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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Perfume and Memory: Holding Back the Darkness

By Donna

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.



Blogger Marina said...

Beautiful post, Donna! I am all chocked up.

6:34 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A beautiful post, it made me think. But your question is very hard to answer, I would want something that smelled like home, whether that is a place or a person.

6:49 AM EST  
Blogger Katy Josephine said...

Wonderful post to read first thing in the morning! I'll have to think about the ONE perfume I would choose...this will be on my mind all day now.

7:56 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

L'Heure Bleue Pure Parfum

8:46 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a tender and loving post. The man who wrote it must have a wife who wears a signature perfume. I felt a pang of nostalgia reading the article. I remember those days when a perfume identified me. Then a perfume identified a place or a vacation. And now? Sigh, I would be identified by the rattle of sample bottles. I change perfumes as often as I do my mind. No one perfume stays a week. Every day I match a mood. But if I were to choose a smell, I'd grab 37 Rue de Cambon, because it smells of memory itself.

9:13 AM EST  
Blogger Lisa Abdul-Quddus said...

Sweet post!

When I was around the age of 14 I started wearing Sand & Sable, and wore it throughout my high school years. After that I sort of dumped perfumes & colognes all together for a very long time. I guess I outgrew S&S and other more upscale perfumes were way out my price range. I've only rediscovered perfume in the last 5 years. I haven't smelled Sand & Sable since I was in my teens but just the thought takes me back so I'm sure if I smelled it now I'd be flooded with memories.

9:52 AM EST  
Anonymous Suzanne said...

Such a moving post, Donna. Very hard to answer, though, if forced to select only one. At the moment, I'm torn between Yatagan, the scent I love most on my husband, or Fendi Uomo, which reminds me of my father. That leaves out too many other people in my family, though, who I've come to associate with certain perfumes.

10:04 AM EST  
Blogger DWR said...

My brother is in the middle of his 18 month deployment right now and is having a hard time. I'll suggest this for my sister-in-law's next care package to him.

The one perfume? Sandalwood oil from The Body Shop. It's what my husband always wears.

10:06 AM EST  
Anonymous Cheap Perfume said...

Such a though provoking post - perfume can be so evocative of memories and emotion. So hard to choose just one perfume though!

10:40 AM EST  
Blogger tmp00 said...

"the home movies of our lives"

I love that.

I'd be hard pressed to choose just one. Vintage Diorissimo would I think be the final choice. Smelling the blameless, happy lily would do a lot to keep me sane.

11:36 AM EST  
Blogger ScentScelf said...

And there is a compelling case for a signature scent. What a lovely post.

That said, in answer to your question, I think I might bring a wide mouth small vial of vintage Apres L'Ondee. I was a few years into my perfume journey before I had a chance to experience this one--and while it is quiet, it has depth and beauty and one foot so clearly in memory with a timeless sense of possibility that I think that would be my choice for one scent to take with me on a difficult journey.

(We are not able to put a loved one's t-shirt in a sealed bag, right?)

12:43 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely essay, Donna, thank you. My friends and I all travel as a way of life and discussed smell and memory recently.

For me the scent of land from the sea in the tropics (a spicy mix of humus and animalia that is intoxicating after days at sea, yet short-lived as soon you are immersed in it and it simply becomes 'air') reminds me of childhood - I have spent years searching for a perfume that approximates that smell.

Other than that I adore jasmine-, gardenia- and frangipani-based perfumes for their powerful evocation of the jasmine necklaces that young men sell on street corners in South Asia on torrid summer evenings.

2:06 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great essay, Donna, thanks so much for thinking of our military men and women!

2:52 PM EST  
Anonymous AnnS said...

What a wonderful post. The power of scent memories is completely remarkable. All of us could probably make a list a mile long of scents that remind of of different part of our lives. I just don't know what I would pick - I am fortunate to have too many happy memories and too many wonderful smells in my life. My mother wore Emeraude and Pavlova. Many bored Sundays in church when I was a kid smell like incense and Ombre Rose. My own life follows a path spritzed with Coco since I was a teen. When my toddler was a baby girl her head smelled like the orris in AG Heure Exquise.... Too many rich memories and fragrances to pick. I am lucky I don't have to.

3:11 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such a lovely post, thank you Donna!

For me, the answer is easy, since I've been musing lately on the very same topic.

Amouage Epic smells like a person in my life who I identify as the embodyment of "Home." So, Epic it is!
: )

3:25 PM EST  
Blogger jensun said...

Gorgeous post. I have no answer right now, I'm too overwhelmed.

8:31 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Marina, thank you!

10:12 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Olfactoria, I know what you mean. That may be the most powerful thing of all.

10:13 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you very much, Josephine.

10:13 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Anonymous, I can understand that one very well!

10:15 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Quinn, thank you, that means a lot coming from you. I am always trying different things too, but sometimes I just need to wear one of my old "signatures" more than anything else.

10:17 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Lisa, I too loved Sand & Sable back in the day ( and that was a long time ago!) and when I smell it I can picture exactly what the old drugstore back home looked like. :-)

10:19 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you Suzanne!

If I had a husband I think I might have to MAKE him wear Yatagan for me. :-)

10:21 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Diana, thank you so much for commenting. That must be so hard for your family. Sometimes even a little thing from home can mean a lot, whether it's the perfume or some other keepsake.

10:27 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Cheap Perfume, when one is a perfumista, it certainly can be hard to choose only one. We keep falling in love!

10:29 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you Tom! Vintage Diorissimo would be very high on my list too; it was once my "signature" perfume and only Vacances could push it aside.

10:31 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

ScentScelf, thank you. I love your choice!

That's a good idea too, the t-shirt, or some other article of clothing worn by someone special.

10:33 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Anonymous, that is a wonderful thing to remember, the scent of the sea and tropical flowers. The smell of land from the sea must be one of the most elusive things, like chasing a rainbow.

10:35 PM EST  
Anonymous perfume said...

Perfume can create very memorable and lovely memories. The post that you have made over here is really nice and beautiful. I change perfumes as often as I do my mind so that I can enjoy using various fragrances.

10:36 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Marla, thank you. These wars have gone on for so long now, we are all weary of them, and all we want is for our people to come home! I am fortunate that I don't have any close family members in the service, but it has hit close to home for a lot of people I know.

10:38 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Ann S, thank you very much. I agree, those of us who do not have to make such a choice are very fortunate.

10:39 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you, deeHowe! Epic is a gorgeous perfume, and it's one that I plan to have a bottle of one day - in the biggest size they make.

10:41 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Jen, thank you very much. Something just took hold of me when I wrote this, and I am so pleased that others can feel it too.

10:46 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a moving post, Donna! I am getting chocked up reading it.
Victoria (BdJ)

10:48 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Victoria, thank you so much!

12:37 AM EST  
Blogger Tama said...

Joy, because it has been a part of my life since I can remember, first as my mother's perfume, and then as mine ans she passed me the torch.

2:28 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such a beautiful and moving post. Thank you.

I, too, would take Joy. That came to me instantly and unbidden, in the second before I started tearing through my vast mental inventory of loved perfumes.

I would take Joy, for some reason that lies beyond words.

---- Annunziata

11:38 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Sad, bittersweet, and it feels true. For me, Annick Goutal's Passion, and I'll explain. John Waters, in "Art: A Sex Book" said he had a friend who told him, "I think being gay is all about longing." Don't stop reading! I tie this in to say that with a certain status in the world, whether a soldier, or a gay guy, or someone working at an animal shelter where almost every loving being you are introduced to each day will be dead in a week, you tend to cling, and to long. I think being ALIVE and a feeling being is all about longing. Though I'm gay, out, I still love very deeply my teenage girlfriend, and I'll always think of what should/might have been when I smell Ombre Rose, or Halston Z-14, a gift from her. But the Goutal is larger: chypres in general are ALL ABOUT LONGING as far as I can sense. This one in particular brings forth the image of a beautiful, wan, wistful Asian lady who was widowed in her twenties and just passed 40, alone. The inner life is deep, touched by sorrow but not marred by it. Deepened, I think, altered in warp and weave, and ultimately for the better. OK, definitely too touchy-feely, but there it is. I love Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, too!

2:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Marian said...

Donna- mine would be Arpege, my mother's scent. I never really knew her, but having her perfume with me would be a constant reminder of how important it is to establish connections, and to treasure them while we have them.

Thanks for your sensitive and meaningful post.

2:08 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Tama, that's wonderful!

1:26 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...


"for some reason that lies beyond words" - that sums up everything that is wonderful about perfume, thank you!

1:27 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

JMBalaya, I love your comment!

And yes, i agree, chypres are very much about longing, just as all the best songs on the world are sad, which must be why I love them so much.

1:29 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Marian, how lovely, and thank you.

1:30 AM EST  
Anonymous Gisela said...

What a coincidence - as I have a very demanding work schedule right now, where I'm not able to see my husband awake for days, I wore yesterday his Amouage Jubilation XXV. It really did help...

4:10 AM EST  
Blogger ScentofChoice said...

Thank you for a really moving piece. I had tears in my eyes as well. Just before reading this I had written to my brother to suggest he take some of our father's Eau Imperiale when he visits him in hospital where he is slowly recovering from a bad fall which has affected his memory. Papa has worn that all his life. It will be interesting to see if there is any effect. My own 'desert island perfume' would be 31 Rue Cambon. I find its beauty such that it can create happiness on the worst days and enhance life when all is well. If there were a scent of a sugar factory at the time that sugar cane is being processed I would wear that gladly to feel truly me as it is one of the scents of my childhood in Mauritius which makes me feel rooted and happy.

5:26 PM EST  
Anonymous Undina said...

Thank you for the wonderful post. I do not have the answer yet but I'll think about it.

4:17 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Gisela, that's very sweet, I hope you can see more of each other soon!

1:18 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

ScentofChoice, that is truly amazing, I hope the cologne does help, and that your father recovers quickly.

The sugar cane aroma must be a powerful memory for you. I would like to bottle the smell of the New England woods in the fall when the sugar maple leaves are all ablaze with color. As they carpet the ground, a sweet caramel smell arises through the air, and that is the scent of "home" for me.

1:25 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you for stopping by, Undina!

1:26 AM EST  

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