(A post about the women in my family – grandmothers, mothers, daughters, perfume, Proustian moments and the power of memory)
In my study, tapping away on my computer, I suddenly become aware that my nine-year-old daughter Laura has sidled in quietly and is standing behind my right shoulder.
I sit at my desk with my back to the door – terrible feng shui, I know, but this is the only position that allows me a view of the garden while I’m working.
Just as I’m about to tell her tersely that she’s meant to be in the bathroom cleaning her teeth before bed, she presses her face in against the curve of my neck and breathes in deeply.
“I love the smell of you, Mummy,” she says sweetly. “I’m so glad you’re my mummy.”
Teethcleaning quickly slips down my agenda, and everything else stops while we have a cuddle and a chat. I’m feeling an utter heel for having so nearly dismissed her before she had a chance to speak.
Eventually, after she’s trotted off contendedly to bed, I begin to wonder exactly what smell she is referring to. I don’t wear perfume every day, but I do use an ever-changing mix of scented handcream, talcum powder and moisturiser. When I do wear perfume, my choice is a haphazard choice from the eclectic collection of ancient scents on my dressing table. Some came to me as gifts, others I acquired from jumble sales. I’ve only just finished off the Penhaligon Rose that my friend Elizabeth gave me when Laura was born. I wear make-up most days, so the distinctive smell of foundation must contribute to my personal aura. I’m conscious that this is not sounding very alluring.
My own mother channels face powder, lipstick and Oil of Ulay. Yes, I KNOW it’s sold as Oil of Olay these days. It was homogenised for the sake of pan-European branding, around the same time that the Marathon bar segued into Snickers. (I bet the organisers of 26+ mile races still haven’t forgiven them.) But it will always be Oil of Ulay to me, because my first memory of it dates back to the time when instead of the many modern variants, there was only one kind: a pale pink “beauty fluid” that came in a clear glass bottle with a black label and top. And its perfume was Essence of Mummy.
Unlike my mother and me, my grandmothers both had a regular perfume habit. My grey-haired, tweed and hand-knit clad Grandma, born in 1900, favoured Yardley’s Freesia. This was pumped out of a ridged glass bottle with a yellow lid. Mam, my maternal grandmother, was younger and more glamorous. She had black hair, (I was about 12 before I realised the colour came out of a bottle), and pale, arched, slender eyebrows in the style of a 1930s film-star. She preferred the heady scent of Just Musk, hidden inside a mysterious opaque black glass bottle.
Both perfumes were once popular mass-produced products, and for many years I’d occasionally catch a waft of one in a crowd and forget my grandmothers had died. They’ve both been gone for over 30 years now, but the slightest breath of either scent still summons up a sense of their presence. I still have an old, empty bottle of Mam’s perfume in the top drawer of my dressing table. I occasionally fetch it out, take off the top for just a moment, careful to ration what little of its contents remain, and take the tiniest sniff. It is an ethereal comfort blanket; it serves as a notional hug.
My daughter will not be able to do that with my perfume.
Tonight, my work at my desk finished, I creep in to check on her. She is fast asleep in her elevated cabin bed, her peachy-skinned cheek just at the level of my face. Before I realise what I’m doing, I’m leaning over her pillow to breathe in her scent. Clean, cosy, contented, sleeping child. It’s the best perfume in the world. If I could only bottle it to keep for ever.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like this post comparing the different lots of the four generations of women in our family: Laura’s Ambition or this bit of nostalgia: Don’t Leave Her Hanging on the Telephone