My grandmother and her Chanel N°5.

Even though I had chosen this month’s Scent Semantics word, I found it a challenge to write about it. Where to start? Where to begin? The path forward seemed unclear.

The obvious thing to do would be to write about my family. “She had so many bottles!” my grandfather said, pinching his fingers together to the size of the bottle of the pure perfume, the extrait, which was my grandmother’s preferred concentration of Chanel N°5. “No,” I covered his hands. “It’s okay,” I said. As much as it would have been nice to have my grandmother’s perfume to cherish, the thought of disturbing her drawers, with their contents organized by her hands, felt too traumatic.

Instead, I have her bottle of N°5 Eau de Cologne, which was conveniently sitting on top of a chest of drawers. Is it from the 80’s? The 90’s? It’s about two-thirds full. I never spray it or wear it and I never will (I have my own bottles of N° 5 to get through). It smells unmistakably like her though: soft hugs and generous laughs.

(Although the current versions of N°5 are unmistakably Chanel N°5, they don’t smell like what they used to. For those of you wondering what the now discontinued N°5 EdC smells like: imagine a scoop of lemon sherbet on a soft bed of white flowers, doused with ice-cold Champagne.)

My grandpa turned 99 this year, a fact that feels both monumental and underwhelming at the same time. I don’t think Grandpa ever thought that he would outlive my grandmother by so long. It’s been almost 20 years since her passing, but her presence remains everywhere. Her coats still hang in the closets, her clothes still sit folded in drawers. The house isn’t a time capsule though. Decay has already set in. I suppose that when the time comes, I will eventually find those bottles of N°5 as our family deconstructs his home to prepare the house for its eventual next life with a new family. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find a few places where mice have nested. I’m certain that we will also finally identify the source of other infestations that have plagued my Grandpa’s apartment these past few years. Until then, Grandpa is the guardian of my grandmother’s stuff.

So. Much. Stuff.

We all have too much stuff. As a New Yorker with an overstuffed apartment, I long to inhabit a void. Tabula rasa but make it real estate. At least my grandfather can take comfort that his family will “take care of things.” He knows that we will argue about who has to deal with the cabinets full of roach droppings before my uncle finally sucks it up and does it. He knows that we will carry garbage bag after garbage bag of moth-eaten things to the curb. He knows that we will debate who gets which family photos before someone in the younger generation (ie. me) ends the discussion by taking them, scanning them, and sending everyone a link to the new family photo album in the cloud that no one will use. I already know when I will cry the most: it won’t be at the funeral, it won’t be at the cemetery, it will be sitting on the floor of my grandparents’ home with dust sticking to my sweaty arms and face as my family sorts through what will stay and what will go, dismantling 100 years of existence.

Once, when Grandpa was in his spry early-90’s, he turned to me on the way to a doctor’s office and asked, “Who is going to take care of you???” “ROBOTS!!!” I remember shouting over traffic. Maybe he didn’t hear me, or maybe he did and just deemed my answer too ridiculous to acknowledge. It did make me wonder who was going to take care of me. The most logical answer for a childless person like myself is me.

I imagine myself in my dotage, maybe lucky enough to be with all my other childless friends in a large beach house in Mexico. I picture a charming place full of slip-resistant tile, handrails, and no stairs. A place to live out the last of your days once you’ve outlived your partners and your pets. Family, as we all know, does not always imply blood bonds. We don’t always have just one family either. Many of us have multiple ones which can be inherited or formed by our own choices.

Merriam-Webster gives the following as definitions for family:

  • [noun] the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children (also any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family)
  • [noun] spouse and children
  • [noun] a group of individuals living under one roof and usually under one head
  • [noun] a group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation
  • [noun] the staff of a high official
  • [noun] a group of things related by common characteristics
  • [noun] a group of related plants or animals forming a category ranking above a genus and below an order and usually comprising several to many genera
  • [noun] a set of curves or surfaces whose equations differ only in parameters
  • [noun] a unit of a crime syndicate (such as the Mafia) operating within a geographical area
  • [adjective] of or relating to a family
  • [adjective] designed or suitable for both children and adults

In regards to perfume, we talk about fragrance families or classifications that group fragrances together based on shared notes and accords. But what about our fragrant families? Communities (mostly online) that coalesce around a shared passion for perfume? I’ve been fortunate to have met some of my closest friends through the fragrance community, which continues to grow and expand as new people connect with each other through and outside of social media. I’ve been a part of the “frag comm” for long enough to be able to identify “waves”: the first wave of ‘fume bloggers (Hello Typepad!), MakeupAlley message board folks, Facebook groups, the second wave of ‘fume bloggers (WordPress welcomes you!), the Youtubers (shoutout to the great Katie Puckrik, who did it first and better than anyone since), Twitter, then Instagram, then (briefly) Snapchat, and now TikTok, where the action seems livelier than ever. Sometimes, these spaces overlapped. It wasn’t unusual to interact with the same people on different platforms differently. Each one became an incubator for hundreds of fragrant families discussing fragrance families like unfolding patterns in a kaleidoscope.

Last summer, we did a Perfume Playdate on the fragrances that we felt would stand the test of time. If I remember correctly, the initial thought behind the conversation was to predict which perfumes currently on the market would become icons as big as Chanel N°5, Shalimar, and the like, in the future. Inevitably, the talk turned to what fragrances would we leave behind and which fragrances would people remember us by. It’s easier to identify one if you have a signature fragrance like my grandmother did. It’s much harder if you don’t.

“Daisy had … a lot of perfume,” I imagine Ari intoning at my funeral. As to what to spray on me prior to embalming or cremation, I think my friends would have difficulty reaching a consensus. “Something delicious,” Olya would say. “Something weird,” would probably be Josie’s response. “I have no idea,” would likely be the most common reply. But maybe that is okay to have everyone remember you in their own way.

As you know by now, Scent Semantics is a monthly perfume blogger collaboration curated by Portia Turbo to bring together six writers from around the world to meditate on a single word, and then write about a fragrance(s) they’ve chosen to represent it.

I’m running behind, as usual. So behind. I have several months’ worth of Scent Semantics to catch up on, but I promise it will be done. Sometimes life and family (ha! see what I did there?) take precedence over the fun stuff. In any case, looking forward to reading everyone else’s takes on this month’s word.

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