Can A Single Scent Reframe Your Memories?

Can A Single Scent Reframe Your Memories?
I am not, by nature, sentimental. When something is no longer interesting to me—a handbag, a plant in my garden, a set of dishes—I get rid of it. For example, I used to have a wonderful library, including a number of first editions—novels, poetry, volumes of literary criticism—that I’d collected over many years. Some I had read, and the rest I thought I might read someday. When it became clear that my passion for perfume was becoming a new profession, however, I sold all my books and used the money to help pay for constructing a new perfume studio. Friends were horrified, but I never regretted it for a minute. I thought if I really missed a book, I could buy it again. (And in the 10 years since, I have repurchased only three of them.)
I am notoriously difficult to buy for, and I hate feigning enthusiasm for a gift I don’t love. I’ve been known to give gifts back, or to pass them on the very day I receive them.
This is not to say that I’m not attached to material things. Among my cast-offs are the 80 pounds I lost a few years ago, when the toll of all that extra weight on my energy and frame became impossible to deny. None of my old clothes fit my new body, but they still fit me. I’d collected them lovingly over the years—the jewel-tone Indian silk shirts with handmade buttons and Lainey cashmere sweater coats were an expression not just of my style but of how I move through the world. So instead of buying a new wardrobe, I had my old clothes altered so that I could continue to wear them.
My selective ruthlessness extends to my beloved perfumes. I retire old blends when they stop engaging me, even if they’re selling well. And when I found an exquisite rose essence from a small grower in Turkey, I got rid of the expensive but second-rate Moroccan rose I’d been using without a second thought and reformulated my perfumes to allow the more voluptuous newcomer to work its magic.
Yet, like those of most people, my earliest memories and deepest emotions are saturated with, and inextricably bound up with, scent. Jean Patou’s eau de parfum, Joy, for example, evokes my mother kissing me good night before she went out with my father on Saturday evenings. A cloud of her signature perfume enveloped me, along with the infinite softness of her mink. Gold glinted from her dresser, with its phalanx of mysterious perfume bottles carefully arrayed on their mirrored tray, metallic charms with stylized writing hanging from their gilt-threaded necks.
My parents had married in the early 1940s, at relatively late ages for their generation. They’d led what sounded to me like exciting lives before they met. My father had been a drummer and a big-band leader, and my mother had been a gal Friday and personal accountant to a wealthy businessman. But it seemed to me that they’d shut the door on those earlier experiences with relief. My father had found the life of a musician precarious at best; my mother had grown tired of working to support herself and wanted a husband to take care of her. And so they had retreated into the security of a conventional marriage. I also intuited that, with my dreamy and rebellious nature, I reminded them of their abandoned younger selves, and that the reminder was not a welcome one. By the time I reached my teens, I was a beatnik, buying poetry books and folk-music albums with my allowance and hiding them under my bed for fear of my parents’ disapproval. I wore black clothes and oversize earrings and ringed my eyes with eyeliner. I knew I was a disappointment to my mother, just as her coldness left me wanting.
Nevertheless, her evening embrace carried the breath of a sustaining love. And her perfume—sophisticated, glamorous, made for the night—was a siren song from those seemingly passionate lives they had been so ready to forsake. Joy is a concoction of intoxicating flowers—jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, tuberose—in a warm, powdery base. The heady, narcotic aroma of those flowers took me to exotic places in my imagination, far removed from our predictable suburban routines.
I don’t wear Joy (or fur), and I’ve never tried to replicate that famous fragrance. But all these years later, a whiff of Joy evokes 1950s Detroit; my fraught relationship with my mother; my deepest, earliest feelings of both connection and aloneness. The profound resonance of that sense memory, and my awareness of the mysterious, primordial power scent holds over us all, laid the seeds for my creative path. And in that sense, scent—not just one scent—changed my life.

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