My strongest, earliest, and best memories of childhood are infused with scent. Though the combination of hair spray, menthol cigarettes, and Breck shampoo may not sound inviting to most, to me it is the earliest, and most abiding, aroma of love. For my mother, who both gave birth and died too young, there was great pleasure in sensual experience, but rarely of the high brow variety. A trip to the make-up aisle at Katz drugstore or a patty melt at the corner bar was the level of indulgence she craved.
Though my aesthetic tastes long ago flowered and took flight, traveling far away from the dime stores, quick shops, and strip malls of my youth, my aesthetic sensibility is rooted there, in cherry limeades and curly fries from the drive-in, in three dollar earrings guaranteed to turn your lobes green, and in Woolworth perfumes made by Jovan, Coty, and Revlon. Though I have now spent far more decades away from my childhood world than I spent in it, I have been molded by it, just as my sixteenth birthday cake took shape from its heart-shaped pan.
To adult children whose feelings about their childhoods are uncomplicated — do such people exist? — it is hard to explain the bittersweet quality of scents that are simultaneously attractive and disturbing, enveloping but off putting, dirt cheap but exquisite. The milky-sweet, vanillic chill of entering Dairy Queen as a sunburnt ten-year-old on a swampy August afternoon. The astringently fruity odor of bath oil beads combined with the lingering air of Pine Sol. And the ubiquitous backdrop of my mother’s cigarettes, perfume, and, as the years passed, the varnish-inflected maltiness of ever cheaper whiskey.
In grad school I was jarred to discover that the lovely “nostalgia” literally means something like “pain from an old wound.” But even such a poetic word cannot capture the poignant quality of childhood sense memories, including the attachment we form to them despite, or maybe because of, the thrum of loss they evoke. “Nostalgia” can’t fully express the raw nerve of longing and love so bound up with one’s very sense of self that it must, ultimately, be embraced as a companion if one is to become whole. The scents that continue to link adult-me to the child-me — who had a volatile, self-destructive young mother — have lodged in and on my body like splinters and tattoos, as much a part of me as my hands and heart.
Though there is much talk about how scent evokes memory, unless you’re a philosopher, you’ll hear far less about how memory constitutes our most deeply felt sense of selves. For instance, Tabu perfume does not just remind me of my grandmother — an aloof, aristocratic presence in my early years, despite her humble circumstances — it transforms me back into the seven-year-old who gaped transfixed as she studiously plucked, and then painted in, her eyebrows.
Though there is surely a sense in which I would still be me without such memories, it’s also fair to say that they ARE me, albeit revised and yellowed with time, as I know they are. It is a jarring, but strangely joyful experience, then, to find that, even well into middle age, I can still be momentarily converted into a hopeful, if bewildered, little girl by the simple whiff of a menthol cigarette, cheap hairspray, or Calgon bubble bath.
My mother died when I was still in my 20s, so, though I may have her eyes (and occasionally foul mouth), I am still discovering the other ways she lives on in me. Having outlived her now for some 25 years, I can see, for better and worse, how much my tastes owe to her passionate ideals of the beautiful and necessary. And to tell the truth, if I could get my hands on my mother’s jug of Jean Naté, I wouldn’t trade it for all the Chanels or Clive Christians in the world.