Ode to My Mom

Well, I did it; I moved to Toronto. My furniture and the rest of my belongings won’t arrive until Monday, but I’m here and it’s still a bit surreal to think that this is now my home. I realize I was only granted Canadian citizenship in June, but there really is no time like the present.

I think it only fitting to dedicate this post to my mom, without whom I never would have realized my lifelong dream to live amongst the wonderful family I’ve always been closest to. Some people will travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to avoid their families. Not me; I actually want to be with these people. So thanks, Mommy – this one’s for you. I just know you’re smelling wonderful while regaling all your friends with tales of your meshugana daughter.

This essay first appeared on another fragrance blog about 2 years ago, and it was originally titled, The Evolution of Scent.

If Luca Turin can boast he knows The Secret of Scent, I figure what the hell; I may as well take a crack at its evolution. And, I don´t care if the term “evolution” is a dirty word in some parts of the United States. This is global. This is about fragrance: why we gravitate towards certain scents and how the many things we smell over the course of our lives can have a profound effect on us.

Ultimately, our introduction to scent begins with our mothers, fathers and siblings. My dad used an electric razor and never indulged in any sort of after-shave or cologne. My older brother went through the typical men´s fragrance phases of every male who dated during the Studio 54 era: Aramis, Halston Z-14, and finally Lagerfeld, which I found to be the most noxious, offensive concoction.  My sister-in-law gifted him with a bottle of this horrid potion; we´ve never gotten along since the day I met her. Now that he´s a married 50-something, my bro mercifully wafts through life scent-free. I´ll explore my sister-n-law when I can actually write about her without the need for copious numbers of expletives.

That leaves one person: my mother. Mom was a Canadian who lived for twirling through the duty-free shops at New York´s JFK and Toronto´s Pearson International airports; the high point of our many trips to visit her family. She would inevitably emerge clutching a receipt for the purchase of one bottle of scent and one bottle of liquor. In those days you were not allowed to carry your purchases out of the store yourself. You gave the cashier your flight information and your purchases were presented to you after you boarded the plane. The countless bottles of Canadian Club and Seagram´s V.O. never got drunk, but those bottles of scent were as much a part of my mom as her wash-and-wear hairdo and her Act III polyester pantsuits: the Chanels, Nos. 5, 19, and 22, Emeraude, Tabu, Norell and Ombre Rose were her favorites. My mom never bought scent at a drug or department store. If it didn´t come from the duty-free shop, she wanted no part of it. To this day, I´m not sure if she thought she was getting a bargain, or if she took pride in the fact that she was the only one of the women in her circle of friends who got on an airplane with any regularity. For her, buying at the airport was more exotic and sophisticated than strolling up to the fragrance counter in Macy´s.

Six months before her death in 1999, my mom moved from our house in Brooklyn to a condo overlooking the Hudson River in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She was not in great shape physically, and it was always my job to buy her the requisite toiletries she used. One day, while purchasing a jar of Kiehl´s moisturizer at Neiman Marcus, I befriended a saleslady who just happened to live in the same building as my mom. Of course, I told her which apartment my mom lived in, and she showed up one night with a bag full of samples. Some days, I´d walk into my mom´s apartment and there´d be a cloud of No. 5 greeting me. On others, there would be open vials of various Creed scents sitting on the dining room table, and my mom would be in a quandary about which one she wanted. “How come I never saw these in the airport?” she wondered. “So-and-so told me that Grace Kelly wore that one!” she exclaimed, pointing toward the open vial of Fleurissimo. “Go get me a bottle!” And it was the scent of Fleurissimo that was on her skin when she died.

Given my mom´s relationship with these classic scents, you would think that I would wear them to honor her memory. Honestly, none of them have ever appealed to me, and I can´t stomach any heady florals at all. Chanel No. 5? Repellant. Instant headache; I would refuse to wear it even if threatened at gunpoint. Maybe I do need to consider therapy…

My own fragrance choices were influenced by the three sisters who grew up in the house next door to mine, rather than by my own mother. I was closest to the youngest one, L, who used to steal her older sisters´ bottles of Charlie and Shalimar and we´d huddle together under a blanket tent between J´s and M´s twin beds spritzing each other. Talk about a cloud. The first scent I remember seriously wearing was Love´s Baby Soft. I think I was subliminally brainwashed by all the ads for it in Co-ed magazine. Then, it was on to Chantilly. From there, Halston. By the time I hit high school, I was wearing Pavlova. This was quite a contradiction: a soft, romantic, powdery floral scent to go with my rock n roll-patched and buttoned denim jacket, concert t-shirts, jeans and sneakers. In that attire, the only two things I should have smelled of were Parliament cigarettes and Freshen-Up spearmint gum. And it confused the hell out of all the boys in my group. More than once I overheard them wondering, “Where the @$&* is that flower smell coming from?” I guess I was as offensive back then as today´s teens are when they fumigate themselves with Axe body spray. No wonder I didn´t snag my first real boyfriend until I was a freshman in college. Oddly enough, that was a time in my life when I wore no scent at all.

My scent-free phase lasted for quite a long time. Looking back on it, I cannot explain why I went through life sans fragrance for a good three years. Maybe hormonal fluctuations were to blame, or maybe I just got myself so sick of Pavlova, I needed to give my nose a much needed breather. My boyfriend B (whom I now call my husband), used to beg me to put on perfume; not that I smelled bad: he told me he liked the smell of scent on a woman´s skin, since his mom never wore anything other than eau de Schenley mixed with a splash of ginger ale. I found it ironic that there were so many scents on my mother´s vanity table and so many bottles of liquor gathering dust in the closet, while B´s mom always seemed to have a cocktail in her hand and never smelled of anything I could easily discern. I once snuck into his parents´ bedroom to see if she did own any perfume, but all I found on top of her dresser was a dish of hair clips and bobby pins, a jar of cold cream, and one tube of red Cover Girl lipstick. My house was a satellite duty-free shop compared to my future in-laws´. The best part was I could wear anything I felt like, since there was not one particular scent he would associate with his mother. That was tremendously liberating for me. I have such deeply ingrained scent associations courtesy of my own mother that it is a relief to be with someone whose nose is not triggered by some invisible waft in the air like mine often is. B still manages to negotiate life without the fear of a particular scent assaulting his nose. How I envy him; I live in fear of Chanel No. 5 as if it were a tactical nuclear weapon.

I think there is always one real “a-ha” epiphany every fragrance lover has, and for me, it was when I first read about L´Artisan Parfumeur´s Vanilia fragrance in (I believe) the February 1993 issue of Allure magazine. I was 26 years-old, temporarily unemployed, and mesmerized by the description of it. I remember reading something to the effect of “The vanilla L´Artisan brews is so bewitching…”, and about Cher wearing it during an appearance on David Letterman and him swooning. Not that my intention was to make David Letterman swoon (or to smell like Cher), something made me haul my jobless self to Manhattan on a brutally frigid day, trudge to the original L´Artisan Parfumeur shop on Madison Avenue in the 80s, and snap up a bottle of Vanilia. 100 ml was $80 and I didn´t care if I had to starve for weeks to come. It was so beautiful, just inhaling myself was all the sustenance I needed. I had never smelled anything like it, and was totally smitten.

Vanilia is the closest I´ve ever come to having a signature scent, but unfortunately, our relationship turned sour about six months in. One day, quite unexpectedly, Vanilia revolted, and I broke out in the most horrible rash I have ever experienced. I was devastated, not to mention itchy beyond belief. I tried to find ways to continue on with Vanilia – spraying it on different areas of my body that I thought would not react negatively – I spent two weeks using the doorjamb of my office at my new job to scratch my shoulders, much to the amusement of my puzzled co-workers; I desperately started spraying it on my clothing, only to find stains on just about every shirt I owned. It was hopeless. After using up three tubes of prescription cortisone cream, and replacing most of my work wardrobe, I gave up. Vanilia and I were just not meant to be. I´ve tried valiantly over the years to re-establish our relationship, but for whatever cruel reason, every time I spray this beloved scent on my skin, it turns red and itchy within minutes. Are the perfume gods punishing me because I have no respect for the classics? Am I doomed to go through life in a haze of Fleurissimo and No. 5? Are these my fragrances of destiny? Sorry, but I´d rather smell like Exit 13 of the New Jersey Turnpike.

After my disastrous liaison with Vanilia, I developed a most voracious appetite for all things scented. In the early 90s, there was what I like to call, a “fragrance revolution” going on. The late 80s was the Giorgio era with all these monstrous, cloying Godzilla-like fragrances, which gave way to the grunge-fueled CK One “heroin chic” period. I tried so hard to look like a burn-out in high school (while reeking of Pavlova), that I felt completely abandoned by these new trends in fashion and fragrance. I did not want to wear flannel shirts and smell like Kurt Cobain. There was no way my rib cage was ever going to poke out through my skin like Kate Moss´. I was drifting and in need of comfort – which I easily found at the local shopping mall in the Bath and Body Works store. The place was nirvana for me: the gingham checked awning, all the pretty bottles of shower gels, lotions and colognes hooked me instantly. I fell in love with Juniper and Flowering Herbs and just about everything else they sold. I was hurtling towards my thirties in a fog of suburban mall-scent, but I was still longing for something more meaningful and profound that would touch my soul the way Vanilia did. Here I am, at 40, and I still haven´t found it.

Here´s the realization, or maybe rationalization, that I have reached as I am now officially a middle-aged person: When it comes to fragrance, you can have it all if you´d like. There should not be one signature or “holy grail” type scent that you are “supposed” to wear because your mother, sister, best friend, spouse or “X” celebrity in the magazine ad is telling you to. I had a second epiphany sometime in the last decade and that epiphany is that I can have a hundred bottles of scent if I want to, and I can buy them wherever I please, which is exactly what I´ve been doing and have no plans on stopping. Maybe I am a fragrance glutton or a schizophrenic on some level, but I love the variety. My fragrant enigmatic phase is going into its ninth year of existence, so quite possibly, I have achieved a kind of peace in the fact that I like having lots of options. Mind you, I don´t advocate this in every area of life, but when it comes to scent, I am content to always be evolving.

  • Flora says:

    Nava, thanks so much for sharing your story. I have come to the same conclusion – there is no need for a “signature” scent! I used to be a “serial monogamist” with perfume – I would wear only one at a time for a couple of years and then switch. I was looking for The One but I finally figured out there’s no such thing for someone with my voracious curiosity about perfume! 😀

  • Joe says:

    I read this on Friday and thought I might make a more thoughtful comment at some point, but before I forget altogether, I just wanted to tell you how wonderful this piece is, Nava. Very, very nicely written and evocative.

    Regarding the multitude of different experiences, while reading about your mother’s duty-free luxuries I was again reminded that my own mother, at age 62, has never been on an airplane (something my 87-year-old grandmother has done only once).

    I envy your Canadian-ness; congratulations to you for making the move (and after moving thousands of miles from my family, I’ve realized in the past few years how much I want to be geographically near them again).

  • BBJ says:

    My mother has never worn perfume. She never wore makeup, either, or jewelry. Where I came from is something of a mystery, and it’s only in my mid-30s that I’ve been able to get over feeling that my girly stuff is something of a shameful indulgence.

    I’m trying to remember what I wore in high school. There was a set of teen girl colognes that I remember–they came in pastel-colored spritz bottles, and I loved the pink one. I remember wearing Ex!Cla!Ma!TioN! or however it’s spelled, and Coty’s Muguet du Bois and Amalitsa–I loved Amalitsa, and it’s discontinued–I keep wondering if I should invest in a bottle off eBay and see if I still like it. In my junior year I was wearing Tea Rose.

    College was Santa Fe, and Vanilla Fields, and China Rain oil in teeny bottles.

  • ScentREd says:

    Welcome to Canada – our country’s better with you in it.

    Thank-you for this great post – brought back so many memories. I found it uncanny how similar our scent journey has been. My older sister’s Shalimar and Charlie (along with a roll-on Emeraude) were my first stolen scents. I moved on to Love’s Baby Soft, Chantilly, Halston, Giorgio. I also wore Pavlova in my rebellious teen years after smelling it on the woman I babysat for. Until now I thought I was the only Pavlova consumer under 20 😉

  • Olfacta says:

    I was raised in a perfumed household, thanks to my mother. I didn’t realize this until I got into fragrance in a big way, but she always wore it, every day. I so wish that she was here now; I sometimes imagine the good times we’d have spraying and sniffing. We didn’t have a lot in common, or so I thought, but we would have this.

    Oddly, my father claimed to dislike perfume, especially on his daughter. I think it made him uncomfortable. But he must not have disliked it all that much, since my mother kept buying and trying it all her life. She was a chypre fan, as I am now; another thing I didn’t know.

  • Welcome to your home in Canada! You should be happy and prosper, and your guests should bring you salt and bread.

    I used to think that “good” women had a signature scent, and “bad” women wore something different all the time. The history of that is not nearly as interesting as it should be.

    Until I was about 30, I was a serial monogamist for perfumes. (We shall not discuss other relationships.) One day I realized that I kept spraying more and more because I was used to it. That explained the trail of wheezing humans. I discovered wearing scents by mood, by season, by clothing. I occasionally blush when I like things others decry, but hey, it’s my nose. I have a huge collection now, because I cannot resist trying and now I have a nose with round heels. I’m rarely sorry, as I buy samples and decants and it makes me happy. Which is saying a lot in this world.

    Wear what you like, you are a long time dead, as my mother in law says.

  • Bev says:

    Nava…..welcome back to Canada. I hope we treat you well and that you grow to love it here.
    I’ve never been a “signature scent” kind of woman. Bor-ing!
    I’d rather have a selection that depends on my mood, the time of day, occasion, and season. It makes life much more interesting.

    • Nava says:

      Thanks Bev. I certainly hope I can put the harsh treatment behind me. I can do without that kind of excitement for a while. 🙂

  • Kathryn says:

    Thank you so very much for this precious, evocative writing. Proust could never have so well indicated the way to go home and then some.

    • Nava says:

      Thank you. And I didn’t have to eat a thing. Although I could go for some madeleines and a cup of tea right now. 😉

  • Pantela Lilly says:

    What a lovely post Nava, thank you! I read that same Allure and also got the Vanilia, but it does not make me itch, but I have moved on to others. And yes, I agree with you, I don’t have a Holy Grail perfume, but rather love to explore and I keep buying new and exciting scents. Thanks for making me feel a bit more accepting of myself and my gluttony with regard to perfume.

  • Natalie says:

    What a lovely, evocative post — and lucky you to finally be where you want to be. I thought I’d caught you shaving a couple of years off your age, but then I realized that you wrote this piece a couple of years ago!

    I was a serious little perfumista in my teens — bottles of Cocktail, Royal Bain de Champagne, Orchidee Blanche — but for some reason decided in my 20s that I’d found my one scent (Diorissimo, which had been my mother’s perfume) and ditched that fabulous collection that I’d kill for now! I’m not sure why I started branching out in my mid-30s; I guess I felt like Diorissimo just wasn’t cutting it for me anymore, and then I discovered the glorious, dastardly world of perfume blogs…

    Interesting that some people adopt their mother’s perfume, some shy away from it as off-limits, and some can’t stand it!

    • Nava says:

      Wow, those are some serious scents for a teenager! Pavlova; what was I thinking?

      I am so fascinated by scent choices, not only the ones of hardcore perfumistas, but casual scent-wearers as well. I think those choices say so much about the person, and how the world perceives them. Call me crazy, but…

  • Tara C says:

    Welcome home Nava! I hope the homeland treats you well. Even though I was pretty ignorant of the world of fragrance (and certainly of niche fragrance) when I was younger, I always owned at least 5 bottles of perfume at any time, there was never any concept of signature scent for me because I knew I just couldn’t do it. Variety is the spice of life and I need my fragrance to match my exact mood every day, which is how I have now ended up with 500+ bottles of perfume. And no regrets!

  • mharvey816 says:

    So glad you’ve made it there safe and sound. Thanks for the lovely story, it made me want to call my mom up just to say hello.

    And don’t we all wish that 100ml of L’Artisan was still a mere $80? Oy.

    • Nava says:

      Yeah, $80 for 100 mls of L’Artisan. Under March’s edict it would be a freebie!

      I hope you had a nice chat with your mom. 🙂

  • Kate says:

    Nava, glad you made it safe and sound. Thank you for the tribute to your mother. Which reminds me to check mom’s level of No. 5 parfum when I go by to see her today. I can’t wear it either because it is her scent.

  • DianaWR says:

    That was a wonderful piece. I particularly loved the part about you and your neighbor spraying each other in clouds! 🙂

    And congrats on the move. I feel like you’ve been trying to get there forever, so I’m thrilled it’s finally happened.

  • Disteza says:

    Loved the post! My own mother fell prey to the signature scent mentality–unfortunately for her that scent was the original Chloe. It disappeared in the late 90’s, I think, and re-emerged last year smelling of a plastic flower garden that had been all Raided up. I’ve been slowly feeding her samples to see if she finds a new scent to latch onto, but so far, no luck.

    • Nava says:

      Yeah, that new Chloe is nothing more than eau de laundry detergent. Good luck getting your mom to try something new. 🙂

  • DinaC says:

    Very nice post, Nava. I’m glad your journey was a good one and that you’re home now. I really enjoyed reading about your memories in relation to scent, particularly regarding your mother. You are such a talented writer! I could vividly picture her in the duty free shops at the airport. 🙂 My mom only had a few small bottles of perfume, and I don’t remember her wearing them very often. I associate scent with my dad because he always wore after shave. His signature scent was Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel for many years. I still love that one. What your post reminds us is that the sense of smell is truly the most evocative. Thanks for such a thoughtful, poignant read!

    • Nava says:

      You’re welcome. I’m sorry we weren’t able to get together before I left.

      I love Grey Flannel. Even though every boy I knew in high school wore it, it was a favorite. I am so tuned in to scents and memories that if God forbid my sense of smell was ever compromised, I’d be lost.

  • Aubrey says:

    Lovely post! I was particularly touched by the image of your mother wearing a perfume that she loved when she passed.

    I agree with the sentiment in this post completely– and it’s very well said.

  • March says:

    Lovely post, Nava. I’m glad you’ve made the first part of your journey safe and sound.

    I had a friend over last night, a relatively recent convert to perfume-ism (thanks to guess who?) We got to talking about how many bottles are “too much” — she has a lot fewer than I do, but it weighs on her. I said hey, get rid of them! There’s no right way to do it. (No, I didn’t say give them to me.) I really enjoy reading, talking and thinking about other folks’ relationships to scent.

    • Nava says:

      Thanks March. I’d never guess you could bring anyone over to the fragrance “dark side”. 😉

      Having made two moves (well, three counting the first Canada fiasco), in less than a year, I can relate to having “too much”. When you have to literally take stock of your life, as I had to, it definitely alters your perspective when it comes to material possessions.

  • Melissa says:

    Hi Nava. I remember searching for the perfect signature scent when I was in my early twenties, not realizing that there was such a thing as a fragrance wardrobe. Funny that in my quest, I wound up with a small wardrobe sitting on my dresser, underappreciated and underused. I was still searching.

    My mother wore a number of the classic floral aldehydes (No 5, L’Interdit) but only for nights out to concerts, cocktail parties etc. My reaction is the opposite of yours. These are some of my favorites, although my collection is quite varied.

    Thanks for your post and enjoy Canada. Glad that you are with family!

    • Nava says:

      The concept of a fragrance wardrobe is a fairly new, I think. I can recall all those commercials for scents like Wind Song, Enjoli, Charlie, etc. that wanted to pigenhole women into particular categories (independent, romantic, etc.), as opposed to now, when we’re told to celebrate our diverse roles.

  • EileenS says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful and endearing post, Nava. Many of us will relate to it, though our choice of scents on the journey may be different. Hope Canada treats you well, now that they finally let you in! 😉

  • Louise says:

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful perfume journey, Nava!

    And mostly, hugs and Happy Trails in Canada 🙂

  • Francesca says:

    Wow, Nava, that was great.

  • Sharon says:

    What a lovely, lovely post. Welcome to Canada! There’s no place like home 🙂

    • Nava says:

      And I forgot to bring my ruby slippers. 😀

      I was greeted by a friend of mine with a bear hug and a heartfelt “welcome home” that brought tears to my eyes.