If I close my eyes, I can imagine my grandmother's beautiful blonde wood dressing table--maple I think--with its oversized round mirror hanging like a full moon in the center, her carved mirror, brush and comb vanity set, a large powderpuff topping loose powder, the kind you don't see anymore even in the movies, the upholstered seat, and I can smell a very familiar smell.
DuBarry Foundation Lotion.
I attached this smell to my grandmother from earliest memory and never forgot it, long after the product was pulled from popular pharmacy shelves, a satiny white milk in a tall elegant bottle, smelling like nothing else.
But my grandmother.
My mother's mother had been quite the flapper in the twenties, I could tell from a photo that sat in my great-grandmother's spare bedroom, a thin yet sturdy girl astride a horse who'd come from the farm into the city, well, town more like, and when I knew her lived with my grandfather across the street from the Union Pacific tracks in a little motor court they ran on Front Street.
I'd wake up summer mornings at the motel and she'd take me by the hand to tour her pots of indoor flowers and pinch dead blossoms from the violets, back in those days when I was the only grandchild for the first few years, precious times at the motel, lilacs in bloom.
It was my first experience with making a sensory memory. I inhaled the scent of Foundation Lotion and let it permeate every nerve ending, never to be forgotten. Later I would attach other smells to other people and events--the smell of freshly baked whole wheat bread to my other grandmother, Tabu to my young mother, Gardenia Passion to my wedding day--and would mark occasions in my life by memorizing the smells, something to be recalled in future when the reality was no longer available. Last spring I made a sensory memory at a cosmetics counter at Saks, drinking in the fragrance of Petite Cherie, peaches, vanilla, roses and musk, so that I would forever associate it with a blissful interlude, a moment reflected in time's mirror.
There's a small local pharmacy in the Wisconsin northwoods, which, I noticed a few years ago while strolling without purpose, was stocked with older cosmetics. It was one of those delightful discoveries not unlike walking into an antiques store and finding forgotten treasures from childhood. There confidently on the shelf sat DuBarry Foundation Lotion, waiting for customers long since forgotten.
I removed the cap gently, with reverence, and breathed deeply, closed my eyes, and was back at my grandmother's dressing table, fingering her vanity set, playing with her powderpuff, remembering her laughter.
Helen Blanche Marsh Matthews ~ October 7, 1903 - August 1, 1963
(photo credits: top, Moi Review; bottom, Beyond the Pale)