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

My daughter was away at college for her senior year. But she had let me know, long distance, about her postgraduation plan: moving to Mexico to live with a young man she’d met while studying there. He makes jewelry that he sells in the marketplace. It would be a lie to say I was happy about this.

Sometimes at night I’d go into her room and open closets and drawers and look at, touch, the things she had left behind here. Vials of lip gloss. Bottles of nail polish. Hair products and body lotion and shower gels in middle school scents like cucumber-melon and pineapple-kiwi-peach.

When I was in middle school, the trend was flora, not foodstuffs. Wearing maxiskirts and peasant blouses, we dabbed ylang-ylang and jasmine and patchouli behind our ears and between our budding breasts. In high school, I adored Love’s Baby Soft, the frothiest distillation of innocence imaginable; I’d spray myself liberally before setting out to seduce 10th-grade boys. But for heavy dates, I relied on stolen swipes from the spare, elegant glass decanter of my mom’s Chanel No. 5.

It wasn’t so much that I loved its scent—that spicy yet flowery, masculine yet feminine admixture of vetiver and neroli and rose—as what it represented: adulthood, emancipation, perfume bestowed as a gift from a lover (OK, in her case, that guy was my dad), not bought for oneself with babysitting cash. At the department store, the Yardley scents I wore were laid out on shelves; Chanel was stored behind the counter. You had to know what to ask for and be brave enough to ask. Besides, Chanel was French, and French meant sophistication, whether in perfume or kisses.
No. 5 was what I longed to smell like, what I longed to be like: high end, exotic. It was what Mom wore on evenings out, to drink cocktails, to go to the theater, to participate in the adult world that was a mystery to me.

In the end, my first bottle of Chanel No. 5 was not given to me by a lover. I bought it myself, as a college student, and it was an unimaginable extravagance, considering I made pocket money working for Student Services, washing the venetian blinds in classrooms and scrubbing the mats in the men’s wrestling room. Come to think of it, the smell of those mats may have been what impelled me to drop 50 bucks on a tiny bottle of perfume. I think, though, that I saw my Chanel as an equalizer, a way to establish my footing with svelte blonde sorority girls who didn’t have to work day jobs: My jeans may not be designer, but my perfume is.

I kept wearing Chanel after college, at my first job, at a newspaper. It was then, during my early twenties, that my mom died of cancer, her No. 5 subsumed by acrid medical scents. I never considered switching after that; smelling the way she had was now an act of faith, a gesture of memorial allegiance, like keeping the framed prints she’d given me hanging on my walls. I wore Chanel the night I met my husband, and the day we were married, and the day I gave birth to a daughter of my own.

But then a funny thing happened: Walking through the perfume section of a department store, I saw the prettiest spray bottle, matte white with gray-green foliage and muted pink roses—or were they peonies? It was called Anaïs Anaïs. I sprayed my wrist and sniffed, and fell violently in love with a scent that had no anchors in my past life, a blend of bergamot, lily, hyacinth, honeysuckle, orange blossom, rose, sandalwood, amber. This didn’t smell like Mom. It smelled like me.

I became a traitor, a perfume turncoat. At the time, switching scents felt less like a sea change and more like a whim. I suspected that I’d go back to Chanel someday. This was a midlife aberration, like the time I painted the living room green even though I don’t like green.

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.

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First Published Tue, 2012-01-03 09:51

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