The Scents of Memories

I have two empty perfume bottles on my dresser, visual reminders of  the women to whom they belonged. But it is when I open each bottle and release the scent, faint but still present, that my memories of these women come to life.

Like a genie released from its bottle, there is a bit of magic to this process.  Why do smells have the power to release forgotten memories and bring clarity to hazy ones? There are scientific explanations, of course-- the olfactory bulb is part of the brain's limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it has been referred to as the ‘emotional brain.’ I find this fascinating, but I do not believe it excludes the possibility of a bit of magic.

The first bottle, Chanel No. 5, was given to me by my mother after her mother died more than 30 years ago. When the scent evaporated, I bought the perfume for myself and added a few drops to the bottle that had been hers. This grandmother was known as ‘Nana.’ She lived with my family for half of each year from the time I was three. (My grandfather died that year at age 50.) She lived with my mother’s sister for the other half of the year. I have many memories of my sisters and me pleading with her not to leave us as her departure loomed near. 

Nana wore only dresses, never pants or what she would have called slacks, even when she exercised with Jack LaLanne. She and I shared a passion for morning coffee and historical fiction. She never learned to drive, but once I did I would take her to the library and we’d return home with stacks of books. She could easily get through a book a day, an accomplishment I’ve never mastered. My Nana was my second mother. She died when I was twenty. It is a great sadness to me that my daughters never knew her.

Here's a bit of information about her scent. . .

Chanel N°5 has top notes composed of aldehydes, bergamot, lemon, neroli and ylang-ylang; middle notes are heart of jasmine, rose, lily of the valley and iris; the base is created of vetiver, sandalwood, vanilla, amber and patchouli. Although some reviewers call the fragrance bold, I have never found it so. At first it smells a bit soapy or powdery, but then the floral notes emerge before the base notes soften the scent into something I have always found elegant, yet sensuous.

The second (nearly) empty perfume bottle, Galore, I took from my grandmother’s home following her funeral. My Grandma was my father’s mother. She lived long enough to know my daughters as young teens. After my grandfather died—around the same time my Nana passed- Grandma stayed in her home in Pennsylvania. We saw her only two or three times a year. My father’s brother and his wife would drive in with Grandma each summer and each Thanksgiving. While my Nana was quiet and serious, my Grandma was outgoing and funny. She loved fairy tales, poetry, the comics and the classics. She worked at her church and drove her friends, all older than she, to activities until my father and uncle had to take her keys away.

About her scent. . .

Galore, originally by Germaine Monteil is, like Chanel N°5, a floral-aldehyde. Galore was launched in 1964 (and I wonder what Grandma wore before then). Its top notes are aldehydes, spices, mandarin orange and bergamot; middle notes are jasmine, ylang-ylang, lily-of-the-valley, rose and narcissus; base notes are amber, vanilla, vetiver and incense. Interestingly, more than one reviewer has compared Galore to—you guessed it-- Chanel N°5. To me, Galore could be Chanel N°5’s younger, more outgoing sister. There are enough common ingredients to link the two, but the differences are obvious.

While I have known many women who wore Chanel N°5, it never seems to smell the same on any one. On the other hand, I’ve known only one other woman who wore Galore, and I recognized it immediately. This makes me realize while the smell of Galore left in the bottle is probably very similar to how it smelled on Grandma, the smell of Chanel N°5 is not. So perhaps the magic is less in the bottle after all and more in the brain. At that somehow makes perfect 'scents' to me. 


Josephine and Harry Kensinger (left) and Helen and Paul Schuchart (right), my grandparents.

Josephine and Harry Kensinger (left) and Helen and Paul Schuchart (right), my grandparents.