Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Whole World is Mothers and Daughters

My mom lives only two hours outside of town, and I haven't been to see her in over eight months. There's a perfume shop at the halfway mark. Nothing you can't find online at less than half the price, but it motivates me; if I can just get in my car and drive an hour, it's an instant fix. This trip, I pick up stuff I already have, mostly. I do find a tester bottle of Ungaro, the one Francis Kurkdjian did several years ago. Versace White Jeans. Luckyscent the place is not.

My mom lives out in the middle of nowhere. Fifteen years ago, she and my stepfather made a conscious decision to remove themselves from society, a series of life moves I've been trying to understand ever since. Like her own mother, my mother rarely makes the effort to visit her children. Perfume isn't the same kind of motivator for her it is for me, and taking care of her husband and dogs makes leaving home for any length of time very difficult, she says. A year ago, I didn't speak to her for months, after she promised to make the local premier of my first film and backed out at the last minute. She'd missed my first book signing for the same reason: who would feed everyone in her absence?

So there's some baggage involved in these visits, and typically I arrive with my feelings shut down. I go straight to my room, and try to make myself come out. It's so quiet and remote where she lives, so slow, that for the first forty eight hours I can barely keep my eyes open. It's like checking into rehab; like coming off speed. You crash hard. This makes quick, overnight stays problematic. It also works against me, because I seem not to want to help around the house or engage in any social interaction, adding to the overall impression my mom and stepfather have of me being a total jerk off.

I try to create things to talk about, so that I have some kind of outlet and can direct the conversation myself. This time, I go straight for the perfume I've given my mom over the last few years. She always loved Joy, but she hasn't worn any of the bottle I bought her. The vintage Chanel No. 19 seems untouched, too. I feel guilty for wanting to take them back. She does seem to like the Fath de Fath. She admits she wears that one the most.

I've packed her a grab bag of presents for Mother's Day, including a few small perfume decants, and I wonder whether she'll use them. She tends to save things. The perfumes are in their boxes, sitting out on her bureau. Last time, they were in the closet. I'd warned her about keeping them in the light. But a closet is a miserable place to keep something like perfume, especially when you really only look at the stuff, so she boxed the bottles and brought them out: a happy medium. While we're in the closet, she points to the highest shelf, where a large blue plastic tub sits. "That's where I keep all the letters you and your sister have written me," she says. "If anything ever happens to me. Just so you know."

I feel weird in anyone's house who doesn't have a special relationship with at least one perfume. It's like someone who never had children or a pet. There's some kind of emptiness there. My mom had me and my sister but something about the quiet out in the country reminds me of her loneliness and has the same basic effect. It makes me want to get out. Or to smell a lot of perfume in private. I brought about fifteen bottles with me. That seemed like a reasonable number at the time. Now, in this barren environment, it seems lavish, remarkably excessive.

My mom was one of three sisters. Her mother was pretty tough. I don't remember any of them wearing fragrance. I do remember a special bottle of perfume in my grandmother's medicine cabinet. It was special to me, anyway. I stole it when her health started to wane. Who would ever give it to me? I don't remember my mom wearing perfume as a child, though the bottle of Oscar she has now seems to have been around forever. I remember it sitting out on her dresser as far back as my memories will take me. It occurs to me that her perfume would probably be fine wherever she puts it. The Oscar has traveled all over the country, sitting in cars, boxes, bathrooms, and bureaus. It smells like it always did.

I don't know where my thing for perfume comes from. I wonder about it, as I smell my perfume stash behind closed doors in my mother's house over the weekend. I'm careful not to spray too much. I can write whatever I want about the genderlessness of scents on a blog, and I can wear whatever I want pretty fearlessly most everywhere in my life, but this is Arkansas, and my stepfather is a truck driver, and I can't imagine Poison going over so well at the dinner table. I feel as if I'm huffing glue. The act is so clandestine. All weekend I have sudden surges of memory; what it felt like to grow up in places I had to try to try so hard to fit into. At some point, I spray on Angel, and I think about that fragrance in an entirely new light.

Angel is beauty and force. It's a mingling of opposites, a declarative mission statement. I understand now why I feel so great wearing it. Angel means not having to hide anything. It's a rebellion, like some hostile act of beauty. You either get it or you don't. This is a stretch, but during my visit I read a book on the Columbine school shootings. I also watched Man on Wire, a documentary about the guy who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center Towers in the seventies. Inevitably, I viewed Angel and my feelings about my upbringing through the prism of those two influences.

Here were two senseless acts, both of them driven attempts to reorder a universe. It's amazing, how much time and effort, how much focus and passion, went into planning the Columbine attack and the walk between the towers. All kind of subterfuge was required. These people planned their acts of defiance for over a year. They had no real lives to speak of as they prepared, like monks, for these fateful days. Each was thoroughly unhappy with the conventions imposed by society. And look how different the results of their malcontent. The people who looked up to the top of the towers from the sidewalk saw inexplicable poetry. It changed them. The act spread hope and possibility through generations in one way or another. It hurt no one. Witnesses to Columbine have had their lives rent apart. They're still trying to make sense of what happened; the hate and unhappiness fueling the incident. The parents of the killers have asked themselves every day since what they must have done wrong.

All of these things came together for me as I sniffed Angel and others furtively at my mom's. I've always been at odds with her. I've always protected her from the complications of who I am. We talk about what she can handle. We hardly know each other. What kind of inner life must she have, I wonder? What must it feel like to be so disconnected from your son? The Columbine kids were in the basement everyday, plotting, fantasizing, assembling pipe bombs. Right under their parents' noses. Dylan Klebold, one of them, was horribly depressed. He was miserable in his life, and totally alone in it. Reading the book, I kept thinking, he and his mom must have been disconnected.

I remember when I first got Angel. I'd sprayed some on a strip of paper and had it in the car with me. My mom was in town on a rare visit, and I took her out to dinner. When we returned she asked what the smell was. I felt awkward about telling her, but it was such an obvious smell. There was no hiding it. Back then, it still seemed slightly feminine to me. Now it's androgynous, but only the way glam rock is. My mom put the strip to her nose and seemed to really like it. She wasn't put off at all. I was amazed she saw the beauty in it. I considered getting her some but knew she'd never wear it. No. 19 I can bear to see unused. Seeing an untouched bottle of Angel would feel like someone cut down in her prime.

I'm a filmmaker. My mother still hasn't seen my first film, though it's been around the world. I think she's scared to see it. It's sad, because so much of me and my childhood went into it. The movie I'm finishing up now is based on a lot of my experiences, too, though it's all been fictionalized. It has a lot to do with motherhood, with the complex relationships mothers have with their daughters, and vice versa. Growing up, I watched the women in my family as if they were in a movie. Their lives seemed so interesting. One of the characters in this film, a home shopping network saleswoman, gets in an argument with her boss, who wants to take away her callers, most of them women. She talks about her mother and their children with them. Some of the women have been calling her show for years. "The whole world is mothers and daughters," she tells her boss. "The whole world is mothers and daughters, and what's going on between them."

Like her boss, I've often felt outside the world of women in my family. But I'm fascinated by the connections they make, and I've always wanted to be a part of them. I never planned to hide in the bathroom with perfume. It was never my intention to be disconnected from or at odds with my mom, and I often wonder where things went wrong. Still, I look around and see it could have been much worse. And we're both trying, though we act as if we have all the time in the world to get it right. I know perfume is a crucial component of the connection I keep trying to make, the poetry I keep trying to create between the two of us. I keep throwing the line out, hoping for magic.


Nina Zolotow said...

Wow. Beautiful. Real. Amazing. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Brian: You are so beautiful. My heart exploded reading this. I can't stop crying. You have a gift from GOD. Pursue it with all your passion and life force. Whew..... Try prayer for your Mom. Try humility and kill her with kindness...... You are so complex and compelling it takes my breath away. I would love to see your film, but I have no idea how to research it to find out where I can see it.

Do realize how much you touch people with your articles. I cannot be the only person who feels this incredible beauty that is within and yet, some how, you are able to translate that to the written word. I am SPEECHLESS!!!~ Please let me say THANK YOU for your beauty and your TRUTH!!! WOW!!!

em said...

I share a similar relationship with my mom. The same harshness handed down from mother to mother. On the bright side, my mom is way better than her own mom or grandma.
Another plus is that it's making me work really hard to be a good mom so that my daughter will never feel a lack of love or support! (or good smells...)

Thank you for posting this, it really was beautiful to read.

waftbyCarol said...

Heartbreaking tale Mom and I are so very close .
You have captured a very real pain in these is your Mother who has not lived the life she wanted , so LIVE the life you want , and it will be OK !!

Anonymous said...


What an amazing and heartbreaking post.

In many ways, I share it.

My relationship with my mother is very strained, at the point where it is stretched so thin, it has become translucent. For over a decade, I cut her completely out of my life. I only, very reluctantly, let her know I had an 8 month old daughter. Since then, she has been pushing herself into our lives, choosing not to see that her aggressive approach is driving even grandchildren eager to love and connect, unaware of past failings, away.

The one tenuous, very ephemeral, connection we have is a scent. I can still remember the day when I was about 8 or 9, and I was in her office at the hospital in which her lab was housed. It was an ugly, slushy winter day in Quebec City. She had a little cheap bottle of Coty's Muguets des Bois, and sprayed it on, and talked about how the smell of lilly of the valley was her favourite scent. Lilly of the valley is, to me, the scent of hope. The hope of spring and new growth, the hope that tender shoots will be protected. The hope that there is still something, after all these years and all the pain, that can still link me and my mother together. It reminds me that the woman who doesn't understand the first thing about me -- my likes and dislikes, what I do for a living -- who doesn't respect my differences -- my politics, how I raise my children -- is able to appreciate and love a fragile ephemeral scent. Somehow, it makes me think that all is not lost between us. The tenuous and delicate scent of lilly of the valley... some days, it doesn't seem possible that it can continue to hold those bonds together, as far apart as we are as humans, as people. But it is a persistent little plant, a weed really (a poisonous one at that), and it takes a lot to wipe it out.

Brian, thank you so much for your beautiful writing, and for not making me feel more alone by posting the typical ra-ra mother's day post that I have never been able to share.

Big hugs,


p.s. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a film director, but in the end, I did not have the courage. I did not have it in me to fight for funding as well as fight my own artistic insecurities, or forge my own artistic voice. Not only am I eager to see your movies, but I admire your courage. It is no mean feat to put so much of yourself up on that screen.

Marko said...

Brian -

Wow....that was a lot to take in this morning, but I'm glad you wrote and I actually feel better for reading it. I, too, struggle to find a relationship with my mother that is "authentic" without destroying each other's ideals.....I'm NEVER going to be the straight, ultra-conservative, world-famous singer/performer that she had hoped for, and she'll never be the understanding, compassionate and intelligently smart woman I wish she were.....Stepford and Sodom will never be on the same map.

Beautiful post, my friend


ps - any chance I could see your film? Do you ever divulge that kind of info?

Brian said...

Thanks, everybody, for the feedback--and the support. It's great to be read and to relate. I have to admit my finger paused on "post" before publishing that story. Sometimes I worry about getting a little too personal. What if it comes back to haunt me!? The truth is, I really wouldn't know how the posts I write are received without hearing back from you, so I'm especially thankful to get comments after writing something this close to home.

Em, I think my mother is an improvement on her mother too. It's a difficult thing, trying to set baggage aside. I don't always give her the credit she deserves, but I think too that each of us has limitations which feed into this weird estrangement of ours.

Waftby, I do live the life I want. I'm doing now what I wanted to my whole childhood. I often think I'm selfish for putting it before family and I wonder whether I'll regret it in ten years time, but I also feel that I put years into the effort to understand my family and to live my life their way, whatever that was at the time. Because the things I love to do in life involve reaching out to people, I find some consolation in the knowledge that the pursuit of them isn't entirely selfish.

Monika, that story is beautiful. I feel very similarly about scent and my mom: it's a way to bond around something more primal, something beyond politics and petty differences. I've never smelled the Coty. I need to, but I suspect vintage is the only real way to go on it, right?

Your assessment of filmmaking is so spot on. People don't realize how hard it is to get films made these days, especially personal stuff which doesn't have to do with a comic book hero. Raising the money requires a lot of focus and commitment, one conversation at a time. I'm pretty fearless in it, but I don't know WHERE that came from. I've surprised myself a lot.

I would love to show my films to our readers and, actually, this latest one is a love letter to perfume lovers. It's always frustrated me that films don't deal with perfume and the weird little phenomena of scent and psychology. It suddenly occurred to me I just need to make my own.

I'm so excited to show this last one to the people I've gotten to know on this and other fragrance blogs. But until it's ready (I'd say around October we'll be done) I'm keeping it close. The first one will be available on Net flix (I've made two) to coincide with the latest. When I started blogging it was important to me to be relatively anonymous, so that I could let go of certain inhibitions and self-conscious ticks I'd picked up from publishing. It really liberated me. I didn't have to worry so much whether what I was writing was good or bad or mediocre. I could just write. Now that we've established the blog I'm ready to merge my various interests, especially given the fact that the film work I do is now preoccupying itself with fragrance. Sorry for the secrecy! Believe me, I'll be the first to hit you over the head with the movie when it's finished.

Tamara said...

Hi Brian,

I love your words, your stories are beauty.
The one called "Violets are Blue" is my favorite and had me bawling because it struck such a chord, a heartstring that since becoming a mama at 17, gets touched each day I'm on this earth.
Now I'm 34 and have 4 daughters, ages 16, 14, 12 and 6.
I love them more than myself.
I do not always do or say what is right.
I am terrified to fail them.
And it is the hardest and most painful thing I've ever done, raising these young girls.
But I do the best I can.
And they will do their best someday to rise above all that I failed at.
Thank you for being real on here .

Be well,


Olfacta said...

Hi Brian -- So brave of you. I'm sorry I'm late commenting. I've been dealing with the death of my parents' best friend, the funeral, their "children," (all my age) and the situation his widow is now in.

I wish I had become a perfume fan like I am now when my own mother was still alive. We would have had that in common; I grew up with hers, lots of nice ones and, later, drugstore. We had nothing, and everything, in common. I see now that both of us were disappointed in the other.

At every age, as long as our parents are alive, we're trying to please them, to win their approval in some way, and often we continue doing that even after they're gone. And any withdrawal of that approval continues to hurt, too. You're using it in the best way possible, as an artist. I have found that making it part of your gift is the best, healthiest way to exist with it in some sense of peace.

Unknown said...

Ahhh. I'm gobsmacked and wonder if you might be reading my mind. I have a similarly painful/distant/strained relationship with my mother and so much of how she makes you feel resonated with me. My mother also lives inexplicably out of town ( more like an hour) Your description of coming down when you arrive and the first 48 hrs being like rehab finally put into words exactly how I feel when I visit her.
I have 2 daughters & the thought of making them feel the way my mother makes me feel breaks my heart.
Thank you for sharing- you truly touched me. It is never just about perfume, really.

Katy Josephine said...

I saw this post around mother's day but didn't have time to read it then. Today, it is beautiful and poignant. Your comment about "acting as if we have all the time in the world" certainly rings true for me. My mom died a few months ago and, while I know she loved me, we never got to understand the complications of who we both were, as you so eloquently state. Well done.

ahsumaker said...

I have been away and was catching up on my regular perfume blog reads and so am just reading this for the first time. I'm blown away. Brian, thank you for sharing something so intensely personal and painful and beautiful. And about scent. I can't wait to experience your films when you're ready to share those with us too.