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Home Grown

Angel on Her Shoulder, Nape and Wrists

Mama picks her pungent poison

By Cynthia Adams

My Mama was wild for big, strong fragrances, favoring those that grew stronger as the day grew longer. In terms of chemical warfare, Mama could have taken out a small village with her perfume alone.

For years, I questioned whether Mama had any sense of smell whatsoever. She navigated her Yank tank of a car with Avon perfume samples at the ready inside the trunk that seeped so powerfully into the interior, it would make my eyes water. Mama put the “stinking” into her Lincoln.

Typically, Mama didn’t wear the fragrances she briefly sold. No, she was a fan of more precious perfumes. Nina Ricci’s line was a long-time fave. But she was quick to jump ship in favor of celebrity-hyped scents. Joy became a favorite after reading it was then the costliest perfume on the market. She also favored anything worn by her style idols, Elizabeth Taylor or Joan Collins.

She positively flipped for Opium, a scent so powerful that I dreaded being in her vapor trail.

The last thing you wanted to do was hug Mama early in the morning. You, too, would wear Nina, Opium, Black Diamonds or her perfume du jour for the rest of the day.

Her fragrances tracked alongside a timeline of popular culture.

That changed when she remarried in her 70s after meeting a man who loved fragrances as much as she did. He would buy a huge (refillable) bottle of Angel for Mama and Polo for himself.

Between them, they could never sneak up on a person. You smelled them coming.

By then, Mama had abandoned all other fragrances for Angel. It still lingers on the clothing I saved after she “went to her reward” — its ironic name not lost upon her family.

All of which suddenly rushed back to me after entering a bathroom as a young woman exited. I had the equivalent of an olfactory flash back, including the gag reflex.

Covering my face with a tissue, I fled and immediately phoned an academic friend who positively excels at one topic in particular: pop culture. He shares the snappy sensibilities of late comedian Leslie Jordan. 

When he answered, his speech, always slightly breathless, was crackling with wait-till-you-get-a-load-of-this energy before I could even mention my prime reason for phoning — loathsome colognes. 

We immediately fell into our old-friends patter, talking over one another and half-listening, which is oddly comforting. These free-for-alls take peculiar turns that make us cry with laughter. 

I delight in dragging his intellectual self to my idiotic level, which is a bit like taking David Niven to a tractor pull.

But, this time, he was way ahead of me.

“Google ‘actors with dentures,’” my friend said with urgency, which admittedly threw me for a nanosecond, given our last chat was about Jimmy Carter, whom he had met on several occasions. For ages, he had hinted he might get me permission for a media visit to the Carter family compound in Plains, Georgia, where he had consulted on a preservation project. 

After a pause, he cackled with laughter — just as I feared he had lost it. 

I scribbled a note to myself as we nattered on, assuring him he’d just handed me a column idea. At least we were hewing to the general subject area of smells.

Assuring him I would google “dentures,” I steered him back to what was uppermost in mind: compiling a list of the worst fragrances of all time. Without hesitation, he ticked off the most odious of men’s colognes: Pub. Hai Karate. Polo. British Sterling. Jungle Gardenia. Straw Hat.

And hiccuped with laughter.

Delighted, I mentioned Tom Ford’s unisex fragrance — “F––––g Fabulous” — one which a clerk at Belk’s fragrance counter told me her store would not stock.

“Indecent,” she sniffed. I only knew such a scent as “F––––g Fabulous” fragrance existed because my niece spotted it at Charlotte’s SouthPark Mall.

“It stinks,” she texted, “but I sure want the bottle.”

Meanwhile, my friend zigzagged back to dentures, insisting Clark Gable’s horrid breath caused leading ladies to stuff their nose with cotton. (Explaining why Scarlet was so disgusted by Rhett?) A denture-wearing Tom Cruise and others surprised. (Go ahead. I’ll wait while you do your own search. I’ll be here when you return from that rabbit hole.)

Seeking bias-confirmation, I absently googled “most reviled fragrances” as my friend gabbed about the challenged chops of stars.

Angel popped right up. 

“Not very original,” posted a disgusted Reddit respondent, who just might be a chemist. “Angel, the progenitor of every sickly-sweet gourmand, its ramifications still being felt nearly 30 years later. OK, it wasn’t the first to use the caramel/chocolate ethyl maltol but it WAS the first to use it in those quantities, to that effect.” He ranted: “What makes it worse is that they squandered that bottle, that name and that beautiful blue color on THAT juice.”

Describing Angel as “carnal and sensual,” another Redditor claimed it was worn by model Jerry Hall. But I halted at the heading, “What perfume is good for body odor in monsoon?” Soap! my mind screamed.

For years I refused to wear any fragrance. It took most of early adulthood for my sense of smell to normalize after a childhood spent in mom’s flagrantly fragrant wake. Eventually, make-up maven Bobbi Brown created Beach, a clean, uncomplicated scent, reminiscent of Coppertone and sunlight. Fleeting, too, as a weekend idyll by the sea; it was truth in advertising, that name.

Some things, like Beach, wear well —
and, more importantly, fade like your favorite denim shirt. Some things grind. A lot like Cruise’s original teeth, come to think of it.

Meantime, my friend was still cracking on about celebrities and dentures. But my head, frankly, was lost in a fragrant cloud — one that had Mama’s name all over it.  OH

Cynthia Adam is a contributing editor to O.Henry magazine.