Perfume and Memory: Holding Back the Darkness
One of the most oft-repeated truisms about the sense of smell is how it triggers memories, even those that have long been buried in the past. It applies to every kind of smell of course, but certain things seem to have a more profound effect on people; favorite foods from childhood, the sweet scent of a wedding bouquet, the chalk and ink of a classroom, and of course perfume. Often it's not even our own but that of another that evokes strong emotions; a simple floral cologne favored by a loving grandmother, a husband's bay rum aftershave on his cheek in the morning, the fascinating waft of powder, lipstick and Evening in Paris from a mother's evening purse when she is getting ready for a rare night out on the town. All these things form part of the home movies of our lives, but our fifth sense does not get much respect in our culture so these scent memories are frequently dismissed as sentimental trifles by those who don't understand the effect that scent can have on our lives.
I recently read something that moved me greatly and reminded me yet again of what our olfactory powers can do for us. It is the true story of a career soldier getting ready to go overseas yet again for a long deployment to a war zone, and how he must decide what to take with him. There are those things that are essential for survival itself, the ones he takes because he knows they will be in short supply where he is going, and finally those little luxuries about which hard choices must be made since there is only so much space in a duffel bag, even though these trifles are what keep you connected to your sanity. One precious item is never left behind, however:
“And then finally there is just a plastic baggy with two cotton balls inside. This is your life raft.
The cotton is soaked in your wife’s perfume. It is reserved for the worst days. The days when you need to hold other people up, and yet you do not know where you will draw the strength yourself. The days when grown men cry, and feel that there is no point, and they need somebody to provide a pillar that they can use to pull themselves to their feet again, and it has got to be you, regardless of if you are ready or not, to hold them up, but you are so f**king tired, and worn, and drowning yourself...then, well, then is when these two little balls of cotton come into play. They are your emergency supply of willpower, to be used sparingly, stingily, hoarded, just in case, for those bad days. The perfume is too strong right now, but you know that over a year, it will fade until there is barely more than a memory wafting from that bag. But sometimes, that slightest scent, it is enough. To hold you, and others, up.
And then you are done. There is no more room, nothing more to pack and the only thing remaining is a very long flight to a very foreign land.”
You can find the entire piece here.
I read this with tears in my eyes, both for the unspeakable burden of what we who stay behind ask of our soldiers and for the connections so tenuously kept alive over a long separation, when the idea of “home” is a vision in danger of fading away altogether as it is overtaken by the reality of war and the exhaustion, terror and boredom of life in a battle zone, not to mention the awful, unbearable smells of violence and fear that come with the territory. That just a little bit of perfume could mean so much to a man that it's the most important thing he packs in his bag is yet another reminder that we should not take our sense of smell lightly; I for one cannot imagine what it would be like to lose it. I wonder if this man felt overpowered by his own feelings as he wrote those words, thinking of what it would be like to have only the scent of his beloved for remembrance, and for such a long time.
So, dear readers, what one perfume would you take to war, or into space, or on a long voyage where you had to make those hard decisions about what to keep? What would you bring with you to be your magical amulet of last resort when life becomes dangerous, or exhausting, or unbearably lonely? It doesn't even have to be a physical destination, since we carry life's tribulations around with us; it can be the perfume we reach for in our darkest hour, no matter where we are. Which one has the most memories and associations encoded in your subconscious? My own would be Jean Patou's Vacances, not only because of its great beauty but because it reminds me of a time in my life when I was happy and had just begun the journey of discovering how much I truly loved perfume. It is the essence of longing, of yearning for spring and for a love just out of reach, but also the joy of celebrating new life, with its dewy green grass and tender clouds of lilac, hyacinth and mimosa. It breaks my heart and lifts me up at the same time. The perfumes that are the greatest works of art are so often those which are also the most evocative, both of one's own store of memories and also creating emotions we didn't even know we had inside us until the moment we first smelled them. Which fragrance can do that for you?
Image credit: Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, “Soldier's Farewell at Penn Station” via Tumblr-affiliated image aggregator site Ingénue.