Signature Scent

Smells yummy!

Smells yummy!

I would have walked by the Colonial Drug store in Cambridge MA, except for a glimpse through the open door that suggested this was not your usual place to stock up on toothpaste and deodorant. The sight of the long, narrow space packed with floor to ceiling shelves was enough to make me double back and discover what its tagline calls “no common scents – hundreds of hard to find fragrances for ladies and gents”. Right away, I spotted a display of 4711 Cologne. Its blue and gold bottle transported me right back to my mother’s bureau where I would surreptitiously squirt myself with its heady fragrance, and subsequently be mystified how my parents knew I was filching mom’s perfume.

The lady behind the counter knew her stuff. I told her I liked unisex fragrances (no cloying rose or overwhelming gardenia for me, please) but lighter perfumes just didn’t last very long. In a few seconds she had pulled bottles and boxes from the groaning shelves and was squirting scents on little paper strips. Try this. Sniff. No, too flowery. This one? Sniff. No, too vanilla. Sniff. No, too something. Then I whiffed the last one. Fruity. Spicy. Sweet, but not sugary. This heaven in my nose turned out to be called Spanish Fig and Nutmeg, a men’s cologne that hit all the notes I want to play. In an uncharacteristic impulse, I said I’d take it without even asking the price. As she wrapped up the purchase, the proprietor announced, “Now you have your signature scent. Enjoy!”.

I recently read an article that tattoos and multiple piercings provide people a mark of individuality in culture of anonymity and uniformity. I’ll buy that, but contend that scents have been doing that for much, much longer. I remember my mother going out to fancy events, looking beautiful and wafting Chanel Number 5 when she bent to kiss me good night. My boyfriend wears something called Gray Flannel aftershave that is now part of the delight of planting a kiss on his neck. There are other signature scents that transport me – the Murphy’s Oil Soap smell used to make church pews shine, the bees was smell of a sacristy, even the cleaner used in a gas station rest room that immediately took me back to our high school toilets.

This association of scent and memory are nothing new. Theologian Joseph Sittler’s brilliant piece, “Eleanor and the Big Brown Buick”, tells about a scent he encounters while walking through the perfume aisle in a department store where “clerks are always squirting that stuff at you.” One scent immediately transports him back decades to an amorous encounter with a girl named Eleanor in the back seat of a car. He concludes, “Eleanor is gone, the car is gone and I am damn near gone” but that there is something miraculous in the associational, the ability to be transported by one whiff, “that makes computers look simple”.

And if you think of me when you smell a ripe fig, so much the better.

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