Freelance editor Teresa Bruce enjoys sniffing out and writing stories ranging from spiritual to silly to sinister. In spare time (ha!) she gardens in her chemical-free Florida backyard that feeds more uninvited critters than people. She’s proudest of raising three dynamic daughters—and a pillow-stealing rescue dog. From experiences of young widowhood she shares “What to Say When Someone Dies” at TealAshes.com.
Last week I stalked a middle-aged man up and down the Publix aisles. I didn’t know him, and (I hope) he didn’t know me, but I hastened nose-first into his wake. He smelled delicious—better than the still-steaming bakery rolls at the entrance or the sizzling deli chicken at the back. I wanted to step into that scent, to ask him what it was called, to put my face near his and—inhale!
The roots of this most recent supermarket stalk-a-thon sprouted when I was young. Every Father’s Day and Christmas, Great-Aunt Ginny gave the men in our family a brand new bottle of Old Spice. It became the aroma of Granddaddy on his way to and from selling furniture and of Dad going to and—even better—coming from church. I’d choke at the stench of kinswomen’s hairspray, but Old Spice was the scent of security. It wafted from the most important men in my childhood.
I was barely an adult when I married in July—just after Father’s Day—and for the next five months my handsome groom smelled like himself. However, from the day he opened Aunt Ginny’s first Christmas present, he smelled more like my father than my husband. Thanks to her gifts, Old Spice became his default scent for the next twenty-plus years.
Sometimes we dallied with purchasing another aftershave. He seldom liked what I picked, and his selections made my hyper-sensitive nose sneeze—or gag so violently I’d run for the porcelain offering bowl faster than I’d once fled clouds of hairspray. Although I didn’t love Old Spice on my husband, it neither sent me sneezing nor retching, so it stayed.
Meanwhile, every now and then overdosed men’s aftershave in public places sent me gasping from the vicinity. On rarer occasions, strangers’ intoxicating fragrances entranced me. I’d inhale as if to fill my lungs with a week’s volume of air. It felt as if cartoon drawings of the aromas themselves beckoned and pulled me—by the nostrils—toward their wearers.
I’d sniff like a bloodhound in pursuit of these alluring scents and track unsuspecting gentlemen past rows of produce where ripened fruits had nothing on their appetizing trails. In retail stores I pursued their pleasant atmospheres from menswear through sporting goods. I stepped close and opened my mouth. I had a pre-rehearsed speech planned: “Excuse me, sir,” I’d say, “but will you please tell me the name of the cologne you’re wearing?” My next words would follow immediately, lest he think I, a married woman, was flirting. “I’d like to buy that for my husband.”
I never got past the “Excuse me” part of my intended queries. I chickened out, slinking away. “Next time,” I’d mutter, “Next time I’m asking!” But weeks flowed into months, and months into years. I so feared what these attractive-smelling strangers might think of me that I never did ask.
Then my husband’s choice of fragrance became moot.
His mind started slipping at the unripe age of 45, and his hygiene went with it. On good days I coaxed him into showering (sometimes with soap) and applying deodorant. When he remembered to shave, he stopped slapping on his Old Spice. During bad days he emitted an acrid, metallic sweat that neither I nor his doctors could account for. Unlike Lamoni’s loyal, faithful queen who refused to bury her husband when he lay in the stupor that others took for death, I could not honestly relay that “to me he doth not stink” (Alma 19:5).
After my husband’s sudden, unexpected death, I donated the nicer items from his closet to Goodwill and the Coalition for the Homeless. Into one box, I carefully tucked unopened packages from his bathroom shelf—five sealed bottles of Old Spice.
Because of his mental and emotional deterioration during the two years before his death, I’d fallen out of habitually telling him “everything” as I once had. Unlike most people grieving lost loved ones, I seldom found myself blundering into thoughts beginning with, “I’ve got to tell …” only to realize I couldn’t. However, for more than a year I cried in the grocery aisles whenever I caught myself reaching for “his” foods. I actively avoided menswear departments after picking up packages of socks or checking sizes on shirts I thought he might like.
I stopped noticing whether men’s fragrances attracted or repelled me—until the other day, when I caught that delicious yet inedible scent in my neighborhood grocery store. I followed the man down three aisles. This time, I thought, I’m asking the name of that fragrance! With Father’s Day cards and balloons everywhere, I thought I’d found the perfect gift. My hand rose from the cart handle to tap him on the shoulder.
Then I remembered. I thought, Why bother?
That I’d forgotten (even momentarily) was a good thing. That I hadn’t broken down (this time) was even better.
Home again, I went into the bathroom. I opened the mirror. From the bottom shelf, hidden behind a tall, accordion-folded sample packet of unscented facial cleanser, I pulled out my husband’s last opened bottle of Old Spice. I tugged out the stopper, inhaled, and then went about my day thinking, Next time, I’ll ask.
Have you found ways to stop fear of what others may think from preventing your enjoyment of life’s pleasures?