A stench that was once a curiosity – old fashioned “church lady” perfume. Of course that’s a fragment, but so is the memory. I recall a tiny, smooth bottle with a glass stopper, filled with what would become two dissonant memories.
One involved the first time I went to church with my grandmother. This was my mother’s mother. This was Desta Lucile, DL for short, but everyone called her Lucile. At five or six years old, I was almost taller than my grandma. The years had bowed her scoliosis spine, creating a hunch at the top. It was pretty harsh, the hunch, but not like that of Notre Dame fame. She was still beautiful and cuddly. She took me to the church her grandfather had built, anchored on a rare hilltop among Indiana back-roads. It was surrounded by cornfields except in the front, across the country road, where a cemetery full of history was planted.
I remember her preparations that morning, sitting in front of her 50’s era Waterfall Vanity Table. She pulled a strand of costume jewelry beads out of a box (she probably had a set of pearls somewhere, but she spent all her retirement and social security money on the grand-kids instead of on herself). She put on her matching ear rings and applied her lipstick. Then she removed a tiny glass stopper from a miniature Avon bottle,dabbed a drop of amber liquid onto each wrist, and rubbed them together.
I had never seen such a ritual and was enthralled. I recall my reaction as the aroma took hostage my little nostrils. It wasn’t like getting bombarded with that overpowering wave when someone doesn’t know the meaning of economy in applying perfume. It was the first time I associated a scent with a memory. And if left to that, I would always have associated that particular fragrance with my lovable, self-sacrificing grandmother. I planted my first garden and tasted my first beer with my grandma.
Fragrance – in poetry and literature it connects summer days and sunshine rays through floating dandelion puffs. It describes ambiance and completes metaphors. Our sense of smell really ties into our other senses, can cause physical responses, and can empower memories to flow from a once forgotten vault in our heads. Church-lady perfume, as I’ll always label it, was ruined for me as a young adult when another woman forever replaced my once cherished snippets with very different emotions.
A very different sort, Betty was the alcoholic mother of my partner of six years, my first love – J. I recall being berated with drunken blubbering of how disgusted she was with me for loving her daughter – who was 12 years my senior. That was par for the course, but not really the brain burner. We had moved into her house with her because her health was getting worse, her money was running out, and she needed the extra help we could give her through rent, house chores, and other concerns. I was used to the verbal abuse and took it in stride as the senseless chatter that rattled inside the alcoholic shell and spewed from the core of inward and outward hate that such addictions foster.
She rewired my precious and turned it inside out when one night, sound asleep in our bed at three or four in the morning, our door exploded off the hinges and the sound of violence and insanity burst our bubble of security and serenity. I hadn’t experienced savagery like that since my biological father’s (also an alcoholic) outbreaks as a small child. Up to that point I had healed as many children do (that innate power that children possess called resiliency had lead me to trust and love for love’s sake).
The putrid smell of sweat, booze, and church-lady perfume remained with me for months after that, startling me during times of fragility or insecurity. It haunted me and prodded me when times were edgy and I had choices to make about being right or being safe, loving or protecting myself, trusting or playing it smart. Intellectually I knew these concepts weren’t opposing or even sensical. But the psyche is one persistent mule when lessons are taught by trauma or whittled by harm. It amazes me how quickly we an learn something new when it comes to the abstracts like love and relationships, yet how long it takes to unlearn old untruths.