My mother grew up one of six kids in Aylmer, Que., in a white clapboard house that her parents built. She ambled along the railway tracks, jostled for position in front of the black-and-white TV and saved up for 10-cent chocolate bars. The extravagance of perfume wasn’t part of her world. Roses, however, were the defining scent of her childhood. My grandmother, a teacher who had run for office in her native England, wore hand cream scented with roses, and in the backyard, she and my mother planted rows of rose bushes. Gardening was a way for my mom, a shy kid in a busy house, to spend time with her favourite person, side-by-side in the sun, hands working in the damp earth. The panoply of yellow, pink and red acted as silent witnesses to shouts of laughter and rough-and-tumble games of tag; later, arranged in a pitcher on the kitchen counter, they bloomed into focus, a vivid display of beauty among all that life.
The rose is the heart of Chanel No. 5, my mother’s favourite fragrance. The notes of jasmine, sandalwood and ylang-ylang are balanced by mayotte, roses that are harvested in Grasse, France, during a three-week period in May. A century ago, when famed perfumer Ernest Beaux created the scent, the fragrances of the day were single-flower affairs, nothing like the abstract blend he dreamed up when challenged by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel to create a juice that would make its wearer “smell like a woman, not like a rose.” Legend has it that when Beaux placed the fragrance samples before Mademoiselle Chanel, she chose the fifth one. Five had been an important number for her since childhood, and she showed her fashion collections on the fifth day of May, the fifth month of the year. It seemed like serendipity.
Chanel No. 5 became a sensation. When Paris was liberated in 1945, Allied soldiers lined up for hours to buy it and bring it home. In 1952, the year my mother was born, Marilyn Monroe famously told a reporter it was all she wore to bed. In 1985, Andy Warhol silkscreened the bottle, cementing its icon status. No. 5 was part of the air, adrift in the cultural consciousness as an unimpeachable symbol of glamour and mystery.
My mother, quiet, beautiful, in love with nature and books, was alert to its seductive promise. Her first bottle of No. 5 was a knock-off, purchased in Paris on the street, decades after she had left the white clapboard house. My younger sister and I were with her, at the foot of Sacré Coeur, carrying fabric store bags filled with lovely Chanel-like magenta tweed, which we planned to make into jackets. The man, with his clanking bag of bottles, was somehow convincing. The illusion evaporated as quickly as he did when we opened the bottles to discover water. For years afterward, my mother regretted what she called her naïvete, but the sweetness of her belief is what lingers for me. Only recently did I realize that she bought those bottles for me and my sister, not for herself. The juice may have been fake, but the promise was real.
In the years since, bottles of the real No. 5 have become a fixture on my mother’s vanity. She loves the fragrance with fervour. When I smell it out in the world, on a stranger, I’m overcome by a swell of emotion, a rush of interconnected memories that surface, then fade like the dying notes of perfume. I feel it then, the urgency to talk to my mother to make sure I have it right (was it rose hand cream, actually, or lavender?). She is as vivid to me as the bouquet of roses on my own kitchen counter, but like any child with a good mother, I fear the day that the edges blur and the petals drop. My mother’s favourite fragrance contains ylang-ylang harvested from Madagascar, halfway around the world, and those roses from Grasse, but to me, what it really smells like is love.
Chanel No. 5 Eau de Parfum, $189 (100 ml), thebay.com SHOP HERE
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Laura deCarufel is the editor-in-chief of The Kit, based in Toronto. She writes about women and style. Reach her on email at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @Laura_deCarufel