I took a stroll around my old Eureka neighborhood the other day. The house we lived in is pretty much the same except the huge Acacia tree is no longer in the backyard. My brother made a fort in that tree for my sister and me. He also made a rope swing that we would play “Tarzan” on, yelling out the ape call in our screechy voices. I was always Cheetah. It was also the tree where my dad, thinking to fix a kink in his back, tied a rope under his arms and jumped off a box, almost hanging himself. In the 1950’s Eureka was a typical Mr. Roberts scene. Saturdays everyone in the neighborhood would mow their lawns with push mowers. Edges were hand trimmed with clippers. Nearly every backyard would have laundry snapping on the line. The old ladies on the block, Mrs. Gooch and Granny Sullivan, would bake cookies or cakes. Carol Ann’s mom would bake bread. The combination of mowed lawns, cookies, bread and bleach was a heady scent indeed. Those were fun days, no worries or cares. Evenings were nice too. No one had TV but my mom would read to us. Sitting on her lap with her arms around me was the best place to be at the end of a day full of play and skinned knees. I started thinking about fragrances, smells, aromas and such and how catching whiffs of certain scents can bring back memories, almost like turning a page in a book. Fleeting sometimes, but still vivid for that moment. Laundry scents, mown grass, certain perfumes….
My mom wore Estee Lauder perfume. It was her scent. When my daughter would stay with her she would come home smelling of Estee Lauder. Her hair, her clothes, even her little shoes smelled like my mom. When my mother passed away my sisters and I sorted through her clothes. She loved nice clothes and had a huge closet with drawers of sweaters and racks of shoes. As the three of us sat among her things the scent of Estee Lauder drifted around us. Not many people wear Estee Lauder now, but once in awhile I’ll catch a whiff as I’m browsing in a store or shopping at the market and my mother will come back into my mind like a soft breeze.
My grandmother was roses, powder and graham crackers. Every morning, even when she was in her 90’s, she would put on her powder and rouge. She was French so she wore a corset. I could feel the bones when I hugged her. She made most of her own dresses and aprons, wore seamed stockings and sensible shoes. Her hair was pure white and her eyes a clear china blue, magnified behind glasses that had no rims. Her house smelled of sachet she made from the fragrant old roses in her side yard.
She had a wringer washer that would thud and bang in the back room when she did laundry. It had a lid that would keep the water from slopping out. It looked like a huge cook pot. I loved to watch her hang out her wash, her apron fluttering in the wind, lips pressed hard around the clothes pins in her mouth. She could hang a basket of laundry in nothing flat. Her sheets were always sun fresh and her towels were so hard they would sand the skin off our backs.
My grandfather was a barber and for years he had a shop down on Second Street in Eureka. He shaved with a straight razor and sharpened it on a strap that hung in the bathroom. He would pull his nose this way and that, scrunching up his face while shaving, then splash himself liberally with Bay Rum. He wore pin striped suits complete with vest and jacket and always a fresh rose that Grandma would place in his lapel. Snapping on his fedora hat at a saucy angle, he’d saunter downtown to hang with his buddies, Bay Rum floating in his wake. When he got home he’d have a snack and a short nap on the couch. One afternoon he said the back of his neck hurt. He laid down for his nap and never woke up. Grandma kept his Bay Rum in the bathroom for years, along with his leather strap hanging on the wall. I’d give it a sniff every now and then. Gary wears Bay Rum once in awhile, but it smells different on him for some reason. Maybe my nose is just getting old.
I’ve always loved horses. After we moved to Marin County my dad would to take me to the riding stables on Sunday’s. He’d walk along with his golf club, swinging at rocks and such while I rode. I always rode Dan. Dan was a retired race horse and blind in one eye so my dad had to watch where he swung his club, but Dan was gentle and steady. It was heaven, sitting up high on his back, listening to the creak of the saddle and the rhythm of his hooves. When we got back to the barn the stable guys would let me stand on a box and brush him down. I wouldn’t wash my hands after I got home because they smelled like horses. I would cup them around my nose and breathe in the horsy scent until I would almost pass out. I still love the smell of barns and manure, old attics and rusty tools, bread baking, fresh turned dirt, wood smoke, leather, new cars…………my granddaughter’s hair.
In high school I wore Jungle Gardenia. God! That was strong stuff! I realize now that I must have smelled like a funeral home. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I would spray my hair with Aqua Net. When I moved to the San Francisco scene in the 60’s it was Patchouli Oil. I use to drop it on my light bulbs in my apartment. The streets of San Francisco were awash in Patchouli Oil but now I can’t stand it. Horrid stuff……….
Some smells are offensive and some smells aren’t. There’s a difference between “unwashed” BO and “honest labor” BO. There’s a difference between bad breath and garlic breath. I love garlic breath. I don’t think my house smells, but if I leave it for a few days and come back, it has an odor. It’s not offensive, but it smells like us, our dogs and garlic. Cats don’t smell. I can bury my face in Lola’s fur and she has no odor. Dogs eventually smell doggy and need a bath, but cats always smell clean. Why is that, I wonder?
I’ve worn Opium perfume for years. I can’t smell it on myself anymore, I guess because my nose has become acclimated to it. That’s the way it is sometimes. If you get used to a smell it doesn’t smell anymore. My daughter tells me that when SHE comes back from hanging around with me SHE smells like Opium, her hair and her clothes, just like my daughter did with my mom and her Estee Lauder. How strange……….The other day I left my scarf at my daughter’s house. SHE picked it up and declared that the scarf smelled just like MoMo. SHE has her own little smell……fresh, clean, and adorable. I wish I could put her scent in a bottle. I’d wear it every day!
I have a scarf of my mothers that I keep tucked away in my drawer. I think on Mother’s Day I will take it out and hold it to my nose and breathe deeply. Hopefully, after all these years, her scent will still be there. After all, Estee Lauder was pretty potent stuff.