No. 10: Perfume Set

Artist: Unknown
Title: Perfume Set
Date: 1993
Culture: American
Provenance: Given to EAH by her aunt on her thirteenth birthday

When I turned thirteen—something as a younger child I always denied would ever happen, deeming all teenagers to be evil incarnate—I was living in a small town in Illinois. I was at a new school where I didn’t have many friends, I missed my friends and family from the neighboring town we had recently moved from, and I was a bit nerdy. Most kids my age were going to parties and hanging out at the skating rink and at the mall. I liked to bake and play the violin and watch classic movies and go antiquing with my mom and aunt. It wasn’t the most graceful entry into adolescence.

Try as I might, I couldn’t stop myself from becoming a teenager. I don’t remember how my thirteenth birthday was celebrated or any of the gifts I received, except for the adorable perfume set from my dear aunt, who was quite a bit older than my mom but still incredibly cool—she loved fashion and movies and Tex-Mex and bungalows and cats and was just really fun and funny. The perfume set was fun and wonderful just like her. It was vaguely vintage looking, made of frosted pink glass with three bottles on a heart-shaped tray, two of the bottles bearing matching heart-shaped stoppers. The pièce de résistance was the atomizer, one of those cool things I’d always seen the glamorous starlets using in the old movies I watched. The bottle with the glass stopper specifically reminded me of the scene in American in Paris where Gene Kelly tracks down Leslie Caron in the parfumerie where she works and inserts himself into Caron’s attempt to sell perfume to an older American woman. Ever a child of the past, I was thrilled with this gift, which was not only delightfully girly but also seemed somehow magical in its connection to a past world—a past version of femininity.

The set sat on a wicker dressing table in my bedroom for a time. The squat, lidded jar held some potpourri. I filled the bottle with the atomizer with a perfume that smelled musky and old lady-ish; it’s not the light girlish scent you might think a thirteen-year-old would select. I was still figuring things out, of course. From silly things like fashion to profounder things like the kind of person I wanted to become. I think that musky perfume is a nice symbol of how much trial and error that process can require.

Some time in high school I lost track of the perfume set. No doubt it started to seem a bit too young and sweet for the cool and confident teenager I had become. But still there was something magical and exciting encapsulated in the set that I remembered for years to come, even after the set had disappeared. And then last summer, when I was pregnant with my very own girly, I found a box of old family stuff that included the set. It was dusty and a little chipped in a couple of spots. The pink mesh wrapped around the hose to the atomizer was coming away from the bottle a bit. But otherwise it was just as it was the last time I’d seen it. And it even still had that musky perfume in the bottle.

When I saw the set, I was reminded of what it was like to be thirteen. To be facing the mixture of excitement and dread at the prospect of “becoming a woman.” To celebrate and delight in girlishness and the beautiful film icons this object recalled for me.

So I decided to make this a part of my daughter’s nursery, even though she’s of course far too young for a perfume set. It sits on a dresser next to where I change her diaper, and she constantly twists her body around, mid-diaper change, to lift off one of the heart-shaped lids and put it in her mouth and try to put it back on the jar. I like that it sits there, a little celebration of femininity and her future and my past and, I suppose, of our future together as well.

The set reminds me of my aunt too, and the nerdy adolescent I once was, tagging along with her and my mother to brunches and antique shops, listening to classical music with them and watching Rita Hayworth and Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Mansfield and Donna Reed and the endless list of gorgeous classic film icons work their charms on the world at large.

It’s as though the perfume bottles hold a magic elixir, rather than perfume, that conjures up what it means to be a girl, in only the most positive and happy ways, with none of the negative baggage of sexism et al.

6 thoughts on “No. 10: Perfume Set

  1. I’m sure I was at your birthday party, but for some reason I don’t remember this set–but love your memories, Ellen, and your writing always just touches my heart. I never thought of you as nerdy–I always thought of you as worldly because you had traveled so much–even on your own. But, oh, how I remember all the antique shopping trips you, your Mom, and Aunt Judy went on and the old movies watched by the hours and David, Debbie, Diana, and John and Grandpa Frank and us, and all the parties we had, the meals together, that funny woman with the odd hair who cooked for you & Grandpa for a while (when my hair gets big around my face, I’m always afraid I look like her!). I thought you were so smart and we got to see you play the violin, and gradually you found new fun friends. I’m so happy you have a daughter of your own (and a son, too!). They are both benefiting from you in so many ways and Kevin, too. Thank you for your beautiful posts and wonderful memories.

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    1. Thank you so much for your nice words, Sandee! It’s funny how this time feels both so long ago and just the blink of an eye at the same time. I really miss those days when we were all living near to one another and got to spend a lot of time together. I don’t think I realized how lucky I was to have such a wonderful network of family! Miss you and Uncle Dode and hope you had a great Thanksgiving! xoxo.

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      1. Oh, didn’t we have so much fun? All the times at Southside, watching the Academy Awards and Dode making all the jokes and David, too. And, all the dinners at each other’s homes and so many times at Grandpa’s. I am sitting here grinning just thinking about Grandpa. You and he were SO close. He was close with all of you girls, but you lived with him and that brought you even closer. Hit a dog!
        (No one will know what that means!) So happy you got to go to Oslo. It must have been a wonderland and so good for the kids to get together again. Yes, we miss all of you so much, too.

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