The Sense and Foolishness of Scent


Perfume is like dark chocolate to me; I would only give it up entirely under great duress. It is a possession I think of as basic. It accompanies jeans and sandals as well as a black dress and sparkly earrings. Generally part of my daily ritual, I spritz it on when going to the store, taking a walk, after a shower following the gym. When working twelve plus hour days, I greeted early mornings with a good spray to finish my work attire, motivate, soothe and enliven my spirit all at once. It was and is an extension of who I am. On the job as a counselor I also secreted away a small spray bottle of something light or a fragrant candle to settle the atmosphere in case of emergencies, human or otherwise, physical or emotional.

I am among millions who adore fragrance–it is very big business– yet I find myself wearing it less as time goes on. In this day and age I am often quite unappreciated in a crowded room as someone, perhaps many, will find any scent offensive or dangerous. Or it may just be my beloved perfume they loathe. When I attend a concert or church, meet with friends or eat at a restaurant I must prepare accordingly, which too often can mean wearing none of nine (some small) bottles claiming a corner of my dresser. Of those, three are current favorites but I like variety. I want to choose from a smorgasbord of olfactory treats.

What is it about perfume and why has it become an unwelcome presence in a room? How come we are so often allergic to perfume now and were not decades ago? Are we fearful of being overpowered by a whiff of perfume? Or are perfumes being made with much more noxious ingredients than before? I would say the perfume Poison is just that, for me! But I still don’t think that is a reason to not explore what is out there, to have some fun with them. It is trial and error; it takes time for a perfume to bloom and deepen on our skin. What I like may not be what you enjoy. When I was growing up everyone wore a signature scent or two. Even boys and men–remember Canoe, Brut, Old Spice, English Leather? My husband likes Aramis but not often enough. These days it seems soap and water are preferred, and sometimes not even that. I am happy with the first but less likely the second unless I am camping. And those of you who have read my blog awhile know I am an outdoors fanatic and love physical activities. I am not trapped in a “feminine mystique” of yore.


I was thinking about all this during today’s walk. I had my nose shoved into a daffodil–they have a faintly fresh scent–as well as hyacinth, daphne, magnolia and many other flowers. It’s true that unadulterated scents, those right from the earth, are usually the best, the most pure and simple. Vanilla is used in countless perfumes. How long has lavender gifted us with its pungent sweetness? From great-grandmothers’ drawers to baby talcum to sleep masks, the scent is still found in countless products. And roses are so popular that sitting above Portland’s International Rose Test Gardens a whole store is devoted to the flower and its bewitching fragrance. The place is usually packed. I wasn’t drawn to them until I lived in a place where roses are ubiquitous; I now appreciate their vagaries of scent but rather more freshly on the stem than not.

My mother wore White Shoulders sometimes but it was Evening in Paris that drew me closer. An industrious, good-humored, down-to-earth woman, she didn’t fuss with her appearance beyond a brush through her wavy hair and a swipe of lipstick. But when she attended concerts my father conducted or other important occasions, a dab behind each ear topped off her elegant, often floor-length gowns. At the time she had not yet visited France but it seemed to transform her into one who had, from a long ago farm girl to a very chic woman. Since our sense of smell can transport us to places and persons we knew intimately, that perfume will always bring her back to me.


When I became a teen-ager, I fell in love with drugstore perfumes, or eau de toilette (funny name), and my friends and I could purchase these for a few dollars. The names elicit sharp pictures of Community Drugs where I bought them and my pale lavender and white bedroom as I readied myself for a hopefully adventurous evening out: lemony-fresh Jean Nate’, cloyingly rich Tabu and Emeraude, delicate yet tantalizing Arpege, Heaven Scent or Chantilly. How could I not be sophisticated, cheerful or alluring wearing perfumes bestowed such names? It was clear this was one secret of successful young women everywhere. Extravagant advertising informed us of this and responses from bumbling boys were in agreement. But even then I wore perfume for myself. It let me try on a different feeling or personality at times. It seemed to impact mood: calmed frayed nerves, provided pep, wrapped me in an invisible shawl of exotic warmth.

As I left my adolescence behind I gravitated to my oldest sister’s perfume. She had brought back Shalimar from Europe, and its headiness made me swoon. In Sanscrit its name means “Temple of Love” and was created in nineteen twenty-one in honor of the woman for whom the Taj Mahal was made. A complex, captivating perfume, I fell immediately and wore only Shalimar for many years. I still use it sparingly.

Now I enjoy several perfumes, and most frequently wear three: Florabotanica by Balenciaga, Amber by Prada, 10 La Roue de la Fortune by Dolce and Gabbana. They are not drugstore items, I admit, and perhaps luxuries. They were each a gift from my husband. He knew I liked them–and so, I might add, does he. I use them less than when I was working full-time, I admit. It was part of “being dressed” in a more formal manner. But I will remain loyal to fragrance through the coming years. Good smells are a delight and we each are charmed by an assortment–maybe you, as I, are moved by fresh cinnamon rolls or a wood-burning fire, chicken and dumplings or ocean breezes. And your loved ones as you hold them close, adorned by nothing but themselves.

Sometimes I wonder how it would be if I could grow a large garden or lived in the forest. I suspect I might less often add scent to my life. Instead, I would stroll between the luxuriant blossoms and watch the bees at work, absorb nature’s seasons up close. I would put my hands in the earth and help along the blooming, sit and let the sun heat it up, a natural perfumery. I would be in a heavenly spot and peace would reign over all, if only in that moment. But I live in a city apartment. This spring we will again pot sturdy plants and flowers for our balcony and bring home bouquets from the bountiful farmer’s market. And I will likely put on a little Amber as well as a sweater before heading out on the train. It won’t help me accomplish anything noteworthy but I’m not out to save the world with perfume, just enjoy an innocent yet powerful delight.


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