my chances.

Her: I refuse to allow them into this house.

Me: (not really wanting to move to Bob’s Sleazy Motel) Fine.

Her: Lunch today will be at 12:30 sharp. You’ll adore the zucchini and carrot soup we’ve been eating. It’s wonderful.

Me: (muttering) Can’t wait.

I showered, spitefully slathered myself in the scented body lotion I was told not to use, and went out for a Tim Hortons coffee and double chocolate doughnut. Yeah, I’ll probably end up in nutritional purgatory for eating this stuff. If I dare to contemplate having a Big Mac for lunch, my aunt might have me committed.

When I got back to the house, after surreptitiously brushing chocolate doughnut crumbs from my shirt and pitching my coffee cup into the recycling bin, the smell of raw red onions and garlic walloped me like a heavyweight prizefighter. In the kitchen stood Louisa, the care-giver hired to help with my aging and, much as I hate to admit this, increasingly infirm uncle. She was up to her elbows in shredded carrots and zucchini. “So you’re the soup-maker,” I said, introducing myself. She just smiled and politely shook my hand. I was told she was hired as a care-giver, not a soup-maker. Apparently, her job description encompasses care-giving as well as soup and salad making. During my stay, I did not witness her administer any care to my uncle. Her sole household activities were to shred copious numbers of vegetables, slice mounds of raw red onions and mince countless cloves of garlic. I could literally feel the the odors of onion and garlic permeate my clothing and seep into my pores. Surely my scented body lotion could not be as offensive as this.

As we sat down to our lunch of Louisa’s zucchini and carrot soup, the following conversation ensued:

Me: Wow, this is good soup.

Her: Really? I can’t taste it.

Me: Why not?

Her: I’ve got the smell of your perfume up my nose.

Me: I told you, it’s not perfume.

Her: What is it then?

Me: Body lotion.

Her: I will not allow it.

Me: Not allow what?

Her: You cannot wear that body lotion in this house.

Me: Well, I’m not exactly thrilled to walk around reeking of onions and garlic.

Her: You do not reek of onions and garlic.

Me: That’s what I smell.

Her: I can only smell that body lotion of yours.

My Uncle: SLURP!

Me: Can Louisa make Mulligatawny?

Her: What’s that?

Me: Never mind…

After leaving a trail of Tim Hortons coffee cups all over the city and eating out with my friends as often as possible, I returned home to my non-onion-and-garlic-scented house relieved to be away from the tyranny, er, pursuit of good health. No that there’s anything wrong with attempting to live a healthy lifestyle, but when it becomes unreasonably obsessive, I find I need to put as much space as possible between myself and those who are guilty of said obsession. I like to think that when it comes to food,everything in moderation is a good thing. But, standing guard in one’s doorway trying to keep out the evils of processed foods and scented body lotion is a bit much; especially when all you can smell inside the house is onions and garlic. I admire my aunt’s determination to be a warrior for good health, and I love her very much, but: be it ever so “unhealthy”, there’s no place like home. I was thrilled to return to my coffee-maker and my extensive collection of scents; not a raw onion or garlic clove in the bunch.

  • MattS says:

    I’m lucky in that my family and friends are all just curiously fascinated by my scent obsession and are usually kinda eager to take a sniff–three weeks with no perfume is no vacation!

    • Nava says:

      Amen, Matt! Although, if I had to give up coffee for that long, I would have a much harder time. 🙂

  • Lucy says:

    Nava, what a great post, so good humored. It occurs to me you are demonstrating a great example to your relatives of courtesy and tolerance. I agree this is about control, maybe ocd, and the crankiness and vulnerability that sometimes go with old age. It lovely of you to be so understanding and zen about most of it, even while chafing at the strictures.

    Your aunt might benefit from getting out of the house a bit more. Sometimes when people don’t go out of their own territory often enough they start to develop a lot of rigid habits. Other people keep you flexible, in many ways.

    Next time maybe tell her about all the hand made organic scents out there now (Ajne, Aftelier, Anya’s, etc). Your aunt might start to develop an appreciation for them with some exposure, if she could read up on them, check the labels and be reassured as to their organic hand-made authenticity…

    • Nava says:

      Thanks Lucy. She is a piece of work, my aunt. And I do have my moments when it comes to her. I just try to have them in a safe warm environment free of knives and other dangerous implements. :d

  • Annette says:

    Nava,
    How funny that I should read your post right after having a “discussion” with my 17 year old about respecting people’s boundries. I awoke from a well earned afternoon powernap, having driven him all around town in Florida’s 90+ degree heat, after having worked all day at a hospital, taking care of other people’s aunts, uncles, mothers and fathers. I found him digging through the trunk of my car for a tool one of his friends wanted to borrow. . This is the child off to college in August to live with a total stranger.8-|
    After he listened to my endless blathering about respecting other peoples boundries (truely only 15 words or less), he calmly told me that I am blood, his mother, and the common rules don’t apply.
    You my dear, handled your “blood” better than I did. He is still in his room sulking.
    Family dynamics, don’t you love um? Good for you, standing up for yourself and yet respecting your aunt for what she provides. Next time you could douse yourself in your favorite ginger/spice (food) scent and tell her it is organic.

    • Nava says:

      Thanks Annette. I think I am at a sufficiently advanced age to be exempt from my Aunt’s sometimes suffocating maternal instincts. But, there are always exceptions. 🙂

  • violetnoir says:

    Oh my goodness, Nava, what a scene!

    I know you love your aunt dearly, but next time, you may want to consider staying at a hotel. Just a thought…

    Hugs, and welcome home!

  • Mariannetm says:

    Nava, how is her husband, your uncle? I get the feeling that he had nothing to say at all! :[email protected] At least you could ‘escape’ and eat and drink what you felt like when you were with your friends.~o)

    I looved your story. Your presence must have brought back the presence of all the other people that are related to you and your aunt, and whom she might miss terribly deep in her heart.

    • Nava says:

      Marianne,

      Thanks for asking about my uncle. He’s pretty mellow these days, with all his own health issues. He will eat anything you put in front of him, organic, natural, whatever. As you get older, you are willing to put up with more from the ones you love, especially when they are in their twilight years. I have to remind myself of that every so often. 🙂

      • Mariannetm says:

        At a next visit, you can give your aunt a present, something organic that is pretty delicious too. Maybe there is some organic chocolate or good organic coffee or just a homemade ‘organic cake’ with tasty ingredients.

        And your uncle must be a very kind man. Not every man in his twilight years is that mild, when it comes to food.

  • Christine says:

    Is there a health related reason for her aversion to scented items? Or her ability to tolerate “non healthy” items in her house? Even if she isn’t eating or using them? Otherwise the “will not be allowed in my house” statements would certainly have driven me up a wall.

    Indeed, and given my relationship with my Aunt, it probably would have led to me standing on the curb at two in the afternoon eating copious Big Macs and fries. You know, so I could be “in view” but certainly not in the house.

    Too bad about the Mulligawtany – I’m sure it could be made vegan and organic 😉

    • Nava says:

      Christine,

      Most likely, it’s a mental health reason. Seriously though, we do come from a very suspect Eastern European Jewish gene pool, and I think that does factor into her habits a great deal. As for the Big Macs, I’ve thought about it, believe me. 🙂

  • Divalano says:

    Coincidently my bf & I are taking a side trip from our SF travel this summer so that I could meet his family in San Diego. We were to stay at his brother’s house but found out last week that awwwww, we’d have to get a motel room.

    This is me taking your story to heart & counting my lucky stars!! I will be packing perfume 😉

  • Elizabeth says:

    I am one of those garlic freaks….can’t get enough of the stuff!:) I have been known to eat it whole. Good thing my husband loves it too. 😉

    But I also adore fragrance…in fact, I need a sugegstion as to which sample to try today…SL Tubereuse Criminelle, Ava Luxe Madeline, or PG Ether de Lilas?

  • pyramus says:

    Even though I can imagine what hell it must be to be unable to wear any scents at all for three weeks, I don’t think your aunt was out of line for objecting to your body lotion, if it’s strongly scented. I know people–I live with one of them–who really have a lot of problems with commercial scents, and even things like the hand lotion that some women seem to apply every quarter hour can make them miserable. Your aunt really does have the right to say, “I’m sorry, but these scents bother me, and I have to live here, so I’d appreciate it if you used an unscented lotion while you’re here.”

    Of course, maybe she was just being a controlling hag. She certainly was insane about the whole food thing. Even if she doesn’t want to eat proper bagels and cream cheese or other normal food such as normal people eat, why would she object to your having them? She doesn’t have to shovel them into her craw and pollute the holy temple that is her body.

    • Nava says:

      Pyramus,

      The scent issue is a slippery slope and I’m not trying to deny that. However, she is very passionate and opinionated about her food choices. She is controlling, but ultimately, she does have the best of intentions. 🙂

      • Musette says:

        Nava,

        You are a rare jewel! I ^:)^ before your patience and kindness. You remind me of a former colleague who is always so patient with the more difficult members of her team . She’s firm, but compassionate, in her dealings with them and her ability to manage them made for a stronger team, oddly enough!

        I probably would’ve just choked them 8-x and that would be a Very Bad Thing, not to mention illegal!

        You are exceedingly cool.

        xo

  • Susan says:

    That was SO FUNNY! I loved it, and hope you’ll blog more often-

    • Nava says:

      Thanks Susan! 🙂

      • Musette says:

        Ditto what Susan said. I can’t type long, as I have a pinched nerve that Hoits!:o but your story reminds me that there are wacky relatives in every family. My father’s sister was rail-thin and very fashionable and she and I rubbed along just fine as long as I was channeling Diana Vreeland. During my first marriage I gained a bit of weight and went up half a dress size. I’d not seen her in quite awhile – my hub and I were standing on our porch when my dad and aunt pulled up in the car for our holiday lunch.

        From Across the Street! my aunt looked at me in horror and then screamed out “HEY, FATTY!!!”. (I said she was fashionable – not gracious)

        Needless to say, conversation between us was a bit…..strained. She was a bad-mannered nut but I remembered how kind she was to me as a child and kept those memories throughout the rest of her crazy-a$$ed life.

  • Eileen says:

    Isn’t it nice to be home? Now enjoy a spritz of something with incredible sillage! 😉

    What is it that helps us put up with wacky relatives without throttling them? It needs to be bottled and spread around the world. I could use an industrial size drum of it, myself, for when I visit my weird-as-they-come relatives — somehow I seem to run out of the magical good will around day 3.. You survived much longer than I would have! :d

    • Nava says:

      Eileen,

      Sometimes I don’t know how I do it, but I do. If I ever find myself with a surplus of that magical good will you mention, I will let you know! 🙂

  • March says:

    Bleah!!!! Sounds like … well, not hell, but close. I have some similar stories I could tell … what is it with the loved ones and their control issues? (cuz this is really about control, not perfume or food… [-( ) I think I would have needed something calming to get through it. An incense scent, maybe? Something strong enough to overcome the garlic? Donna Karan Incense!! Hahahahaha. Or something that goes with garlic… 😕

    • Nava says:

      You hit the nail squarely on the head March! It is absolutely a control issue and my aunt is as OCD as they come. As I’ve said, I love her anyway.

      I don’t think even Norma Kamali Incense would be a match for onions and garlic. To reference another “Seinfeldian” dilemma – remember the episode with the really bad smelling car valet? It’s THE BEAST, THE BEAST!!!!

      • March says:

        Nava, I thought about this some more running errands, I think it’s such an interesting topic. It also has family/cultural(?) components. I grew up with parents who, once I turned 18, stopped telling me what to do. My mom is gone, and in 25 years my father has never criticized my actions or told me what to do (he will of course give his opinion if asked.) However, I married into a family in which to show love is to criticize and give firm advice on all topics, large and small. I understood this difference intellectually and tried to keep my humor, but I never really got used to it. My in-laws (now also gone, bless them) were flummoxed — they were being loving and helpful, whereas I saw it as a fundamental interference with my adult self. The effects of these differences are huge even when we understand what’s going on.

        • Nava says:

          March,

          Again your intuitiveness is spot on. Every time I darken my aunt’s doorstep, I feel as if I am 12 all over again. She is, by nature, a very caring, nuturing and maternal individual, and since my parents are both gone as well, I think her need to overcompensate (even at my stage in life) is what drives her behavior. I keep reminding myself of that, and consider myself lucky to be able to write about and share my experiences with others. It is very cathartic. 🙂

          • Existentialist says:

            I think you were very patient. I can only spend but so many days in a row with my mother before I start to feel very uncomfortable. Some people just become more intensely…themselves… as they age. I’m probably headed in that direction as well.

          • Nava says:

            My threshold is about 2 weeks. I am most grateful for my friends and other family members who manage to provide some much-needed distraction. Without them, I doubt I’d survive a single day.

  • Dusan says:

    Nava, surely your aunt wouldn’t object to natural perfumery? 😉
    I wish you’d had at least half the fun in Toronto as I did reading your post! I don’t suppose you’ll ever stay with Auntie Dearest again…

    • Nava says:

      Dusan,

      I did manage to have fun during my visit! You may think I’m a tad wacky, but my aunt is so much a part of the experience that I cannot imagine being there without it! :d

  • chayaruchama says:

    ((((((((((NAVA))))))))) !

    Oh, baby.
    I hear you, love you, and feel that burgeoning rebellion that this sort of experience raises in us- like dog hackles, or perpetual adolescent angst.

    In retrospect, your restraint, and humor, are your saving graces.
    Plus- you really love these people, regardless of their mishegas.
    It doesn’t render the whole thing any more palatable.

    • Nava says:

      Thank you, Chaya!

      Having a sense of humor is key in this type of situation. Any yes, she is my family and I love her, despite the mishegas.

      🙂

  • Louise says:

    Thanks Nava! Your post was funny, and a little sad to me as well-just how some folks get to restricting so much “bad” food,etc. in their (and others) lives. What’s the hope? Longevity, good health, etc-but an awful lot of fear lies there. I believe as you in moderation, with healthy doses of gluttony and hedonism mixed in.

    None of which makes your visit any more pleasant. So sorry. It is always tough staying with others, I find, though I have a few exceptions in my life…

    My Seinfeld moment was at a screening of Schindler’s list. Ask no more :”> @-)

    Wonderful weekend to all!

    • Nava says:

      Thanks Louise.

      I think deprivation is a huge part of this type of lifestyle choice, but what can you do? Us “moderates” have to stick together. 🙂

  • Wordbird says:

    Hilarious!
    Why on earth did you put up with it for so long?
    Perhaps you could find a lovely book on ‘the meaning of hospitality’ for your dear Aunty for Christmas. I’m sure she’d appreciate it.

    :d

  • Solander says:

    I wonder why it is that people into organic/vegan/nontoxic food always seem to love huge quantities of garlic in everything… I mean, I certainly don’t mind garlic, but in moderation please! The ones I’ve met (who are more the young hippie type than the mad auntie type) also burn incense and use fairtrade soap heavily scented with stuff like patchouli and sandalwood though. And then there’s the smell of unwashed dreadlocks, don’t get me started on that…
    I do think you’re a little unfair to your aunt though. If you don’t appreciate the food she serves or her dislike of personal fragrances you don’t have to be her guest, period. You don’t drag meat into the house of a vegetarian or smoke in the house of a non-smoker…

    • Nava says:

      Solander,

      I was wondering the same thing about the garlic, too! I intended no unfairness towards my aunt,and do completely respect her choices. 🙂

      • Louise says:

        Vampires 8-x ? Seriously, garlic is supposed to be very healing and cleansing. I tend to overuse it…maybe I perfume to disguise my garlic breath :”> ?

        • Nava says:

          I take one of those “Ultimate Antioxidant” supplements chock full of garlic, oregano, tea, polyphenols, etc., etc. It repeats horribly on me, but to my knowledge, there are no odiferous condequences. :d

  • Gail S says:

    Goodness, what an unpleasant vacation. Enjoyable recounting, though! I’m sure you were absolutely delighted to come home :d

    But I must say, unless Weight Watchers is radically different in Canada, your aunt’s lunacy is her own doing. Perhaps Quinn’s mother really did reincarnate in her body. I eat perfectly normal non-organic foods, just not in mass quantities as I used to.

    • Nava says:

      Thanks Gail.

      Weight Watchers is pretty well identical in Canada as it is in the US. My aunt’s behavioral progression started with her joining Weight Watchers, and trust me – there are point values for each and every one of her organic foods! As you said, it is her choice and I do respect that. Makes for some great stories, too. 🙂

  • It’s good to know my mother was reincarnated as your aunt and is alive and well in Toronto. My sympathies, I had her for the first 93 years.

  • Linda says:

    Oh, dear. What a ghastly approach to life your aunt has. I am sure if she had made her points reasonably, they would have been, um, reasonable…

    I do understand people who hate perfume, because there are so many categories of it that I loathe. All the cheap air fresheners, carpet treatments, etc. that so many people who “hate perfume” love to use just kill me. Ugh. Visceral disgust. And yes, headaches. But how rude to declare “I forbid it” as if the visitor is an inconvenience to be regulated… aieee!

    As for health food, it can be delightful. Seriously delightful. A browse through a health-foodie site like, say, http://www.vegweb.com, can convince you of that — and its forums can show you both sides of the health food people coin: joyous or penitent, filled with zest for life or in perpetual mourning, passionate or pessimistic. Baby, bathwater, blahblahblah. =)

    Hugs, and welcome home. Wear something loud and eat something unforgivable for me. 😉

    • Nava says:

      Thanks Linda.

      I’m not a big fan of all that “secondary scenting” as I like to call it. But, these types of products are a force to be reckoned with. Turn on the television and you will notice that when commericals for pharmaceuticals and weight-loss products are not being shown, there are the ones for the products you mention. If I see one more Febreeze Fabric Refresher or Glad Scented Oil Candle ad, I will scream!

  • Brigitte says:

    And this is why I never, ever sleep at anybody’s house (except at my Dad’s, once every few years, because he would disinherit me if I didn’t — and I bring my own food because he eats very old leftovers). I am a hotel snob, but I would rather stay at a Motel 6, where at least one can get some privacy, than having to deal with the kind of insanity you had to endure. And don’t get me started on B&Bs. Now, those are the WORST…

    And one last note about perfume: the first thing I was informed of, when I got my first job after moving to the West Coast, was to refrain from wearing fragrance. Of course, I made a point of completely ignoring these instructions and made sure I wouldn’t leave the house without at least a spritz of something…

    Smelling good is the best revenge!

    Brigitte

    • Nava says:

      Brigitte,

      Scent-free environments are becoming more and more common. That’s a post for another day.

      I am something of an hotel snob (or an “Hotel Slut” if I liked the Etat Libre d’Orange scent of that name), but in my recent experiences, there has been a rash of inconsiderate, even downright rude behavior among guests. My last few stays have been marred by being awoken in the middle of the night by loud voices and slamming doors. What’s the deal with that???

  • tmp00 says:

    Ohhh Honey…

    First off, this is war. You don’t do defense in war. Only offense. When confronted by the gluten free bagel you don’t sheepishly take a bite; you look upon it as if you’d just been served rat-tartare, raise one eyebrow and loudly exclaim “My GAWD!! WHEAT?!!?”

    Being me I would whip out a spray bottle of Fracas and drench myself to drown out the hideous smell of grain-heavy relatives (dammit I am ALLERGIC and you must cleave to me!) and then noisily, proudly decamp to the nearest motel 6. Or home. And never go there again. Peasants! :d

  • Sadie says:

    Oh dear, how awful! I’m used to leaving my perfume at home when I visit my parents as everyone either has allergies or is oversensitive from living in a scent-free house for decades, but at least they don’t try to impose their diets on others.

    I think you deserve a night or two of dirty food and sillage monster scents after that!

    • Nava says:

      I’ve had some “dirty” food and wore a couple of “sillage monsters” this week. :d