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