"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Yesterday I used up the last drop of my Annick Goutal Mandragore perfume; today I used up the very LAST last drop. And I'm bummed. It's interesting that for a Fine Arts major in college I'm not a very visual person. Maybe that's because I have really bad eyes? Anyway, I'd be no good as a witness to a crime; I'd never be able to tell you if a person was tall or short, fat or thin, redhead or bald -- though I would never forget it if they had strong after-shave on or smelled like sweat or cigarettes.

Your sense of smell  is more connected to your emotions than any other sense -- and is the first to develop in the womb.  Smells are there from day one. Walking through Logan Airport in Boston I stopped to ask a man if he smoked "Revelation" pipe tobacco. He was dumbfounded and asked how I could possibly have known that -- and I told him my dad had smoked it too. Held to my father's chest as an infant, I would know a mix of tweed, pipe tobacco and Old Spice. Often there would be a bit of sawdust or a hint of machine oil, as he has always been an avid Do-It-Yourself-er.  My mother smelled more subtle...a little bit like cinnamon, maybe a hint of setting lotion.   My brother and I grew up in a yard full of flowers, trees and shrubs that filled the air with fragrance -- lilacs in May, roses in June, fresh-cut grass in July, things that begged to be smelled and savored, things subtle and bold and earthy.
The yard was the result of my aunt and uncle's efforts. We lived with them for the first ten years of my life in an annex to the main house -- and the main house, where I rambled and freely roamed, was filled with the precise smells of lemon furniture wax, mothballs, cedar, ammonia, silver polish, and Chantilly, my aunt's favorite scent.  Another aunt and uncle owned a liquor store where I'd while away an afternoon people-watching, sneaking a grape soda in the back room; any whiff of corregated cardboard and I realize that I've stepped back into that time.  To this day any one of these fills me with an immediate sense of well-being.  

My mother hated to iron (she'd toss our clean clothes into an "ironing" pile in the closet -- and in the 1950s everything had to be ironed -- but we'd usually outgrow the stuff before she took an iron to it).  My aunt, though, had an actual "ironing day," and had it down to a science, probably from her teenage days working as a "domestic" for rich families in Hartford and Massachusetts. I'd be as likely to walk through her front door after school as I would our own, and if she was ironing, she'd be sprinkling the clothes with water from a tall green glass bottle with an improvised stopper. The house swelled with the fragrance of clean laundry and damp, hot linens. When she asked me what I wanted her to leave to me in the codicil of her will, I told her one thing: the sprinkler bottle.  I have it on a shelf in my bedroom.  I can see it as I write this.
It's interesting that the sense of smell is so malleable; the nose, when exposed to overkill, is quick to forgive and forget.  That's why I was able to meander with no ill effects throughout the flagship Yankee Candle store in Massachusetts.  You can smell the candles from the parking lot.  Nevertheless after a few minutes it's as if you are inured to it.  It's just fine.  Must be why people can work there.  I remember working for a few years in a flower shop; every time someone came in, they'd inhale and say "Wow -- what a great smell.  Herbs?  Dried flowers?  Potpourri?"  I'd look at them as if they were crazy.

My mother was fond of Chanel No. 5, but that didn't do much for me.  The first perfume I wore as a young girl was "Muguet des Bois," or lily-of-the-valley.  I discovered it as a free sample towelette inside an issue of Seventeen magazine.  I begged my mother to buy me a bottle, and when she did, she set me on course to be a bigtime perfume whore connoisseur.  Avon was calling, and brought me and my friends Sweet Honesty, Field Flowers, Honeysuckle, and Roses Roses.  These were the sunny innocent scents of a teenager teetering on the edge of womanhood.  Later there was patchouli, and smelling that for the first time I immediately blended in to a fecund generation which, like Freemasons with their rings, revealed one to the other, "Here I am, I am one of us too."  Musk I could take or leave; I wasn't sure it smelled that nice on me, and was perplexed by the fact that the same perfume smells different depending on who's wearing it.  

At Christmas time when we hung our stockings we'd retrieve them from my mother's cedar chest, and inhale the deep clean-ness of the table linens and blankets she stored in there.  We were country kids, wrapped in  country smells -- ripe apples, pine pitch and mud.  Venturing into the city or onto a highway where there were diesel powered vehicles was an adventure; "bus power," my brother called it.  When I catch a whiff of diesel I think of that, but then from there I'm taken back to a trip to Maine or Vermont on a family vacation or an expedition to visit my paternal grandfather, who lived in the city.  My other grandparents were earthier: a spaghetti supper, Nana's famous apple cake, my grandfather's dusty green Studebaker, and an outdoor toilet -- I feel sorry for anyone who thinks an outdoor toilet smells like a port-a-potty. Not at all.  Sorry you missed it.  An outdoor toilet -- a "privy" -- has a natural, ripe smell, part of an organic circle of life, friendly, safe from chemicals and artificial treatment.  As with the apple-y cool smell of a pantry, once you smell a privy you will remember it forever.
For a rather long time after contracting Lyme Disease I couldn't appreciate -- nor even tolerate -- many smells at all; a complication called "MCS," or Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, nailed that door shut.  Smells would get caught in my windpipe and choke me, even pleasant smells; they would lead to gasping and gagging, even panic attacks.  The library where I worked -- oh, that wonderful library smell!! -- was being renovated, a task that was expected to take a year.  Meanwhile we set up in abbreviated form in a nearby storefront.  Unfortunately it abutted a dry cleaner's.  I had to resign.  The smells from their solvents choked me, made my eyes water.  I couldn't deal with it, certainly not for a lengthy time.  I hated to leave but I had to.  Once, at a Christmas pageant in church where my nephew was playing a shepherd, a man in front of me had such strong after-shave I ended up standing at the back of the church covering my nose with the program. After years of hard-won treatment I can tolerate this stuff much better.  But not perfectly.

Six or eight years ago I caught a miserable cold.  No one likes to catch cold, but I take more drastic measures to avoid it than perhaps the average person might; when I caught this cold something very very awful happened.  I noticed it while making coffee in the morning.  I thought, the coffee has lost its aroma overnight, how strange; I stuck my face down, nose to the can, and it had nothing.  It also tasted like nothing.  When the Vicks Vapo-Rub also failed to produce its familiar camphor-menthol blast, it became clear to me (with great shock and awe) that I had completely lost my sense of smell.  Now you usually don't smell or taste things as well as you would normally when you have a bad head cold.  That's nothing new.  But I had COMPLETELY lost it.  There must be SOMETHING I can smell, I thought, and I tore through the house in desperation.  I was bereft, unsure of myself and this odd new world.  Ammonia had no scent.  Pine-Sol had no odor.  Bleach smelled like plain water. My neighbor's dogs?  No dog smell.   I was astonished at how depressing the situation actually was.  Who was I now that I couldn't smell anything??  How would I retrieve my memories, numbed as they were??  How will I eat when food has no taste?  Days went by without improvement.  What if it never came back????

I saw my doctor, and she assured me that she was almost 100 percent sure that I would regain it.  (I pinned her down.)  She also, however, said that she had only had two people in her years of practice that this had happened to.  Not two besides me, I was one of the two.  I was feeling very sorry for myself and I remembered seeing an interview on TV with the Central Park Jogger, who had been so badly beaten it had destroyed her sense of smell, and I thought, lady -- how do you keep going?  Then one day I was making spaghetti sauce, trying to keep some normality in my life, and I realized I had caught a whiff of tomato!  Nothing has ever smelled so good since.  But the whole unpleasant, draining, depressing experience left me with an abject terror of catching cold.  I don't care how bad something smells now...as long as I can smell it.

When I was a kid, and as such, refused to get into the bathtub, my mother would pull out her secret weapon: bubble bath balls.  These were jewel colored, marble-size beads you'd toss under the faucet as you ran the bath; the outer part would dissolve and release aromatic suds, the smell depending on the color.  I always liked the green ones -- balsam.  We used to mix-and-match too.  They still make these, I think...if I see some at the store I'm going to pick them up next time.  A fragrant nostalgic dip in them sounds perfect. 
If I had money, I would definitely indulge in more really great perfumes.  I'm fascinated by how they layer: top notes, base notes, heart notes, dry-downs, etc.  I find that the ones I really love usually have one common ingredient, whether or not I can pick it out right away.  I like smelling good -- fresh, flowery, a little spicy.  I  came of age in the era of Clairol Herbal Essence Shampoo -- the ORIGINAL Herbal Essence; there's been nothing like it since Clairol, thank you so much for nothing, discontinued it (petitions for its reissue abound on the internet).  There's a place in my life for natural smells, though; clean sweat from a hot day isn't all that bad (and is designed to be chock-full of pheromones, that mysterious substance that acts as an aphrodisiac).  Once, when I was in my twenties, I entered a bar with some friends.  It was nearly 100 degrees outside and we had walked.  As I came up to the counter a lone tear of sweat trickled through my hair and down the side of my face and neck.  An older guy I knew a little bit took his index finger, caught the drop, and put it to his lips.  I could barely look at him; it was one of the most erotic things I have ever known.

A greater intelligence than ours has designed things quite perfectly.  If it stinks, it's probably something we don't really want around us, something rotten, something we need to get rid of.  If we didn't already know this intellectually, we could tell by the smell: contaminated food, nasty bacteria, poop.  What do I think smells really bad?  Skunks, definitely; dirty ashtrays and smoke-choked cars or houses; wet dogs; must and mold; cat pee; chicken manure, especially when it's hot out; and Steubenville, Ohio in 1973 (rubber factories).
The Mandragore perfume?  It was a gift I bought myself for my 50th birthday.  I got it at a store in a mall in southern California when I was out there visiting my friends Bobby and Debra.  It was an interesting perfume, very different from any I'd ever worn before -- intriguing and mysterious and fresh, a little androgynous, peppery and minty, spiced with sage, ginger and orange, a determined molecule of scent, a memory.  Debra is a gal who also appreciates perfume; she smelled great, and I found out it was a celebrity scent Carlos Santana had designed.  A month or so after I'd returned home, Debra and I were talking on the phone; "I loved going into the guest bedroom after you left," she said, "I could always smell a little bit of that perfume.  It's like you left some of your energy there when you left.  I felt like part of you was still here."  I smiled.  "And," she said, "it's only just now fading away."


  1. I enjoyed reading your post very much. It is refreshing, using scent as a descriptive tool in guiding a piece of writing. (Like walking through a stand of evergreens and breathing in the sharp scent of pine needles.) Good job!

  2. Olfactory Time Traveling. ♥ http://www.ijustlookshort.com/2011/04/olfactory-time-traveling.html