Scents of the Past
A long winter often gives up some of our friends. February and March tend to be particularly rough months for the elderly. A glance at the obituary page in the daily paper confirms this — much more space taken up by death notices in these months than, say, in April or May, such hopeful months to be alive. This year took a particular toll on my friends and relatives so that the first couple of months of 2009 seemed consumed with tasks such as writing obituaries and attending services for those who have passed on. One of the more shocking in this group was my neighbor, Annie, who suffered a heart attack and died behind the wheel of her car in early February. I had spoken with her in the morning and by afternoon, she was gone, just like that.
She was the right kind of neighbor. We could call each other when in need, whether of an egg or a ride to town, someone to get together with on a winter evening for a bowl of soup, share news, maybe watch a movie. The best part about Annie, though, was her great sense of humor and her spirited conversation. She had an opinion about everything and it was fun to spar with her. There were never arguments, just disagreements that ended in laughter. A sprightly lady who favored jeans and denim jackets, often with a red bandanna knotted around her neck, Annie had a youthful look. In fact, I never knew how old she was until she died. Isn’t that sometimes the way? She was clever about it and most people thought she was much younger than her 77 years. She’d had an interesting life, first as a fashion editor and writer, living and working for a time in Paris, then later she took on the fashion pages in Cleveland and Chicago, occasionally landing a piece in the New York Times. Finally, she retired home here, where she had always spent her summers. She lived in her mother’s house, which had been left to her, a sensible house with a great big veranda, as she liked to call it, that overlooked a wide expanse of pasture where she once kept her horses. No more. Still, she managed an active life, serving on town committees and even a term as selectmen — a devotion that should most certainly assure one a place in heaven.
Something about Annie, though, she never wanted to throw anything away. Visiting her, I was often itchy to help her take the recyclables to the transfer station or convince her of the need to share her belongings with the church rummage sale. She truly tried. She often wrote me e-mails of her efforts to sort the clothes, the shoes, the books. It was on her mind but she didn’t seem to be able to do anything about it. She had such a complete collection of movies on video, she could have opened a rental center. Her house and her garage overflowed. She was attached to it all and had reasons why it all had to stay. And so when she died on that surprise of a day in February, all these saved and treasured belongings were left behind.
A service was planned for late March and in those intervening weeks, her three stepchildren set to the task of getting to the bottom of what was stockpiled in her cozy home. They worked and they worked. Many trips to the dumps, many trips to the consignment shop (she had shoes alone to rival Imelda Marcos), many nights spent reading through papers and sorting photographs. At last, the day of the service arrived. Three hundred people came from far and wide and crowded together in our community church. Many kind and funny words were spoken about her. After, a lavish reception was staged in the vestry of the church. Great platters of food were set forth and greeted with good appetites.
Apparently among the things the stepchildren found during their clean-out were a lot of bottles of perfume. I suppose her work in the fashion industry parlayed into a lot of “gifts” and so there were a couple of bushel baskets of perfume, of all brands and all vintage. I don’t recall that Annie ever wore perfume. But there it was, a small mountain of bottled scent. The stepdaughters thought it would be fun to fill a huge silver bowl with some of these and put them out at the reception for anyone to help themselves, a souvenir of Annie. At one point during the reception, I went over to this ersatz perfume buffet and, along with many others, tried to find something of interest. We were like brides at a Filene’s sale. Chanel, Yves St Laurent, Vuitton, Armani, all the big names were in the bowl. I don’t wear perfume, in fact, most such scents repel me. But it suddenly struck me that it would be sweet to have a bottle of Annie’s expensive perfume on my dresser as a little memorial to her. We were all very merry as we sorted through this grab bag, pointing out brands of note or shapes of perfume bottles that were unique or particularly appealing. Virtually all of them were unopened and untested. Some were so old they smelled like pine tar, some like the bosom of an old auntie. One of Annie’s friends, a young woman named Susan, was standing next to me, loading up. She had at least six or seven boxes gripped in her arms. I was struggling to open one particularly stubborn bottle and all of a sudden the cap came off and my finger hit the plunger. We were all generously anointed, especially me. This took us all into fits of laughter but at the same time, Susan dropped most of her booty and one of the little bottles shattered at our feet. Someone hustled forth with paper towels from the kitchen. Mostly, we laughed and I felt Annie laughing with us. I think the church hall will be so scented for a long time to come, in spite of many efforts to clean the huge puddle of Arpege.
I returned home, saturated. My husband could make me laugh whenever we would pass someone doused in perfume or cologne. “What happened, did they break the bottle?” he used to whisper under his breath. Now I was the very result. I came home and showered to no avail. Maybe I will always smell of Annie’s perfume, perfume she never wore but that she liked to have, that she liked to keep. I did manage to bring home a sweet little bottle in the shape of the Taj Mahal, all golden and shining, and it is now on my dresser, well sealed and hopefully never to be opened — something I will like to have, that I will want to keep.