Scent and Sensibility

Nonna's bottle of Shalimar, found at the back of her closet

Nonna’s bottle of Shalimar, found at the back of her closet

Just over a year ago, my grandmother (codename Nonna) left us. She was a lovely, funny, happy old lady, who liked pets, receiving postcards from unusual places, looking after people she’d only known five minutes and tending to her orchids. She liked having children around, and always looked out for the ones whom she thought needed protecting. If she liked you, you were always (always!) welcome to drop by for coffee, tea or a meal. She also made what is known as The World’s Best Home-made Lasagna – I guard the recipe with my life, knowing all the while my lasagna will only ever be The Second Best.

Most people who knew Nonna thought they knew her very well. She was very transparent in her ways and you knew right away where you stood with her. I once had to shush her repeatedly at a family event, as she pointed out to me quite loudly that one of the young female guests should consider refraining from getting dressed in the dark to spare us all of the spectacle that was her outfit. Nearly comatose from embarrassment, I begged Nonna to lower her voice when dispensing unwanted sartorial advice to young people. Nonna said she was just voicing what several people were probably thinking. She was probably right.

I’ll spare you the more detailed description of how painful experiencing Nonna’s loss was to us, and get to my point as quickly as possible. I promise.

As few days after Nonna passed away, my parents and I went to her house to start organising what needed to be organised, put away what needed to be put away, find bills which needed to be paid, water the orchids, and so on. But the most difficult task of all (I should have guessed) was going through her closet. Not because it was particularly messy, but because of how much it looked and smelled like “her” closet.

As we dug deeper into her treasured clothes, gloves and hats, we started finding things we would never have known about otherwise. Such as scented boxes and silk paper which once held scented soaps and an endless number of empty little bottles of perfume, which she surely thought were too pretty to throw away.

Every time I travelled back home to see her, I brought her either a small bottle of Chanel No 5, its body lotion or soap. She loved the smell, and it was not a surprise when I found several empty little square flasks in the back of her closet. What did surprise me was the beautiful, nearly finished bottle of Guerlain’s Shalimar.

Shalimar was released by Guerlain in 1921 – the same year Chanel No 5 was released – and immediately started causing a ruckus. Some people considered its scent to be too provocative (apparently its scent was deemed an aphrodisiac and hence”indecent” at the time). “Respectable” women at the time are said to have preferred more classic floral perfumes, such as Chanel No 5.

Of all the women in the whole wide world, Nonna was the last woman on earth I would have pictured wearing Shalimar. But there it was – the iconic fan-shaped Baccarat bottle with its faded blue stopper. It was almost as if she had hidden it in the back of her closet for no-one to see.

At the time, the feeling of not knowing everything there was to know about Nonna was devastating. One year on, it makes me smile. Even though I struggled to contain her in my memory and made sure every new detail I found out about her life had a special meaning, she still managed to keep parts of herself hidden from all of us. In spite of all the expectations people had of her as The Good Daughter, The Wife and The Mother, she still managed to be Her Own Woman. And I can’t believe it took an old bottle of perfume to remind me of that.

When I was last travelling, I went into a store to buy a bottle of Shalimar of my own. The smiley salesperson suggested I might like other scents, but I stuck to my guns and took a small fan-shaped bottle from its shelf. In broken English and smiling the whole time, the salesperson asked if I was a “Shalimar girl”. I just smiled back and said I had absolutely no idea, and made my way to the checkout counter.

Thank you so much for reading, and have a lovely day.

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