All of them viewed their grandmothers as strong women, however quiet, composed, or simple. All of them remembered their grandmothers storing their perfumes either in the bathroom cabinet or on a decorative glass tray. What was it with these decorative glass trays? My paternal grandmother had one, trimmed in gold. I'm sure I could find many people for whom no tray entered the picture, but it seemed strange to me that all of these women share those kinds of memory details. All of them remembered a specific fragrance - everything from Anais Anais to Youth Dew to Chantilly and Tabu. Their grandmothers wore only the one, but almost all had one or two other fragrances on display. Generally they'd been given these things but didn't use them. Maybe it's the region - I live in Memphis - but these signature scents also seemed to be fairly pedestrian (i.e. widely available and not too expensive)
In contrast, my interview subjects all felt very differently about the perfumes their mothers wore. While they wouldn't wear what their grandmothers had, these granddaughters appreciate those smells as nostalgic embodiments of women they miss. When it came to their mothers' fragrances, the same kind of behavior and character traits they'd assigned to their grandmothers took on more subtly derogatory shadings. It was clear to me, from the way they characterized their mothers, that these women were strong as well, but that's not how their daughters technically describe them. Their mothers were "difficult" and wore their scents oppressively, whereas their grandmothers were simply bold. They wanted to hug their grandmothers, to be embraced by their scents. They wanted to avoid their mothers and to get as much distance from the smell as possible.
Their mothers wore loud, headache-inducing scents. Their grandmothers just smelled distinctive. It's kind of saying the same thing, but then it's hard to have these conversations because, as many people have noted, what a scent does in your head and how it merges with persona isn't easy to put into words. I asked everyone what they think of when they smell their grandmothers' fragrances now, and generally what they came up with amounted to..."my grandmother". One subject put it surprisingly succinctly. She said that what comes back is everything, the totality of her grandmother, who she was, what it felt like to be with her. She said that when she inhales the Avon body cream she took from her deceased grandmother's bathroom, she feels she's inhaling her grandmother herself - but that was an unusually articulate response.
I enjoyed hearing about the complicated relationships between women in these families, and it made me think a lot about the women in my family. Some of the highlights for me: one woman's memory about cutting her lip when she was very small, and the way her grandmother's Youth Dew enveloped her as her grandmother tried to staunch the bleeding; a woman's memory of being in her grandmother's closet, fifteen years after her death, and the fact that the smell of Tea Rose still permeated the space; five aunts in one family who all had very different signature scents (Tabu on one end, White Shoulders on the other); the grandmother who graduated suddenly from her beloved standby fragrance to all things trendy, including Marc Jacobs Daisy; and the woman whose grandmother taught her to make her own perfume with vanilla extract and alcohol.
The biggest surprise? Only one of these women held on to the single remaining bottle of perfume her grandmother left behind.