My Mother’s Christmas Present

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Last year’s Christmas post was triggered by smelling some vintage Guerlain Mitsouko. Writing that was like a fever dream which spilled out of me. In the days after I posted that my memory was jogged again about a Christmas Eve shopping trip with my father to buy my mother a present. It seemed like the appropriate follow-up to last year’s story.

The reason there is a cliché about men shopping on Christmas Eve is because there is some truth there. My father and I would get up every Christmas Eve to go shopping for gifts for my mother. I never thought there was any other way to do it. I don’t know this, but I suspect my mother enjoyed a bit of the lull before the storm by having us out of the house.

Downtown Miami Jordan-Marsh 1960-ish

I loved the shopping expedition because we went to the most elegant department store in Miami; Jordan-Marsh. This was when stores like this were wonderlands filled with the latest technology. I was fascinated with the glass room which contained the record players and sound systems. You would step into the soundproofed booth to be surrounded by stereo sound…stereo! I remember walking from one speaker to the other realizing I was hearing different things from each one. It was a modern marvel.

The housewares department was even more fantastic with the latest and the greatest. There was someone demonstrating non-stick frying pans. Look! Melted cheese slides right out! There was an ice cream parlor where we would have lunch. There were people buying wine in the Wine Cellar. It wasn’t sensory overload it was just enough to satiate my need for novel experiences.

We would look all around the store considering this new-fangled thing or that. I remember advocating for the non-stick frying pan one year. We ended up at the same place every year standing at the Women’s Fragrance counter.

My mother wore only two perfumes Guerlain Mitsouko and Guerlain Shalimar. When we got to the counter a nicely dressed woman would patiently greet the latest clueless males venturing into unknown territory. We would mention that those were the perfumes my mother wore. We would be offered paper strips with the latest perfume. “Straight from Paris” she would say.  My father and the saleswoman would begin to talk. I tuned them out as I smelled the strip. I tried to imagine my mother smelling like what was on the paper. I couldn’t. To me my mother simply smelled like Mitsouko or Shalimar. There was no alternative.

When my father asked me about the new perfume, I would reply I didn’t think Mom would like it. I think my Dad thought so too but he let me be the bearer of disappointing news to the saleswoman. He would ask for one of the two Guerlains and we had finished. We would go upstairs to gift wrapping and get an extravagantly intricate design.

On Christmas morning when I would hand my mother the gift from Dad and me; she undoubtedly knew what was inside. She would carefully undo the wrapping paper. Pulling out the box she would smile at Dad and I with the words, “My favorite!”

It wasn’t the perfect gift; whatever that might have been. It was a gift which told my mother we loved the way she smelled.

Mark Behnke

The Scent of Christmas Past

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One of the things those of us who love perfume talk about are “scent memories”. The concept that a smell can connect with a memory and bring an entirely personal subtext to fragrance. One ingredient which does this for me is gardenia. My grandmother had fresh-cut gardenias floating in bowls of water spread throughout her gardenia bush-surrounded Florida pine house. I can’t smell a good gardenia without hearing her voice and seeing her face.

Then this summer, as part of a project I am working on, I was going through vintage formulas of different Guerlains. When I hit the late 1950’s version of Mitsouko Eau de Cologne I had something more than a memory wash over me. I was transported fifty years backward so strongly it felt like a virtual reality had settled over me. What I was remembering so vividly was getting ready to go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve sometime in the late 1960’s. It was so vital I stopped what I was doing and wrote it all out before it faded away. Even thought it was the middle of July I realized I had written my Christmas Day 2017 post.

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I stood at the doorway to my parent’s bedroom. In my hand was my first real tie. My excitement on attending Midnight Mass was making my fingers fumble the perfect Windsor knot. As I looked in my mother was seated at her dressing table. She had some candles lit while she peered into the halo of electric light around her mirror. For a moment I was watching her without her knowing. My mother was always one of the most assured people I knew. She made decisions without ambivalence. She also stood up and took responsibility for poor choices. As I had a few seconds to look at her I felt like she was thinking deeply about something. She was coming to a conclusion about something. Before the process completed she looked up.

All children will tell you the smile of a parent happy to see you is a joyous thing. On Christmas Eve that smile feels like a gift. As I received this present I held out my hand with the tie. The smile widened a bit and she said, “Let me finish here and I’ll help you.”

She was still in her pink terrycloth robe and I had caught her at the end of her preparation. All that was left was adding her perfume. My mother only wore two perfumes for as long as I’ve known her. Guerlain Shalimar and Guerlain Mitsouko. She owned the round “bull’s-eye” bottles; red for Shalimar and green for Mitsouko. They had crystal pointed stoppers which were picking up the candlelight behind them. As she reached for the one with the green circle she tipped it, so it would get some on the stopper. She pulled the stopper. On the end was a drop of liquid picking up facets of flame and filament. She drew it to the hollow of her neck where that drop spread onto her skin. She rubbed the stopper against both wrists then returned it to its resting place in the neck of the bottle. She closed her eyes while taking a breath. When they opened a smile accompanied it. She beckoned me over.

She sat me on a stool in front of her chair as we looked into her vanity mirror. She leaned forward as we drew the tie around my upturned collar. I was surrounded by the love of my mother and the scent of Mitsouko. My turn to close my eyes and breathe in.

My mother could have tied the tie for me but instead she carried me through it with her voice. I got it right on the first try. With a final smile at me in the mirror she sent me off to wait for her to finish getting dressed. While I was waiting I realized a bit of the Mitsouko from her wrist had made it onto the tie. It seemed perfect.

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That’s what came from my Mitsouko fever dream. I loved going to Midnight Mass with my family. The smell of the incense off the censers. The fanfare from the trumpets. The Latin words said in such a rhythm I knew what was being said without knowing the language. Underneath it all I would be sitting on my knees in the pew under my mother’s arm surrounded by Mitsouko most of all.

This is what makes me continue to love perfume.

Mark Behnke