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Friday, April 04, 2008

La Perfumista par Excellence, Part I: The Other Passions

By Alyssa

The shining starpower of Chayaruchama a.k.a. Ida Meister a.k.a. La Perumista Par Excellence is easily measured by the fact that I came to know and crave her presence simply by reading her comments on other people’s blogs. They leapt off the screen: puns and slightly dirty jokes, sophisticated allusions to books and movies, sideways glances at perfumes and perfumers that hinted at a great depth and breadth of knowledge, and huge dollops of motherly love, all of it dancing down the page in a series of her trademark exclamatory lines. Later, I came to know a bit more about her, and realized that she was a kind of one-woman missionary for perfume—cultivating and encouraging independent perfumers, championing a good bargain, spreading the scented gospel wherever she went.

I know I’m not the only who’s wondered – who is this woman? So, dear readers, with y’all as my excuse, I sent a series of nosy emails to Chaya (Chaya is her Hebrew given name—Ida, the English approximation of its pronunciation) and she generously answered them. It would be easy to write a book about Chaya—maybe two—so I’ve split the post into two parts: Today, Part I, in which it is clear that a passion for beauty and knowledge can be inborn, and can grow and thrive in spite of all adversity. Next up: Part II, a portrait in scent.

Ida was born in Yonkers, New York in 1954, and spent her girlhood in a rough, vibrant, multi-ethnic neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks by the sewage plant. Isolated in what often felt like a dangerous world, Ida found solace in books—the beginning of a lifelong love affair with language and literature. At the age of six, she became her beloved grandfather’s nurse and companion, cooking for him (“He believed my mother was trying poison him”), bathing him, shaving him with a straight edge razor (“He was on blood thinners!”) and, eventually, moving up to the top floor of the house to live with him. Though it might seem a strange, heavy burden for a child, Chaya remembers her grandfather with joy:

“He was an inspiration. A holy man masquerading as a regular Joe, an immigrant who made his way the hard way—a man of few words (many of them profane), infinite mercy, love, and action. He called me "a good boy" and his "little bloody bugger" with pride...

I never resented the fact that I was called upon to awaken at any and all hours for G-d-knows-what. He died when I was 12; I named our first son for him.”

Those of you who know Chaya later became a nurse will see some heavy foreshadowing here. But though she loves her work, nursing was only a practical fourth choice dream—one that would get her out of New York and assure her economic independence. Chaya declined a scholarship to the Cornell school for veterinary medicine, and opportunities to study languages and music: early and continuing passions rivaling her love of perfume.

A flair for languages was a basic survival skill in the multi-family, multi-lingual homes in which Chaya grew up; too which she added a voracious appetite for learning. Asked to share a bed with the Slovenian Frieda Grom (the mother of her mother’s business partner—got that?) at the age of nine, Chaya began her studies: “I didn't think it would be too easy to get my mitts on a Slovene dictionary, so I got myself a Langenscheidt's dictionary, and tried to teach myself German.”

Then there was Yiddish from her mother and grandfather, French and more German from her father’s family, a bit of Slovene from Frieda, Italian from her music studies and, oh yes, Flemish from that year she lived with Limburg pig farmers, Swedish, picked up on a trip, biblical Hebrew from studying for her adult Bat Mitzvah and Ladino (the language of Sephardic Jews) from a friend she made in the process. She studied Latin for years “for sheer pleasure (what a geek!).”

She’s not done yet: “I’ve been trying to accommodate vocabulary in Sanskrit (from yoga and out of intense curiosity), and in some Asian languages, where I have NO knowledge base…” She regrets never learning ancient Greek, in which she hoped to read the ancient classics, and, perhaps a bit more, listening to her family when they told her she wasn’t bright enough to achieve one of her early goals—working as a translator at the U.N. I can only dream of how Chaya’s presence might have furthered international relations.

About her singing, Chaya says:

I've always sung; my entire family loved to sing—both sides. The story goes… that my mother awoke in the middle of the night to music. She thought she had left the radio on. I was found sitting on the carpet in my room, singing the chorale from Beethoven's Ninth to myself in German. My mother told me to shut up and go back to bed. I was supposedly three-years-old at the time.

I craved singing lessons very early on, but the conventional wisdom of the time was—not until the onset of puberty. My mother mistakenly promised me lessons as soon as my menses began. At 11 ½ I came home from school, thrilled that I could NOW have lessons! Reaching womanhood was a paltry second, for me.

However grudgingly, her mother made good on her promise. Later, Ida would return to her music studies, attending the Boston Conservatory of Music full time while she working full time as a nurse and “translating obscure vocal repertoire on the side.” Such was her passion for singing that she went to the Metropolitan Regional Auditions a single week after ten-hour abdominal reconstruction surgery (Ida has struggled with multiple major illnesses, many a fall-out from her difficult youth):

“My family wasn't fully aware, my fiancé left me, my boss retired and I had no insurance for the ensuing medical costs of extensive treatment. My best friend carried me down flights of stairs in an evening gown, one week after surgery—with staples still in. And I did it, as my own personal protest against forces beyond my control.”

In spite of her valiant resistance, medical issues (and, she says, a refusal to participate in the level of mean competition seemingly required) did finally derail a professional singing career. “There seems to be a tremendous irony surrounding this aspect of my life…”

I sang for years, but it wasn't until I had had truly life-threatening events, that the encouragement started coming in. I worked with Eleanor Steber, Boris Goldovsky, and the lovely late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. By the time I was finally being noticed, survival was a more urgent issue.

She still sings—to her family, to her patients (“I’ve been singing to the unconscious since I was 14.”), and for the occasional charmed and surprised perfumer, including Andy Tauer, in Brooklyn last spring: “I got to embarrass that sweet, shy man by singing Dein blaues Auge and Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz, as if squeezing him senseless wasn't bad enough.”

There’s so much I haven’t described here: The crowded house where Ida spent her adolescence (“Chaos. People came and went as in a play.”). Her fierce mother, a businesswoman and interior designer. Her passion for food and travel. Her passion for poetry, in all it’s languages. And of course the perfume, which is coming next. Here is one last story, of how Ida met and fell in love with her DH, and an image of the young Ida that I carry with me always now, unable to think of her any way else:

I met Bernhard on December 19, 1982 at 1:30 pm in Harvard Square, in a snowstorm.
The old Coffee Connection—now, a Starbuck's. I was catching my breath, en route to the third grocery store, in order to prepare a Yugoslavian peasant meal for my roommate. Having a French press of Sumatran Mandheling with a pate/ cheese board.
I was carrying about 80 lbs. of groceries to the “T” [subway] and wearing precious little clothing (mostly, a red charmeuse camisole, green velvet hiphuggers, English riding boots, waist-length dark hair, and Mitsouko).

I wasn't looking for a date, and he was unemployed.

He gallantly insisted upon driving me to Whole Foods, then home.
I cooked for him, fed him, made him laugh, walked him around Castle Island in the blizzard at 2 am, made him tea, told him stories, and finally gave in and slept with him...

And he didn't wait very long to ask me to marry him.

I ask you, dear readers, who would?

Images are courtesy of Ida Meister. The first image is by Michael Friedlander

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36 Comments:

Blogger elle said...

Thanks for this post! If ever anyone merited having her life recorded in a book, Chaya clearly does. Instant best seller. What an astounding, mesmerizingly interesting woman! And, I agree w/ you - no *wonder* her husband didn't wait long to ask her to marry him. I can't imagine anyone not loving her instantly. I look forward to your second post. It was from comments of hers on the blogs and boards that I came to know of Neil Morris and Liz Zorn - for which I'm extremely grateful.

9:44 PM EDT  
Anonymous joe805 said...

What a charming story, and an incredible life. I've participated in only a couple of comment threads here and there with Chaya (who I mostly remember kindly encouraged my deep infatuation with AvaLuxe), without realizing what an amazing force of nature she is. I love hearing/reading people's stories. Thank you for this, and I very much look forward to the next installment!

10:14 PM EDT  
Blogger tmp00 said...

Oh I did love reading this. Getting to know Chaya even in cyberspace is one of the joys I have in this perfume community- one of these days I am going to engineer it so that I can get one of those famous hugs in person!

10:27 PM EDT  
Anonymous Tovah said...

Thank you for writing this sweet and inspirational piece. I feel like I know and love Chaya. It's fun to learn more about her, and to see her lovely face.
I always sensed that Chaya had a special life, because she makes such a loving impact with her posts. I want one of those hugs as well. L'Shalom :-)

11:22 PM EDT  
Anonymous Suzanne said...

WOW! I only know of Chaya through seeing her comments--and there is always such tremendous joie de vivre in those comments. (When you say they leap off the screen, you're right!) What an amazing spirit, what an amazing life. If I ever get to meet her in person, I'd love to hear her sing!

11:41 PM EDT  
OpenID quinncreative said...

Chaya--zoll zein gesund und mazel fir ein hundert jahre!
--Q

12:38 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chaya is an amazing soul! I never met the woman or talked to her but feel like I know her just by virtue of reading her comments here and there, she seems to be omnipresent in perfume-lovers community:)Her wonderful wit and boundless enthusiasm come through in every comment she makes. A fascinating story about a great spirit, thank you.
Veronica

2:14 AM EDT  
Blogger Mary said...

I'm so proud to call this gentle, vivacious, loving, fragrant, wise woman my friend. I love you, Ida! Thanks for featuring her story on your wonderful blog.

6:36 AM EDT  
Anonymous Terry said...

^What Mary said, word for word! Bravissima!! (and the same goes for you, dear Miss M xxxooo)

7:26 AM EDT  
Anonymous Lucy said...

Love this post! I met Chaya for a Sniffa event and the night before we had much talk over a long dinner. I loved her rich voice and spontaneous singing of Leonard Cohen and German Lieder in the Chelsea streets as we molested all the dogs that crossed our paths, at least those that would allow it (and most will, dogs being dogs). So now I understand how all of these threads come together. The animals, the voice, the compassion and the passion, the practicality, the poetic Eastern European sensibility, all those things work together like a song. I love the perfume Morris created based on her persona. She is a true inspiration and one of the most energizing influences around in the perfumista world. So glad to have met her, and all this, through the love of perfume!

9:25 AM EDT  
Blogger Jamie said...

I'm usually a "lurker", but I've got to delurk just for today to say how much I enjoyed your article. I've seen Chaya's posts on the various blogs, etc., and she's always so interesting and informative. Priceless life experiences.

And to Quinncreative - Zoll zin gesund is something my grandmother use to say to us all the time, and for so many years, I've been trying to remember what she had said, and couldn't remember until today. I'm close to "Bubbe" age myself, and I want remember it for mine. Thank you.

9:28 AM EDT  
Blogger Ducks said...

What a wonderful post. It's nice to get to know Ida better -- what a treat!

10:08 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome and big hugs to you Chaya!

I don't think you have wasted one moment in your life and that's inspiring to me. You make me want to do more and that's a good thing.


Dawn :)

10:18 AM EDT  
Blogger rockinruby said...

A huge wet smooch to you, Chayaruchama!

You are an amazing woman, and it's so nice to see you publicly appreciated. You make everyone you touch feel special every single day -- what a gift.

I cannot bring myself to erase your birthday serenade from my voicemail, though DH keeps asking me if he has to keep "that message that's been on here forever." YES, we have to keep it! LOL


MWAH!!

10:47 AM EDT  
Blogger Bryan said...

That is one amazing story and one amazing woman. I get the warmest vibe from her when reading the comments. Thank you so much for shedding some light on this beautiful woman.

11:17 AM EDT  
Blogger Jenny said...

I love you Ida!

2:34 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what a lovely tribute! and so nice to have it while you are very much alive and kicking, ida! you do indeed have a knack for sharing your love of life with the rest of us. bless you. - minette

2:47 PM EDT  
Blogger Arhianrad said...

chaya...is amazing. Thank you for writing this!!! Now I must go and hug her...

3:48 PM EDT  
Blogger Erin said...

Just joining the chorus - lovely tribute to a very special person. Thanks!

4:07 PM EDT  
Anonymous Flora said...

Alyssa, what a lovely tribute you have written! I don't know Chaya personally but I feel as if I do now. She and I are close in age and we even look a little bit alike (the short hair, at least) but she has a lot more talent than I do, and I am in awe of her joie de vivre and sense of humor. Not to mention envious of the people who do know her!

6:16 PM EDT  
Anonymous Cait said...

What a marvelous tale of a wonderful doll of a woman. That Chaya, it's pretty great how she becomes a catalyst for delight and mwahmwahmwah! Thank you for writing about her.

7:59 PM EDT  
Blogger 5spice6 said...

So nice to meet Chaya. Can feel her powerful kindness and amazing energy throughout the air in our perfumed blogshere.

Anne

8:47 PM EDT  
Blogger Scentman said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:32 PM EDT  
Blogger Scentman said...

Are you beginning to see? How could I NOT create a perfume for this incredible, loving and totally unique woman!!

I love you, Sweetness!

Neil

9:33 PM EDT  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

Who loves you back, hmmm ?
Not quite as bald as Kojak- YET.
Give it time...

Seriously-
Alyssa did an amazingly sensitive job condensing the Herculean wads of crap she had to wade through.
Without making me sound like a 'wankeress', or a 'boo-hoo' bleeding heart, no less .

Marinochka's been more than generous in encouraging these 'Profiles in Perfume'-
Tom, Kelley, so many others.
Interviews with real live perfumers of tremendous talent.

You folks have really enriched my life-
It's a privilege to share thoughts, opinions, and passions-
Even opposing ones.

I've learned so much from all of you, who graciously share yourselves with me.

If I wanted to convey any message, I suppose that it's simply this :

No matter how ugly, messy, or problematic this life may be,
it's really worth the effort...

You don't have to limp through life;
You can be like Hillel, who danced while he was falling down...

I appreciate your affection more than I can adequately say !
Thanks for letting me make you laugh....

9:50 PM EDT  
Anonymous Serena said...

It was a real treat to read about Chaya's fascinating life. Thanks for writing this!
Ida is a sparkling gem, dearly loved who I plan on adopting as my mom. ;-)

Namaste!

10:58 PM EDT  
Blogger Dusan said...

Ida truly is inspiration and encouragement. I'd like to try that kapusta :)
Ljubim te!

12:44 AM EDT  
Anonymous leopoldo said...

I think my original message from yesterday was swallowed up by the 'too much gush' filter. Suffice it to say, what Ida brings is an ineffable joy, but Alyssa you managed to capture so much of it in words. Wonderful work about a truly beautiful, compassionate, loving and living woman of wonder.

5:49 AM EDT  
Blogger Dust Glitter and Vapor said...

Thank you for this beautifully written story about the gracious and intelligent Chaya! As others have stated, it is a true honor to get to know such a wonderful lady.

6:03 PM EDT  
OpenID Heather.E said...

I completely adore both of these vibrant and eloquent women: Chaya and Alyssa. How fitting to come to know one a little better through the other. There's clearly an entire book in this story, and I would stay up for nights to read it!

Chaya, you embraced me when I surfaced in the world of perfume talk, and I will not ever be able to tell you how much that meant to me and means to me. You are magical. I knew you loved poetry but I didn't know you were a language fiend (I am too!) Absolutely fascinating!

10:25 PM EDT  
Blogger Alyssa said...

How lovely to come here after only a day or two away from my computer and find this wonderful chorus. Chaya has answered you all quite thoroughly so I'll only say thank you for reading, for the compliments, and for being fellow fans of our perfumista part excellence!

11:34 PM EDT  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

Alyssa's TOO modest.
It's not like this was the ONLY thing she had to do...
[Girl's got a life, and jobs....!]

Big kudos to you, for your enthusiasm and generosity, little one in Austin.
Sendin' you loooove-
From Boston to Austin....

11:01 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the wonderful post Alyssa.

Chaya you are one absolutely amazing woman. Love you :).

Vijay aka Maisonstinky

10:24 PM EDT  
Blogger TMH256 said...

Like her husband, I too loved Chaya instantly!! What a superb tribute to an equally superb woman, who is able to change the energy in a room with one sentence. I adore her "sideways" glances and I will always be inspired by her innate ability to love with all of her heart. Thank you for writing this piece! I look forward to the second installment.

7:28 PM EDT  
Anonymous Designer Perfumes said...

I appreciate your effort, I like your content very much and it is very natural and very informative. Keeps it up good work!!!!

8:53 AM EDT  
Blogger civetcat said...

Hi Chaya,
I am simply speechless..........
My experience of meeting people of such exceptional quality is pretty low, almost nill you can say.
My love & respect will be there for you always.

6:59 AM EDT  

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