Scents of the Past

by Debbie Wilson

An unexpected Christmas present sent me whirling back in time.  I unwrapped the cheerful package covered with vintage 60’s style Santa Claus faces.  I gasped with delight when I saw the familiar green bottle in the classic box. I carefully sprayed a bit of my mother’s favorite perfume, Emeraude, on my wrists. Suddenly I was eight years old again. The unmistakable essence of my mother’s body was wrapping me in love and comfort. My skinned knees, my broken heart, my fevered brow – all soothed with one whiff of the beloved scent of my mother.  The years between the eight-year-old me and the 55-year-old me disappeared. For a few precious moments, the ever-present sense of loss left me as I inhaled the fragrance. 


I smiled as I remembered how much she loved the color green.  Perhaps that is what initially attracted her to Emeraude. She had a green checked outfit that was her favorite.  It was the late 60’s so she had mod scarf to wear with it of course. As I inhaled another beautiful whiff on Christmas morning I flashed back to the long hallway of my elementary school. I was anxiously waiting for my mommy to pick me up because I was sick. I looked down the hall and saw the most beautiful sight ever. My mother was walking towards me in the stylish green outfit.  I could smell her perfume wafting towards me. I ran towards her as my teacher instructed me to stay put. My mother’s outstretched arms reached for me and enveloped me as I buried my head in her scented bosom. She swept my hair out of my face and felt my feverish forehead and said, “Come on Debbie, let’s go home and I will make you some cinnamon toast.” After I was tucked into bed with a cool cloth resting on my head, I wrapped myself in my favorite blanket. I had secretly sprayed it with mommy’s perfume so I would have the scent of her close every night.

Mother and daughter.

Mother and daughter.

As our family matured and moved away my mother could afford more expensive perfumes. When I pass a perfume counter with those scents I flash back to special visions of my mother as well. Channel #5 was for an anniversary or date night with my Dad. Red was for sassy Mom as she became an outspoken activist for women and minority rights in our community. Along with the commercially made scents, the natural scents belonging to my mother and father yielded treasured memories too. My parents, like everyone else, had unique scents that connected me with powerful memories and emotions. 

My father passed away only four months before my mother. After 61 years of marriage, they couldn’t be apart for long. When he died well-meaning family members laundered his things at the home they had shared since 1953.  Out of the fresh laundry, I grabbed his favorite shirt and buried my face in the collar hoping I could conjure up his scent. To my indescribable relief, the collar still smelled like my father! I laughed out loud as I flashed back to being nine years old and helping Mom with the laundry. She declared that “ring around the collar” was an ongoing problem and complained about how the claims by the laundry product advertising were not true. I wanted to share the scent of the shirt with my mother.  I took the shirt to see if Mom could smell Dad in the collar as well. She looked up at me with a big smile through her tears and said, “I’m so glad his ring around the collar couldn’t be washed out.”  When I inhaled Dad’s earthy, sweet, sweaty smell I could feel his big hands and strong arms hoisting me on his shoulders for a jaunt around the yard. My mind and heart flashed back to a special time with my father as an adult.  I could feel him as he hugged me tight as I was preparing to leave for my great California adventure. After checking the oil in my car he gave me a long hug and said sternly, “Don’t forget to have the oil checked on a regular basis or you will burn up the motor.” The scented essence of my dad engulfed me with feelings of safety, security and unconditional love. Oddly enough, even after five years the scent in the collar still lingers. The shirt stays carefully wrapped in a plastic bag. I take it out when I want to feel the power of my father’s love and remember how good it was when he was alive and a daily part of my life. 

Mom and dad.

Mom and dad.

When my mother passed away her clothes were laundered by the nursing home where she lived for a few years before her death.  I was disappointed because I was desperate to hold on.  In that moment I felt that as long as I could retrieve her scent she wouldn’t really be gone.  Maybe that is why the gift of Emeraude was so meaningful to me during the season of Christmas magic– it recaptured a part of Mom’s living years that represented some of the happiest times in our lives. 

As I brought myself back to the present time, I placed the beloved green bottle on my grown-up dresser. I thought about the great gift that I had received. With the tip of my finger and the spray of the beautiful green mist, I could hop on the nostalgia train to visit the people and places that I thought were lost forever. 


Debbie Wilson works with the Alabama Tourism Department promoting Alabama music and working with the 43 Travel Counselors at the Welcome Centers around the state. She worked for 20 years in Florence, AL as the Executive Director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. She works with the international community through the Americana Music Triangle to promote southern music to the world. She is passionate about marketing travel as an essential part of a happy life. She is also the author of "Brushing Away the Tears," the true story of her brother's battle with HIV/AIDS.


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