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.