Scent of Three Women

Sometimes a perfume is more than a fragrance. It can be a declaration of independence, a rite of passage, even a potent link between the generations.

By Sandy Hingston
perfume, scent
Photograph: Illustration by Gérard DuBois

But a birthday came, and then another, and I asked for more Anaïs Anaïs. I didn’t grow tired of it; I only loved it more. My first day on a new job, the art director—a gorgeous ponytailed Englishman—walked past me, paused, leaned down and murmured, “You smell fabulous.” How could I ever go back after that? Besides, I’d seen a magazine poll in which women rated Anaïs Anaïs the best perfume for the -workplace—not overbearing, not likely to provoke allergies or complaints. What more could I ask from a scent? It was politically correct, and sexy, too.

Marcy, my daughter, grew up thinking Anaïs Anaïs was what I smelled like—what a woman smelled like. Even as she dabbled in cucumber-melon, she aspired to grow into the scent I wore. I let her borrow it for her junior and then senior prom. Finally, one Christmas, I gave her a bottle of her own. It felt like a rite of passage, watching her unwrap that pretty pastel box.

I knew she probably wouldn’t wear it forever. I don’t think most women are as faithful to a scent as my mother was. But that she could love it, even for a while, as much as I do was flattering, validating: Look at me, getting so old, my firstborn graduating from college—and still she wants to smell like me. I never imagined, at Marcy’s age, that my mother would be anything but angry when I sneaked a few drops of her Chanel. You don’t think about things like torch passing when you’re that young.

Home on a college break, my daughter hurtled down the stairs from her bedroom, on her way to karaoke night with some of her old high school buddies. A cloud of Anaïs Anaïs enveloped her; she was far more liberal with my perfume than with her own, conveniently left at school. “Behave,” I said. “You’d better have a designated driver!”

“We do. Love you!” She kissed my cheek and danced out the door in her heels. I imagined the perfume as a sort of force field, the holy smoke of incense rising from a censer to protect her, deflecting danger the way I used to and no longer can, whether she was going out for an evening or to Mexico for who knew how long.

I wore Chanel No. 5 to my mother’s funeral. So did Mom. I still have a flacon of it in a cabinet in the bathroom, though it’s nearly empty. (I can imagine Marcy with a similar keepsake, hers pastel flowered, somewhere down the line.) From time to time I open the bottle and breathe in another world: a younger me, tentative and insecure, desperate to break free of my mother and longing to hold on to her, too.

SANDY HINGSTON is a senior editor at Philadelphia magazine.

Originally published in the February 2012 issue of MORE.

First Published January 17, 2012

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This article struck a note with me. Not only did I go through the same scent 'phases', enjoying the same scents, such as Love's Baby Soft and Anais Anais, I seem to also have defined myself with scents at my different life stages. I can honestly say, I haven't thought about it before so it was like a light bulb moment for me! These days, although I did wear at one time what I thought of as my Mom's scent...Elixir by Clinique, I've gone back to an old High School favorite...a scent by Aveda, which has hints of patchouli ...and often people stop me to ask what I am wearing or ask " Who's got patchouli on?????" Thanx stimulating some thoughts!

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