Can poor eyesight be compensated by a sharp sense of smell? Our guest writer Jillie shares her story of struggling with poor vision and falling in love with perfume.
Sometimes I believe that when I was born the Bad Fairy cursed me with bad sight, while the Good Fairy gave me a keen nose. I know that it sounds fanciful, but I am convinced that my poor vision is compensated for by a sharp sense of smell. Perhaps, if I hadn’t suffered with severe myopia, I may never have developed into the scent obsessive that I am now.
I was nine when I realized that I couldn’t see as well as other children, but by then my nose had already been working as hard as Samantha’s in Bewitched. As a toddler, it would lead me around the garden and I would plunge into banks of honey-scented alyssum, drifts of lavender and into the lush red roses climbing up the wall.
Good smells were usually associated with food in my early years , especially my mum’s apple and blackberry pie and my dad’s roast dinners. Christmas would be a feast of aromas: the sunny citrus tang of tangerine peel (a fruit we only saw in the holiday season), the creaminess of chocolate buttons, the licorice darkness of the Christmas pudding, the delicate bitterness of marzipan, the vanilla sweetness of my grand-dad’s pipe tobacco and the boozy tang of port and whisky, which were only ever drunk on special occasions. Add a note of fir tree, and you have my ultimate festive perfume. (I’ll skip the ever present funk of cigarette smoke, one of my least favorite smells.)
An aroma that conjures up my early childhood is Johnson’s Baby Powder, because my grandmother wore it. If my parents went away, she would come to look after my sister and me. She would have her bath, which was her special treat as she only had a tin tub at home, using the soap and powder, and I would snuggle up to her afterwards and be comforted by that soft powdery fragrance. She would tell me stories of her childhood. I remember most vividly the one in which she wore her only good boots in the rain and put them in the oven to dry, only to discover them shriveled beyond repair.
I began appreciating actual perfume at a tender age, mostly because I refused to let anyone know that I couldn’t see. For some reason I felt ashamed of this “weakness”. My joy was not in normal childhood activities (I couldn’t see the ball!) or dolls but in collecting little bottles of cheap perfume from Woolworth’s, bought with my pocket money and kept in a shoe box. When I got home from school I would sniff each one and imagine fantasy worlds of my own.
Not a day went by that I didn’t notice perfume around me. My grand-aunt’s dressing-table was a treasure trove—graceful rows of bottles glittering in the sunlight. When my parents went out in the evening my mother would be wearing one of the dresses she had made herself, and of course, a dab of perfume. I remember one slinky gold sheath in which she looked like a brunette Marilyn Monroe. Swathed in her mink coat, she’d lean over to kiss me goodnight, and I could smell the rose in her lipstick, the violet of her face powder and her perfume. Usually, it was Chanel No. 5 but sometimes Ecusson, another glamorous fragrance.
After I left primary school, I attended an old grammar school where beeswax on the wooden paneling permeated the air with honey and perfume. It was a girls’ school, and the girls were wearing loads of fragrance. If I got a whiff of a scent I liked on another girl, I had no hesitation in asking her what it was and then added it to my slowly growing wishlist. In this manner, I found Helena Rubinstein’s Apple Blossom, all pink, frilly innocence, and then developed a taste for her more grown-up, powdery sister, Heaven Scent.
When I was 12, I had to admit I couldn’t see as well as others, Even though I was in the front row in class, the blackboard was just a blur, and at last, I got (very unflattering) glasses. But although my sight improved, I did not lose my love of smells, and my interest in perfume grew stronger. I wore Max Factor’s sunny Jonquil, Coty’s rose-laden L’Aimant, raunchy Imprevu, and romantic Masumi.
As I got older, my father gave me Lancôme Magie for Christmas, and its jasmine and amber trail followed me around for years. Guerlain’s Chant d’Arômes, Goya’s Aqua Manda, and Chanel No. 5 became my other new discoveries, and today, I’d be hard-pressed to list everything I love. Although sometimes I wish for perfect 20/20 eyesight, my scented journey has been so exciting that I don’t regret trading senses and I thank the Good Fairy for her gift.