Monday, November 08, 2004

The Scent of a Woman

I have a coworker who smells delectable. I cannot put it into any other terms, some things no matter how much poetry, cannot be described other than how it is. This is the problem with our sense of smell. Scent triggers memories our associations moreso than any other of our senses. Yet, these associations come from deep within the recesses of our consciousness. They exist in means that conjure no discernable rhyme nor reason. We talk of beauty as being in the eye of the beholder, we describe the sense of touch in small erotic passages. I fell for the mother of my son because she sang like a dusky angel. I'm easy that way. But our sense of smell, those things we remember alight past us on the drift of the wind. This sense is the most wicked of them all.

There are times as the wind sends a fragrance from my past and immediately I am transported to another time, another place - all of the sensations of sense are vivid and alive for that moment. I wrote a poem about this phenomena once, titled "The Smell of worms" for I attributed the smell of wet earth with the pilgrimage of worms I would see crossing the sidewalks. There is a scent I receive that instantly transports me to some dusk lit backroad highway in South Dakota. 24 hours into my ride across the country, my motorcycle churning westward and the taste of the South Dakota prairie floating on my tongue. So vivid is this sensation I can nearly feel the wind on my face, the locusts slapping at my coat...

Our memories are fickle, they present us moments of our lives at times when we least expect it. While writing this memories of my mother come in sporadic drops - my mother passed away when I was seven - that was some thirty-seven years ago now. What memories I have of her visually have been supplanted by the photographs and made up memories that I have been told about. But there are a few that surprise me every now and then. Like the time I was in a dance recital and being a boy conveniently forgot to tell my mother that I needed make-up before going onstage. This seems to be a phobia of mine but then I digress ... I can almost see my mom bending over me, chastising me as she pulls her lipstick and rouge from her purse and getting me ready in the stairwell to the stage. I have this memory: but what I "see" is my mom bent over a little boy - so again this memory while exacting in its happenstance is made up in my recollection - for there is no way I "saw" my mother bending over me from the angle I "recall." There is no way I can remember the deep red of her lips, painted with the thick lipstick paste of the day, the catlike eyeliner and shadow, the smell of her perfume. But I do see this young, too young, woman bent over her son who was too "proud" to wear makeup. I see her trying to keep her cool in front of the other mothers, her ability to makeshift makeup in the stairwell. And I can always remember her smell - I catch that fragrance every now and then on the wind.

I'm sorry mom, I was a real shit at times.

Like that other time when my sister and I came in from picking dandelions to give to you and I hid mine under the rug afraid to give them to you, afraid of you.

See how memories affect us? I remember this, the picking of "flowers" to bring to my mother, she was in the house doing motherly things, those mysterious things that I had no notion of at the age of five. But I was aware enough to make that connection of the Madonna - the saintly mother - to the Magdalene: the widowed bride. When my sister and I came into the house with our handful of flowers I noticed my mothers toes, they were painted, for some reason this bothered me, (and unbeknownst to my wife this phobia of the "painted lady" still persists today). The bother came about in the realization that my mother was not the saintly Madonna but rather she was a young spirited woman, the Magdalene: a woman who wanted to be beautiful, attractive to her husband, to others; she embraced her intelligence and touted her individuality; she wanted to be sexy, sensual, loving... this all conflicted with my concept of what mothers were - (Look, give me a break I was five, grown men have done this to women for the last 2,000 years!)

I hid my flowers under the rug. I was afraid of the sensuality that flowed from my mother.

I try to find other images or memories of my mother uncorrupt in their interpretation or affected by outside influences. I remember her moving between me and Kolga the day he went mad. Kolga was my sister's dog I remember seeing him coming down from the upstairs slowly moving along the stairway faltering and bouncing off of the walls a low growl in his voice and his face covered in foam. Funny, I can see Kolga and his sway, I can hear the growl through the foam, I can hear myself trying to reason with him, trying to calm him down, I can "see" my mother moving between us and something about getting onto a chair... but I cannot really see my mother she is just a phantom I have put into the memory, a fulfilling of the need to "see" her.

I remember the day she found the lump on her throat. She came out of the bedroom from our Northwood's cabin thinking she had gotten bit by a bug during the night. (Not quite an uncommon event in the Michigan woods.) Her face is like one of those Twilight Zone episodes where no facial features are discernable just a fleshy blur and her hand lighting upon her throat where the lump occurs. I remember the day or two before this when we are outside and she is helping my plant rhubarb with my plastic gardening kit we must have picked up at the local five and dime. Rhubarb had been my favorite thing to eat and I was planting my own crop, mine alone! I remember also the next summer when a fire took to our woods and I stood there in my pajamas with the plastic feet stomping on the smoldering grass to keep it from getting at my tender young plant, my mother already gone near half a year.

I remember my mother at the kitchen stove laughing at me, at my anger as I proclaimed that I wish that she were not my mother. She laughed logic at me, claiming that if I had had a different mother I wouldn't be here myself. I remember telling her "You'll see! You'll see!" she would not be my mother for very much longer. I remember watching her crumple to the floor in pain by the stairs ... there are some memories I wish I couldn't keep.

But the one memory I can truly claim my own, distinct unfettered by time, unspoilt by other influences, or wishes for what might have been. My mother, as mothers are wont to do, would cat bathe my face by taking her handkerchief out of her purse, wetting a corner with her tongue and then proceed to scrub my face spotless. There is an enzyme in mother's spit, it has the texture of hard counter cleanser and the acidity of nitric acid. My mother would scrub and lick and lick and scrub and polish my face shiny like some oxidized silver until my cheeks shone bright. I do make light of this ritual, because the irony is that mom's handkerchief smelled of her, her special perfume, her scent - a scent that would haunt me for nearly thirty years.

Whenever I caught a taste of that scent I would instantly be transported to that place wherever it happened to be as my mother scrubbed away at my face. For years I would try different perfumes at the perfume counters trying to find that smell, not in some bizarre Oedipus desire but in a means to perhaps put to rest some of the demons that tussled with me each night. I knew they still made that perfume because I would catch it every now and then when a woman would pass by. Either on the edge of the sidewalk where the wind would tease me with a hint, or sometimes I would lean close to woman as I worked with her and catch just the glimmer of her scent, my mom's scent.

It is too weird. You ask me why did I just not go out and ask these women who bore my mom's scent what the name of their perfume was right? It is too weird.

Either it is a freaky stalkerish "come on" - I think of Norman Bates from the Hitchcock movie Psycho. In a sequel to that Hitchcock masterpiece Norman would be holed up in his little twin sized bed with a girl he would bury his head in her bosom and declare that she smelled like toasted cheese sandwiches. She asks if he likes toasted cheese sandwiches and he replies that they are his favorite. It is a touching moment for her you have an individual who has been suppressed and can only express himself in the method of what he finds tasteful and pleasurable - toasted cheese sandwiches. So yes smelling like toasted cheese sandwiches would be a good thing. But walking up to strange women and saying "Excuse me, you smell like my dead mother, what is that perfume you are wearing?" If I were a woman I would take Norman Bates over that.

I also have a vivid recollection of Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter. There is a scene where Jodie Foster as Clarisse passes by him, Hopkins is great at capturing the nuances of his characters. As Clarisse passes by Hannibal can be seen catching her scent on the wind, its a sly nearly imperceptible motion, head tilted slightly, eyes half closed anoticeable "sniff" and a slowregistering smile: (an action I find myself doing at times, catching that fragrance, savoring the inhalation as if I was imbibing on a rich bodied wine.) Hannibal exudes the elegance of class at that moment, a sense of sophistication and animalistic lust all in the same breath.

So? "Excuse me, I am Hannibal Bates, you smell like my dead mother my I help myself to your toasted cheese with fava beans and a little Chianti?"

But why all of this strangeness? My goodness we are merely discussing the effect that scent has on the brain: specifically the scent of a woman on the brain of a man. My coworker does not smell like my mother, no her fragrance is a different intoxication, breathtaking nonetheless, but again indescribable except in visions that appear to have no connection to good or bad but merely are.

As for my mother's perfume I finally located it. It has been a hunt of thirty some years but that scent is exacting, it is always the same, and it connects with me when I least expect it. This is how I know it is real and that it belongs to me. Not because there exists a fragrance like it or similar in context, but because when I do catch it on the wind it pulls that memory from my wrenched psyche and lets loose with a torrent of emotive reflexes. It is funny how we associate smells with things that are completely illogical in their truth but completely logical in our associations. I go back to the worms, whenever it rained the worms would come out of the ground and for whatever reasons they would make their pilgrimage across the concrete. That smell of hot, damp earth quickly and logically associated itself with the pilgrimage of the worms. Forevermore I would think of worms when that scent caught up with me. And I love the smell of worms, they take me back to the innocence of my youth, they take me back to fishing with my dad, with walking through puddles in my bare feet, of dancing in the rain. Worms.

It was my wife who brought my mother back to me. It was eureka all over again as I caught the scent, the visions, the memories all flooding into me with one emotive breath. An inhalation that would reconcile my quest with desire: with my apologetic penance. It seems that out of one necessity over another my wife would have to temporarily change brands. It was this new brand, previously a stranger to our household that would cement the sangreal with the questing knight. Keep in mind that it was the handkerchief, the token of a knight's quest, the flutter of cloth provided as a reminder for the knight to live an earnest life, chaste and of not ill repose. There is a something of a woman that wants to remain hidden within the folds of a handkerchief kept in a purse placed there in the event of an emergency. It was this handkerchief with which I would associate as the perfume of my mother – the scent of a woman.