When I was in high school, I often lingered by the perfume counter at the Bon Marché in the Bellis Fair Mall in Bellingham, Washington. I’d ask for tiny little sample tubes of expensive scents and spray the “Try Me” bottles of the different perfumes and colognes on small pieces of corresponding cardstock. At home, I would stick the scented cards (some of them designed to match the silhouettes of the bottles) to the outside of my bedroom door with poster putty. My whole door was covered.
At some point, White Musk from The Body Shop became my signature scent. It came in a small spherical translucent yellow bottle with a flexible applicator wand in its black screw top cover. When I pop into a Body Shop now to grab a scent-memory, the perfume oil’s subtle floweriness smells like first dates and movie theatres, twenty minute drives to school in my white Pontiac 6000 LE, Ace of Base in the tape deck.
I don’t wear perfume much anymore, but I do have a bottle of Ralph Lauren’s Blue in my makeup drawer. Several years ago, I came home from work and the house was filled with the smell of Blue. I asked my girls if any of them had used it. My youngest, Zoe, admitted that she had. “I just put on three squirts, Mom.” Wow, Zoe. That’s about three times as much as you would have needed! “Three squirts… in each armpit.” Oh, Zoe. How you make us laugh!
My mom wore perfume every day – a little on her wrists and behind her ears. In her forties, she wore Exclamation – the opaque white bottle with an exclamation point for a lid sat on her dresser next to her jewelry box. Most recently, though, she had settled on Calvin Klein’s Eternity.
In November of 2019, I flew to Minnesota to be with my mom in the immediate wake of her cancer diagnosis. I’d asked my family if I could borrow a winter coat, so that I wouldn’t have to lug one through the airports. They brought me Mom’s coat. I still remember where I was standing in the hospital parking garage when I put on her long black winter coat with the matted faux fur around the hood, the broken zipper, the belt with the clanky buckle, her gloves and ear muffs in the pockets.
She surrounded me – the shape of me tucked into the shape of her. And I could smell her. I could smell Eternity at the wrists and gently hanging in the shadowy spaces of the oversized hood. I let the tears come as I stood there in the cold garage. “Remember this, Heidi,” I told myself. And I do. “She’s not gone yet, Heidi,” I reminded myself. And she wasn’t. I entered her hospital room and fell right into her outstretched arms. “You smell like hospital and hamburgers!” I laughed as I hugged her.
On my Mom-memory shelf, I have two bottles of her Eternity perfume. One bottle is almost empty. She gave it to me the summer before she died. She knew I wanted to keep that smell and she herself had a brand new bottle. “I wish I could put some of this new bottle into the old bottle for you!” she said. “But, you can have this new bottle… after.” Now I have both bottles. I spritz some on every once in a while, but it mixes differently with my skin than it did with hers. It smells too strong. Fake, somehow. Not quite right.
Between Exclamation and Eternity, Mom did have a Ralph Lauren Blue period. I think she wore it most when my kids were young. Every once in a while, Zoe will take Blue out of my makeup drawer when I’m not around, and spray just a little in the air (instead of under her arms!). She knows I love to be surprised by the scent. Blue smells like little-girl hugs after a long drive or getting in the car to go out for dinner. And it pairs perfectly with the smells of freshly applied makeup and a second cup of coffee. When I smell Blue, the subconscious parts of my brain and heart think that Mom was just here and that she has simply gone into another room.
I am reminded of these words from Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918), religious professor of divinity at Oxford from 1910 until his death.
[Part of me pushes against this description, for death is certainly a Great Discontinuity. Death is not the way it is supposed to be. As subsequent Oxford professor, C.S. Lewis, wrote in A Grief Observed, “It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.” Death matters in horrible and hard ways. AND YET…!]
Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged… Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.
…There is a sense in which death is the doorway to another Room. Catching the aroma of Blue in this interval of time between the Now and the Not Yet reminds me of the mystery and the closeness and the around-the-corner-ness of eternity.