Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Scent of the Day: The Smell on My Sweater Sleeves
It got me thinking about how much I miss. Thinking about perfume and things in general, I often clutter my thoughts up with options, stimuli, and opinions. There's so much to choose from--not just in my cabinet but out in the world at large. There's a constant conversation: not just on the blogs but on facebook, twitter, and youtube. A simple Google search produces an afternoon's worth of tangential distractions. We're all always talking about our memories, and how often they center around scent. We talk about the fact that you can spray something on your wrist and smell your childhood there, pooled on your skin. We look to the fresh spritz for the old vibe. The fact is, you are manufacturing memories, not just capturing them, every moment you wear perfume. Today's scent is tomorrow's déjà vu.
I do remember smelling things directly from the bottle as a child. I also remember, more often, smelling fugitive things. I remember being in a room or a car with someone's scent. That's an important distinction to me, I realize, because smelling from the bottle or a fresh spray isn't typically how you attach scent to place and time. It's the experience of the scent's sillage and its interaction with physical space you leave with. Very often, fragrance is only a carrier oil for a much more complex set of scent memories. I remember my grandmother's violet perfume vividly, but when I smell something that recalls it, I'm not just remembering that specific smell but everything which came with it.
My grandmother's violet perfume was stored in her medicine cabinet. I always smelled it in the controlled environment of her bathroom, which is why, I believe, smelling anything that resembles it now brings back such a pure concentration of associations and feelings. I remember the smell of the worn velvet on the chair at her vanity, the bath salts in an open container on the tub, the smell of the wood on the windowsill from the heat caused by the sun. More than anything, I remember the smell of my grandmother's cosmetics.
My grandmother spent a lot of time getting ready. She sold real estate in a small rural town and she operated out of her house. She never knew who might drop by, or when, or how long they'd stay. So she prepared everyday for the proposition of surprise--and she stayed ready for the duration. She had a make-up mirror with settings for day, night, and otherwise. The mirror pivoted: one side was magnified. She took forever to paint her lips on, which meant that the smell of her open lipstick tube permeated the room. She used Aqua Net, and lots of it, so there was often a haze of powder and hairspray mist in the air--as well as their aromas. She had old fashioned wallpaper, a print of striped mustard flowers. The carpet was a complex pattern in greens. I stood by her at the sink while she put her face on. It seemed so labor intensive. I wasn't surprised to learn that the morning she suffered a stroke, she was found on the bathroom floor, next to the velvet chair.
Smelling my sweater this morning I thought about my dog, too. When I went on a trip recently, and I was getting her things ready for the kennel, I grabbed a t-shirt from the laundry basket. It smelled like me and home, and I knew to leave that with her because I know how wonderful that smell of someone familiar is to me. It's like someone's personality wears off on their clothing. You can smell what it is to have been around them, and even when they're gone you can feel their presence. That's not about perfume, but perfume can help carry that, and plays into the mix. It's not just nostalgia. It's about the quality of place and time and the sense of company and of being surrounded by the sense of people who know you and understand who you are. It's the smell of home in a larger sense, if by home you think expansively to include the pockets of feeling and memory and presence in your life. Smelling my sweater sleeves this morning I feel like I've slowed down a little and paused to take in the breadth of the recent past.