One of the oddest Christmas gifts 'Santa' brought me as a girl was this 'Make Your Own Perfume' kit. Inside the box were small corked tubes and vials of various scented liquids; you'd mix them like a chemist into little colored bottles and personalize your concoction with a little included sticker-label which you could 'sign' and color in as you chose. It had a short shelf-life, this 'toy'... within a few days all of the liquids had been poured so many times through the little funnel apparatus, back and forth, that every formula smelled pretty much the same-- like when you stuck your nose in your Aunt Mary's parlor potpourri bowl.
Besides, none of the little containers and vials had a milliliter of the appeal of those exotic and glamorous perfumes on your mother's vanity. Forbidden to your little hands since you poured a few of them out one rainy afternoon, they lounged on the mirrored tabletop like glass-clad sex kittens. Some had their own little velvet coats and stoles. One I remember was shaped like a spiral shell and didn't even stand on its own. My mother dressed-up for an evening out was something else-- elegant and sparkling... but most of all the smell of her, when she kissed us goodnight-- was elevating and always faintly Arpège. In her long black gown with the rhinestone straps, it was distinctly Chanel No. 5. Days later I could bury my nose in her dress-coat and there it would be... the vision of jewelry and coiffed hair-- limousines and corsages under glass...
The rest of the time, her hands smelled vaguely of onions and cigarettes. But her kitchen-- despite the morning coffee and her re-heated doughnuts--- always hid the sweet ghost of cookies-- banana bread, cream icings and cheesecakes-- apple pies and brownies. She was an intuitive and serious baker. With her ancient kitchen-aid mixer and her pre-war oven, she understood the seductive language of butter and fresh vanilla, baker's chocolate and meringues. As she fades into my past, her complex scent remains.
She took motherhood seriously and while I was something of a tomboy, she began to train us; my sister had lessons in Shalimar... sweet and spicy and in-your-face but it worked for her cheerleadery image. For me it was after-bath Jean-Naté-- lotion and powder, both of which mostly evaporated by morning... but they are part of my teenage identity.
In my 20's in the city, I hung out with one of the Halston models who doused me with their perfume and kept me well-stocked. It was perfect-- like a signature. Into middle age, when I gave up perfumes and make-up... I kept a supply of the bath powder which lasted for years. And as for men, I hated the 60's Canoe and Old Spice... but all my best memories of uncompromised sex are tinted with Patchouli. A few years ago I tried to buy a box of Halston talc (discontinued)... so the same apparent box arrived-- wrapped.. but inside, was a strange clone of the original. Like digital music--- it just lacked something.
On the streets of the city-- in restaurants, dressing rooms, churches, museums-- everyone seems to have a scent now. Every pop-star and reality housewife has their own concoction, and the counters of department stores are cluttered with brands and logos that suggest exotic places and situations-- but so few of them live up to the legend. A few decades ago there was briefly this 'Opium' that seemed intriguing-- but now--- everyone smells fruity and glazed--- like they are covering something worse.
I bought a bottle of Tide the other day-- 'original scent' it is labeled; it is anything but. I have tried 'unscented', bleach alternative-- spring fresh... clothes-fresh... they are all synthetic and hideous. Ditto dishwashing liquids and even cosmetics. The advanced laboratory possibilities of smell-chemistry make anything possible. There are thousands of flavors of lipstick, toothpaste, seltzer, beer, gatorade... but they all seem to tumble precipitously further and further from the real thing. Like the olfactory version of elevator music, it feels manipulative-- more artifice than authentic.
The number of people who have fake trees at Christmas astounds me. The smell of Christmas is so uber-important in my home. No matter how poor we have been, the tree is mandatory. A friend was teasing me last week and asked-- is that the kind that smells like grapefruit? Grapefruit? So have trees been bred to conform to cultural expectations and the kind of distorted norm that now dominates perfume recipes? Or had he lost the ability to distinguish? It's no wonder, in this city of exhaust and fumes, traffic congestion, competitive street vendors, incense burners and essential oil-salesmen... a thousand varieties of air-fresheners and atmospheric 'masks'-- the domestic epidemic of scented candles... that people have lost the 'scent'. We hire dogs to sniff out bomb and bedbugs... and we who think we are such sophisticated wine and food connoisseurs-- many of us are clueless and nose-scammed.
I read this week that Woolrich is going out of business. How I remember the wooly smell of those double-knit sweaters we wore like loggers beneath our jackets on the ski-slopes... where the snow smelled more arctic-- and the vague smoke of burning logs welcomed us back home to a real fire and cocoa made from baker's chocolate and bottled milk I can no longer reproduce. Even the smell of money has changed.... clean sheets, natural hair, car interiors, books, corn flakes--- everything seems altered. My mother's drawer of old cashmere-- even the labels looked handmade. She kept them in tissue paper... the vague, soft scent of wool and Lanvin when you opened that drawer.... my children do not have these memories; nor will their children.
In Williams-Sonoma they were selling a candle called 'Winter Forest'... it simulates the piney smell of a fir... for people with fake trees and electric fireplaces. But I still remember the vintage city smell of winter--- it was clean and bluish and starry. I pass certain bakeries and think of my Mom--- the butter and fresh vanilla-- the rich traditional ingredients you can't really alter... but her perfume--- none of today's fragrances have the magic of the ones in her little collection. I am well aware the memory of her scent and the scent of these memories will evaporate with me... The world moves on, new sweaters are produced by machines with yarns made of many kinds of materials. My mother used to sit by the real fire and knit, with dyslexic left-handed mastery... things I would give a hundred Christmas trees now to find in an old box and bury my nose in the scent of what has been lost.