– a Mother’s Day tribute
Of all the many guises of womanhood, perhaps none are so revered – and sometimes reviled – as motherhood. As I recall saying to an old friend two days after becoming a mother the first time myself:
From now on, everything I do or say will be wrong!
But when I think of mothers, as you do on Mother’s Day and your mother’s birthday and other days when your mother pops up unaware and takes you by surprise, I also and maybe even first of all think of perfume.
Because of all the many things that define and explain my own mitochondrial DNA – and thus, my mother – perfume more than anything is what I remember. All the many shades and colors of her existence and my own memories of her were somehow encapsulated in the perfumes she wore, her femininity, her ferocity, her passions and her perils.
She had me very young, at a mere eighteen, and although I was born a scant two months after a hastily arranged wedding to a dashing Creole, he was not my father, and I may never know who he really was or is.
Today, that doesn’t matter so much as the memories I know I have, and all of them – arranged chronologically here – are the perfumes she wore and the memories I have of a truly remarkable woman who cast – as the saying goes – a very long shadow behind her – in her daughters and in the many memories of the many people who knew her.
It was a rare day my mother didn’t wear perfume. I can’t honestly recall her ever wearing any drugstore or Avon fragrances – she knew what she loved and made no excuses for her choices – which were French, expensive, classical and timeless – much like she chose to define herself.
She was a petite, beautiful, passionate, eighth-generation redhead, and mostly was forgiven everything for much of her life because of it. So it should come as no surprise that my first memory of Eau de Maman was the likewise passionate, beautiful (and not precisely ‘petite’):
Jolie Madame by Balmain.
My very first fragrant memory of her – I doubt I was much more than about two at the time – was being wrapped up in her beaver coat after being collected at the babysitter’s. There had been a party somewhere where she usually stopped both conversations and traffic, and as I cuddled half-asleep on the back seat swathed in fur, I breathed in Jolie Madame, with all its verdant opening promises and dark violet heart wrapped in a velvet-soft black glove leather that explained a few things about Maman and perhaps those grown-up parties I was surely far too young to know at the time. Even these many years later, I can close my eyes and breathe in the aroma of that Jolie Madame-saturated fur coat – and wish I had it with me still.
Later, as I was older, her tastes changed. She favored airier, lighter perfumes by then, perhaps because she had gained a certain level of confidence only maturity can acquire, or maybe it was something else, that heady time of rapid change and possibilities where optimism was in the…
L’Air du Temps by Nina Ricci
If post-war optimism had its own perfume masterpieces – and we know today it certainly did – surely, it was L’Air du Temps by Nina Ricci, with its dazzling chiffon beginnings and its sparkling, seamless, floral carnation pulse? This was one of my mother’s all-time favorites, an effervescent blend she might well have called Hope Springs Eternal, since it never failed to lift up her spirits and elevate her days, to fly away as perfectly as that crystal Lalique dove perched on the cap of the parfum that adorned her dresser. Then, some long time later, we moved to tropical South Florida, and she found the great escape that was an island, namely…
Fidji by Guy Laroche
A woman is an island, went the tagline, and Fidji is her perfume. This breathtaking fragrance – as far away from tropical perfume tropes as you can dare to imagine – defined her longest and nearly the best, and for that and another reason, Fidji holds a special place in my own heart. A green, ultra-feminine and peerless chypre – not a family my mother was normally inclined towards – it comes with another memory engraved upon my mind. Around age eight or nine, I had a habit of hiding in her closet. Not to hide, exactly, so much as to try to assume something of its feminine, floral wiles by olfactory osmosis, or else my mother’s fragrant, Fidji-soaked whims. Somewhere between the Pucci silk jumpsuit, the hand-embroidered flares, the eveningwear in their cellophane bags that swished in dizzy chiffon cascades to the closet floor, the shoes both high and low, all of them somehow exuding all her many perfumes – or else that perfectly rendered scent that was Fidji’s glorious blend of ylang ylang and carnation, galbanum and hyacinth, sandalwood and a vanillic amber lay the secrets of womanhood itself, and all I had to do for inspiration was to breathe it in… At seventeen, it was the only one of her perfumes I chose to wear myself, and so it became a secret we shared, my mother and I.
By then, I was already ruined for life, and how could it be otherwise with a mother who wore such wonders? Some mothers sit their daughters down for ‘the talk’ once adolescence hits but my mother had other ideas, and took me on a whirlwind trip to Paris instead, for now, it was time to make my own definitions, and to prove myself my mother’s daughter.
I’ll never forget that Friday afternoon on the Champs Èlysées at the door of the Great Temple of Womanhood known as the Guerlain flagstore.
My mother, still young, still turning heads even in Paris, gave me a certain assessing look, as if to establish whether there might be some hope in store for this gawky jeune fille, if even Ms. Bookworm might perhaps be able to metamorphose into a butterfly and slay a few hearts when the time came. Then, she said:
Never forget the importance of two things – a really good bra and…a stellar perfume!
Words to live by, and once again, much as it pains me to admit – she was right!
So I chose my own path to fragrant perdition that day and a very long time after – the fierce green chypres so in fashion at the time, for I knew – our mutual love of Fidji notwithstanding – I couldn’t choose what my mother wore, and that spring day in Paris, she shapeshifted again, and now her sights were set far away on the Opulent Eastern dream that was
Shalimar by Guerlain
Shalimar – that very French dream of a very Indian love story – is one of the most beloved perfumes – or perfume memories in the world. That it was incredibly complex, unbelievably lush and indescribably opulent somehow seemed to fit my mother at the time, and defined her personal aesthetic so emphatically and with such finality, I can never, ever wear it. The few times I’ve tried since becoming a perfume writer have made me feel like a three-year-old in Mommy’s heels and marabou boa, which is more than a little unnerving in your late forties. But Maman was nowhere finished with Orientals just yet, for along with Shalimar came another Eastern and far more modern and far more audacious dream, the olfactory fever vision that was
Opium by Yves Saint Laurent
In this day and age, it’s hard to understand what kind of impact Opium had on the female consciousness in the late Seventies and well beyond. These days, the fabled perfumes of the fabled M. St Laurent – personally involved with his eponymous perfumes to a degree that would appall many so-called ‘designers’ today – are no more than hollow, heartless echoes of their former glorious selves. Opium had the impact of a literal pulse bomb – on the wearer, on her surroundings, and on the public perfume consciousness, and certainly my mother’s, too. She slayed her surroundings and several masculine hearts with the fire and spice of Opium, and only relented in spring and summer with another fragrant souvenir from Paris that was no less famous and no less fragrant, the one and only
Diorissimo by Dior
This, the lily-of-the-valley to end all lily of the valley perfumes, was another of her ‘hopes in a bottle’, the green and verdant covenant she made to renew her self and her life every year with every spring and every sillage-laden step she took. I haven’t had the pleasure to breathe Diorissimo for a very long time, and thanks to those memories of my mother, I’m almost afraid to, for fear it will break my heart all over again. But even the heartstopping spring of Diorissimo didn’t stop my mother for long, for another classic made a brief appearance in all the midnight shades of
Narcisse Noir by Caron
I’m still not sure what prompted my mother to acquire Narcisse Noir, but knowing her, it could very well have been a late night viewing of ‘Sunset Boulevard’. It’s hard to argue against Norma Desmond or even the stunning Narcisse Noir. Harder still, since she had it only a few days, until that shameful evening her wretched oldest daughter – by now with several Gothic inclinations not even Gloria Swanson or Billy Wilder ever dreamed of – came for dinner, found it and…stole it! Trust my Scorpio mother to enact a chilling revenge of her own some time later, when she came home with the radioactive mushroom cloud that was
Parfum de Peau by Claude Montana
I’ve always admired Claude Montana the designer, whose Glamazon, Wonder Woman clothes embodied the excess of the Eighties perhaps more than any other designer of the time. But when this arrived on Maman’s doorstep, it caused an intervention by both her daughters. This patchouli-laden, musky, literally breath-taking (not in a good way) bombshell would do Thierry Mugler’s Angel in, and that says nearly everything you need to know about it. My sister and I howled our most eloquent protests so loudly and ferociously, within a week, Maman was frogmarched right back to our family favorite department store and ordered to find something, anything, whatever she could find that wasn’t…Parfum de Peau! She redeemed herself, this time for the rest of her life, when she chose
First by Van Cleef and Arpels
I’m fairly certain it was something more than sheer relief from Parfum de Peau’s monstrosities that made both my sister and myself equate all that was our mother with this incredible perfume created by that later perfume Le Corbusier minimalist we all worship today, and that is Jean Claude Ellena. To us, it smelled of the very best of the French perfume traditions, it smelled of money and Bentleys and diamonds in platinum settings, of Class with a capital C, of all the bottled beauty of a perfect summer day in a chateau garden in the Loire Valley. Maman, of course, saw First rather differently. As time went on, she came to see First as the embodiment of all her best and most memorable selves, as if M. Ellena had somehow managed to bottle not only all her selective realities but also her most fervent aspirations, and at long last, her elusive quest for a signature scent came to an end – with First.
As for my mother, pictured below on the day she wed my dearly beloved stepfather, she died much too young and much too soon, aged fifty-two after a two-year battle with breast cancer. Throughout our thirty-three years together, we loved and we hated, we fought and made up, we lived with and through each other in ways that all daughters and mothers do. As daughters do, I defined my own self in her despite, and as daughters also will, I’ve been confronted with the stamp of her when I least expect it. Both her daughters went on to become writers, and I suspect she had not a little to do with that, too.
She lies buried in a rural churchyard next to her mother beneath a Japanese granite garden light instead of a tombstone, imposing her own style and stamp among the more mundane epitaphs. Both her daughters buried her with a bottle of her beloved First, and even these many years later, when I least expect it, a tantalizing, faint trail of First will sometimes appear to haunt me, which is how I know that although she’s gone, she never left and is with me still – and always.
In memory of Alice Ruth Samuelsen Johansen Anderson Witt Caruana
(October 29th 1944 – January 7th, 1997)
And for all mothers everywhere, of children, of projects, and of creatures great and small.
Image: ‘The Madonna of the Pinks’, attributed to Raphael.