Chanel No. 5

The bathroom on the main floor of the house I grew up in was not a place you lingered. Because outside the door, someone inevitably was waiting, tapping their foot, rapping impatiently on the door, rattling the knob, then threatening to come in. With up to 13 people eating, arguing, watching television, talking on the phone, fighting, and all manner of sneaky plans being hatched in the hallway, no peace could be had in that main floor bathroom. But clearly I had something inside me that fortified my small uniquely feminine soul –relative to the male population of my home–long enough to more than linger, but camp out in that bathroom. During Christmas dinner.

Now, Christmas dinner at our house was an event that most people would assume was a mass gathering of some kind of tribe that has lost their hearing and had living tape worms inside them so no one noticed for quite a while that I was in the bathroom and not in fact returning to the dinner table. I suppose someone finally succumbed to the cherry fizz pop and found they couldn’t get me out of there. I remember people calling to me through the door. I also remember someone cutting the glass out of the top of the door and coming through. Clearly, I had boundaries that weren’t understood by others in my tribe.

Undeterred by my rescue and subsequent punishment, I continued to lock the door of the bathroom so that I could, without admonishment from a brother about ‘snooping’, go to the tiny little wooden cupboard where on two tiny little squares of shelf lived my mother’s entire beauty regime: 1 bottle of Chanel No. 5. 1 bottle of Oil of Olay.

This was the one space where male ended, however briefly, and female emerged in a 4 inch square of heaven. I would cradle that Chanel bottle in my hands, rolling it over and over, reading the tiny print on the back, Paris, Paris, Paris, this came from Paris! And the elegant, stark font in black, so simple, so perfect, so otherworldly.

Bang, bang, bang on the door. I jump out of my skin. How long had I been in there?

When kicked out the bathroom I would head right across the hall to my mom’s closet where there were two little drawers inside the closet at the very top full of jewelry and scarves. Most of them I realized were appropriate for the CWA–Catholic Women’s League–but there was one item I knew for sure made me sing ‘One of these things is not like the other’. It was a scarf bigger than me. I could wrap it around me sarong-like and imagine myself in a limousine nodding ever so slightly to the driver to go. The borders were a rich red and on the inside was the most fairytale collection of autumn leaves and acorns twisted together to create a vision of an Austrian fall festival. In the corner, in curling, graceful letters read: Christian Dior.

I made up a story that my father was given the scarf in Paris during the war and when he met my mother at a dance gave it to her as he had fallen in love the moment she handed him her dance card. As I grew up, I sometimes forgot this was not remotely how the story went (my father was shot down in Italy, nowhere near Paris, perfume, or designers).

When I was an adult I took the scarf to a dry cleaner and he gave it back to me in shredded tatters. I stood and cried. Of course he wouldn’t know about the shelf, or the closet, or the dream world that I lived in that had no resemblance to the actual world I inhabited. How could he know that he’d destroyed my talisman? While some may say fashion is superficial, I suspect they’re also people who don’t like theatre or opera or great art. For me, an enduring comfort in my life is in knowing Chanel No. 5 will never go out of style and that my mother, with her 9 sons, and sensible church shoes, clearly knew this as well.


Filed under Memoir

3 responses to “Chanel No. 5

  1. situationniste

    Nice post, thank you. I don’t wear perfume very often, but when I do, it’s always Chanel no. 5. I remember similar childhood experiences of coveting my Grandma’s Chanel no. 5 and poring over her old Vogues. You’re right – there is comfort in knowing that what was glamourous for her is glamourous for me too.


    The are only a few women that have the class and elegance to apply Chanel No.5 .
    And there are a lot less men that have the class and elegance to gift Chanel No.5 only to them.

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