Scentiment

Thanks to the miracle of antibiotics (which lasts for ten days, instead of eight), I’m my old, energetic self again and happy to get back to writing.  Sandra Tsing Loh gave me the perfect opening to begin a conversation on this bog about what an aunt of mine used to darkly refer to as “The Changes.”

But seriously, it’s Christmas Eve.  Does anybody really want to read or write about menopause?  I think not.

Instead I want to write in praise of sweet-smelling women.

When I was a little girl, my mother and all of the capable, well put-together women I knew each had her own distinctive scent. If you know anything about the alchemy of perfume, you’re aware that the same perfume mixes with an individual’s body chemistry to produce a unique aroma.

At holiday time and at other family gatherings, I loved breathing in the symphony of scent that was produced by a roomful of grandmothers and mothers and aunts and great-aunts. Greeting them at the door, gathering their coats and my great-grandmother’s fur stole, I’d give myself over to the mixture of scents that was my heritage, as the women of my family bustled around the kitchen to make things special.

Friends’ mothers and grandmothers had their own scent, just as their families had their own traditions.  If you complimented a women on her perfume, she’d proudly name her signature fragrance — Joy, Fracas, Diorissimo and, of course, Chanel Number 5.

My mother went through perfume phases — moving on from Jackie Kennedy-inspired French traditional elegance to freer pheromones.  Remember Charlie?  You could track the changes in social mores from the 1950s to the 1980s by the scents she wore.

These days there is less of a divide between girls and women.  I still dress pretty much the way I did when I was sixteen, in jeans and clogs and comfy sweaters.  So do most of my friends. Our kids call most of us by our first names.

So it makes me happy when my daughters identify me with my scent (these days it’s Euphoria by Calvin Klein, though I miss my more exotic past, which was accented with Samsara by Guerlain).

I hope it instills in them the same sense of trust and belonging that I so loved as a girl.

The other day we were in the mall and found ourselves in the perfume section at Nordstrom.  Though so many of the elegant touches I remember as a girl, like after-dinner mints, have faded away, you can still get perfume samples at Nordstrom.

Daughter #2 tried Chanel Number 5 and I explained its historical and cultural significance.  Then she pranced over to a display table with more contemporary scents and sprayed them on over the Chanel.

I cringed momentarily at the aromatic collision and then smiled, thinking of the joy that awaits her and her sister as they experiment with the scents that will accent their lives.

We drove home in a car that reeked with what I referred to as Katy Swift Bieber as the girls clutched their perfume samples.

I wish perfume was not just another commodity in the branding of a superstar.

Once in a while I encounter a woman who smells so good I feel compelled to  compliment her.  And once in a while someone asks me a question you don’t hear very much these days:  “What are you wearing?” and they are not wondering about my clothes.  My step mother-in-law (happy birthday ESMIL) is one of those sweet smelling women.  When she comes to visit, she unpacks her mini perfume containers and arrays them in the guest bathroom.  Her bathroom at home is similarly arrayed with beautiful glass vials. I hope she knows how happy this makes me.

There are women, such as Jane GrossDorie Greenspan, Jane Brody and Lisa Belkin, who I classify as “sweet-smelling women.”  I still have so much to learn from them.

My mother and grandmother are no longer alive to share holidays and traditions with.  Every year we make latkes to honor my grandmother and keep alive one small piece of my heritage, that can be passed on to my daughters.

And every day I wear perfume, partly for me, and partly for them, so that its scent is imprinted in their memories.

May you enjoy the sweet-smelling women in your lives during this holiday season.   If you’re so inclined, ask them about “The Changes” they’ve experienced.  And then let’s talk about it in the new year.

Happy Holidays.

The Bitch Is Back – The Atlantic

I stumbled upon this today when I was feeling blue and overwhelmed by all the holiday stuff.

It’s one of the funniest and best descriptions of perimenopause and menopause I’ve seen.  It’s worth reading if you are a “women of a certain age” or someone who loves one.

Thank you, Sandra Tsing Loh.

The Bitch Is Back – The Atlantic.

Food for Thought

Thanks to everyone who sent me get well wishes.  As it turns out, my illness was usurped by the needs of my family.  Jeff was diagnosed with pneumonia, there has been an outbreak of pneumonia in daughter #2′s school and though she doesn’t have it, she has had a cough she can’t shake, which necessitated several trips to the doctor.  Daughter #1 had to weather the slings and arrows of growing up this week and our rat-catching cat Cheeto awoke with one eye glued shut and a pitiful look in his other eye.   What choice did I have but to get better and fast?

In our family, this is known as “gazumping” ( taken from a mercenary British real estate practice but, as Lemony Snicket would say, a word which here means trumping someone else’s misfortune with more dire circumstances of your own).   As my friend and fellow mother Lauren ruefully stated, “You get three hours to be sick before everyone else needs to be taken care of.”

Ain't it the truth

So it’s only now that I’ve had a chance to compose that serious post-holiday entry I promised.

The people we shared our Thanksgiving dinner with this year ranged in age from two to 89. This is unusual for us and it offered the opportunity to consider life from a variety of perspectives.

As two year-olds do, ours looked upon everything with fresh eyes, brightening the most mundane of tasks with his enthusiasm. In the weeks since he’s been gone, as I shamble downstairs in the wee hours to make the morning coffee, I can hear the faint echo of his sweet voice counting the coffee scoops with me in English and in French. It keeps me going until the caffeine kicks in.

"Un, deux, trois, quatre...."

The 89 year-old is revisiting great literary works and told me that during a recent bout of insomnia, she deconstructed a T.S. Eliot poem.  I hope that when my life is no longer ruled by “To Do” lists, I will use my inadvertent waking hours as wisely.

And the 20 year-old college student, so sure of everything, reminded me of those heady days of discovery – foreign film, jazz, philosophy — and above all, certainty in the face of uncertainty.  Even if you had no idea what life held for you post-graduation, you were sure  that you were going to make your mark on the world in a way that your parents never had.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving, we attended the memorial service for our friend Kim. Though, like any human being, he lived a full, rich, yet sometimes flawed life, much of the focus and many of the comments at the service dealt with his later years, when he served as a human rights advocate and a teacher, and especially the past four years following a debilitating stroke, when he served as an inspiration to everyone who knew him.

My favorite remarks at the service were made by Kim’s brother-in-law Kevin, who met Kim as a young man often at odds with the father whose namesake he was, and with whom he maintained a 40+ year- relationship.  Kevin read excerpts from the eulogies both he and Kim had made at Kim, Sr.’s funeral.  By then Kim, Jr. had made peace of sorts with his father.  It was interesting, Kevin told us, how many of the qualities he and Kim had admired in the father could also be attributed to the son. Thanks to Kevin’s remarks, I got a glimpse of the full measure of our friend as he developed over a lifetime.

The morning after the service, Jeff told me he had had trouble sleeping.  In what I now characterize as our “quiet desperation” conversation, he said that when he considered the impact Kim had had on the world, he worried about his own contributions or lack thereof.

For here we are at 50 – not two, or 20 or 89. We have mouths to feed, to-do lists to work through and events, both fortunate and unfortunate, to contend with. Though we, as Voltaire suggested, strive to tend our own gardens with care, raising responsible citizens, making soup for sick friends, volunteering at schools, coaching soccer teams and occasionally donating money for tsunami relief and holiday food banks, during those inadvertent waking hours, we may wonder if our contributions are enough and whether we  feel fulfilled by the choices we have made in our lives. No matter how pressing our own needs, there is always someone who can gazump us with far more urgent problems.  There may also be lingering regrets about roads not taken.

A 900-word blog is not the place to provide answers to the big questions of the human condition, which philosophers and religions have grappled with since time immemorial.  But it can be a venue for discussion, especially now, during holiday and resolution season, when many of us strive to be our best selves.

For those of you approaching, at or past mid-life (however you choose to define it), I’d like to know your thoughts on this.  How have you reconciled your life choices? Do you have plans for your senior years that involve “giving back” in some way? Or will that be the time when you finally get to sing your song?

Forgive me if this seems irreverent, but I have a recipe that I think complements this train of thought .

I often feel like my best, most virtuous self when I eat kale.  Given the preponderance of kale recipes I’ve seen lately, I sense I am not alone. This one comes from Food 52.  It’s very easy to throw together and is a welcome, crunchy change from self-indulgence, yet is fulfilling all the same.  Don’t tell your kids they are eating kale.  Call it salad and they will eat it. And don’t forget to use the nifty method for separating the kale leaves from the stems that I learned from the Garum Factory. I feel as wide-eyed as a two year-old whenever I do.

Kale Salad with Apples and Hazelnuts (adapted from Food 52)

Serves 4

5 cups curly kale and mustard green leaves, torn into small pieces

(I used only kale and it was fine)

2 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced on the bias

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon brown rice vinegar

(I used regular, unseasoned rice vinegar)

Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper

1 tart apple

1/4 cup hazelnuts, chopped and toasted

1/4 cup pecorino romano or parmesan, shaved with a vegetable peeler

  1. In a large bowl, combine the kale, mustard greens, scallions, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Mix with your hands to really blend the dressing and rub it into the greens. Let the salad sit while you prepare the rest.
  2. Core the apple. Thinly — like, super thinly — slice the two halves from stem to flower end. If you have a mandoline, that’s the easiest way to go. Add the apples to the salad and gently fold together so they don’t break in half. Taste and adjust seasonings.
  3. Spread the salad on a platter. Sprinkle with the hazelnuts and cheese shavings.

courtesy of The New Yorker