Father’s Day Non-Scents

June 28, 2014
Teresa with her late husband and his last bottle of after shave.

Teresa with her late husband and his last bottle of after shave.

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?

14 Comments

  1. Andrea R.

    June 28, 2014

    Teresa,
    This is beautiful. I’ve read research that the sense of smell is connected to the most primitive part of our brain and that smells can evoke deep emotions in this. It’s no surprise to me that Old Spice aftershave has this effect on you. Thank you for sharing.

    • Teresa Bruce

      June 28, 2014

      Andrea, your comment reminded me that I’ve kept one of my grandmother’s old powder compacts. Once in a while I open it and still smell her scent, even after 30+ years. (And no, I don’t actually use it!)

  2. Amira

    June 28, 2014

    Teresa, thank you. I loved this.

    I don’t think I could stop a random stranger to ask them about their cologne, but I do go where I want and explore new places even when people tell me its time to settle down. My lifestyle has gotten disapproval from family and friends, but I’ve enjoyed so many things because of it.

    • Teresa Bruce

      June 29, 2014

      Amira, I’ve now worked up the courage to ask other women about their scents when I find one I might like for myself. I’ve been surprised that their first reactions are usually something like, “Oh, no! Is it too strong?” Once I reassure them it’s not, that I can only smell it because my nose is super-sensitive (and that if it had been that strong I wouldn’t have gotten close enough to ask), they either proudly share the name of the product or hem and haw they can’t remember what it’s called.

      (Still haven’t asked a man, though!)

      I admire your enjoyment and exploration of new things and places. I’m working to look up and out as I make plans for my future directions.

  3. Kellie aka Selwyn

    June 29, 2014

    This post reminded me of how my Grandmother smelled of Oil of Olay, my favourite great-uncle of Brut 33, and how woodsmoke on cold winter mornings reminds me of my youth in the mountains.

    I, too, have followed strangers around smelling their cologne. I make no apologies for it and even – when busted – just give them a big smile and say “I have to say, you smell AMAZING!”

    To be able to smell is a gift, and I love indulging it. Thank you for the evocative post.

    • Teresa Bruce

      June 29, 2014

      Kellie, thank you for sharing your scent memories–and for making me feel less like a solitary scent-stalker! 🙂

  4. Melissa Y

    June 29, 2014

    Teresa, thank you for sharing such a lovely, layered story. I’m so sorry about your husband.

    I remember one time walking by a cologne counter and smelling a mens’ cologne they had on display. It literally sent a shock down my spine, it smelled so good. It was not a scent I associated with anyone–just purely appealing in its own right. I could never get my husband to wear it, and it is no longer made. Love the memory, though.

    • Teresa Bruce

      June 29, 2014

      Thank you, Melissa. I’m glad to have triggered that memory, and I hope one day you will find a spine-shocking scent your husband will enjoy wearing for you.

  5. Cheri

    June 30, 2014

    Andrea, I’ve read the same thing, and also that smell is the sense most closely connected to memory. The smell of falafel cooking brings me straight back to Israel study abroad.

    Teresa, I miss out on many things by being cautious and reserved, but barefoot running is one thing I keep doing and even almost enjoy the looks and comments. Ditching the shoes makes me feel like a kid again.

  6. Tay

    July 1, 2014

    The smell of my 2nd grade teacher’s perfume is so comforting. Somehow it permeated every corner of the school campus, so the whole of my elementary education comes back to me when I randomly come across it again. She was such a kind, generous woman, so smelling that scent brings me peace. I often wonder what is was and who made it.

    I am fearful of making friends. It stems from anxiety from some stupid abandonment issues – it seems like as soon as I make friends with somebody, they move. Anyway, I think the Lord was tired of me feeling lonely and I was put in as an RS counselor. So I made myself make friends. And yes, they moved soon after, and my heart is still tender from it happening again, but I’m learning that I don’t have to hide my heart. I’m learning that friends who live away from me are still friends. I am glad to not let my fears get in the way of something as great as a friendship.

  7. Shelah

    July 1, 2014

    My great-grandmother used to wear a perfume that came in a tall, skinny pink bottle. I’m not sure I ever knew the name, but when I was a little girl, I would go into her bathroom and spray it on my wrists before I left my house so I could go home smelling like her. Today, I was walking the halls of Primary Children’s, and a young woman passed by me, and I smelled that smell. I did a double-take. My grandmother would be 109 now, so I wonder what kind of scent would have been equally appropriate for a little old lady and a girl. Whatever it’s called, it certainly took me back today.

    • Teresa Bruce

      July 1, 2014

      Shelah, how wonderful to encounter such a multi-generational fragrance! I wonder if it’s similarly packaged now. Thanks for sharing your double-take.

  8. Teresa Bruce

    July 1, 2014

    Cheri, I applaud your joyful barefoot running–even though the very idea makes my aching arches and sensitive soles cringe! (I have a good friend who started running marathons much “later” in life than most runners, and although she’s worn shoes for the more than 200 she’s completed, she proudly showed me where she’d cut away portions of her shoes to increase her comfort.)

    Tay, thank you for sharing the sweetness of your 2nd-grade teacher (and her scent). If you encounter it again and learn what it was, I’d love to know which fragrance returns you to such memories of kindness, generosity, and peace!

    Isn’t it interesting you accepted a calling that offered you the dual-edged opportunity to reopen your heart to new friendships despite your fears? I’ve felt similar losses as physical distance divided me from those I’ve loved, and I’m with you–that sense of abandonment hurts. I’m grateful technology now makes it easier to truly keep in touch and share heartfelt friendships even from afar.

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