I sit, a young girl up past my bedtime, legs bent, knees embraced tightly to my chest, on the plush carpet in front of the cluttered cocktail table. Watching a candle, close to its extinction, I am hypnotized. Embers of a fire crackle their last good-byes. Hissing and screaming, the flames mimic the cries of party favor horns now disfigured and discarded among the clutter. Stealing sips from abandoned brandy snifters, I am lulled into a dream state. The actors that drink and laugh in the background, all around me, are muted like images from sleep.
It is a new year. In it came, illuminating the party like the flicker of a flashbulb leaving its lasting effects on all eyeballs. Figures packed in a room, caught up in the rhythm of the countdown nudged in the new decade. Their mingling body parts, elbows poking, bottoms butting feet stomping, conceived and bore the baby new year in an instant.
Exhausted from labor, guests sprawl themselves on sofas and overstuffed pillows; their shoes tossed to all four corners of the room. They partake in an intellectual orgy, a bacchanal of wits. Words are used like colors of paint. Each one mixes and melds with the one before until their layering composes a completed canvas.
The loudest, boldest, handsomest actor tells a story of touring to Toledo, or was it Tampa?, and an overweight diva from Des Moines who refused to fondle her director. There is an actress, who still wears her mink (although she goes barefoot) who sucks on cigarettes and laughs a mixture of "shriek" and "ah." She enjoys the leading man's stories and she teases him with the flutter of her long, black-lacquered eyelashes. He had told the same stories an hour before, but this audience is new and, for this telling, his timing is different.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see my mother dancing in the distance. She wears a dress with white lace sleeves that play pee-a-boo with the bronzed flesh of her arms. Her face beams copper-colored making her hair, in contrast, the white-blonde of beach sand. Turning my face toward the make-shift dance floor in the opposite corner, I watch her slow dancing with a tall man on hardwood, her bare feet making no sound. She laughs a song. It is melodic and uplifting and draws in listeners desiring to provoke an encore of her laughter.
The actress and the leading man have moved away from me, but she has left her mink behind on the floor to my left. Warmed by the fire and the brandy, I curl myself into the soft folds of its fur and drift off, the sound of clinking china, of laughter, of gypsies entering my dreams.
***I was born into a family with ties to the theatre. I grew up surrounded by actors, artists, musicians, people who create. I have a vivid recollection of many of the cast parties my parents hosted in the 70's and 80's for the local regional theater in my hometown.
During the long labor before the birth of my son Benjamin, my mother asked if she could bring me anything that would make me more comfortable. Instead of a favorite pillow, a soft blanket or a photograph, I requested she find two handkerchiefs, spray one with the Estee Lauder perfume my paternal grandmother had always worn and the other with Chanel No. 5, the preferred scent of my maternal grandmother. These two strong women, one deceased and one dying, could not see me through my labor in person, but having the fragrance of them in the labor and delivery room gave me the illusion of their presence and so, during every spasm of my body and every push I exerted, the essence of them spurred me on.
Marcel Proust described the palpable connection between the sense of smell and memory in The Remembrance of Things Past. He wrote, "When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after things are broken and scattered the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory."
To catch the hint of a familiar, pleasant aroma in the air is like having a ghost walk through you. One moment you are focused on the mundane and then your olfactory system transports you to another time and place more swiftly than H.G. Wells time machine ever could. Recently, while I was choosing apples at the market, a woman leaned over me to tear off a plastic produce bag and a waft of my late mother's perfume, L'air du Temps, came over me. I closed my eyes and I was tucked into my childhood bed, my mother leaning over me to kiss me goodnight, her scent a co-mingling of her perfume and the faint trace of scotch on her breath.
My sense of smell recounts happy childhood memories, strong emotions and the essence of people that I miss. Candle wax, the sulphur of a recently extinguished match and the sugary citrus scent of Grand Marnier liqueur take me back to the parties my parents hosted. Inhaling the smells of cinnamon, yeast or peaches I find myself in my grandma Bea's kitchen anxiously awaiting a taste of freshly baked peach cobbler or a Snickerdoodle cookie. Walking in a city, the exhaust of diesel fuel recounts the anxiety and anticipation I felt meeting a lover, now my husband, in New York to begin our love affair. The antiseptic tang of alcohol wipes and latex places me next to my dying mother's bedside stroking her hair and urging her to let go of this world.
Knowing how scent etches the mind with memory, I find myself intentionally spraying my neck and wrists with my favorite perfume each morning and regularly baking sweet bread and german crescent coffee cakes. I fill our little world with a bouquet hoping that every time my sons inhale, an indelible, blissful memory is imprinted on their minds.