She was a mystery, a ghost as close as my skin. I discovered her love through the scent of old photographs and White Shoulders perfume. And there she was: Della Ruiz Martinez, my nana.
I bought a bottle of White Shoulders when I discovered it was her favorite perfume. I was 19. The first whiff of bergamot is astringent and sharp, like her acerbic tongue. They say she could cut you to pieces with her words. She was a Scorpio woman: born on November 12, 1920 and died November 14, 1967 – 39 days before I was born. They say she happily anticipated the birth of her first grandchild. But liver disease prevented her from holding me in her loving arms. She became two-dimensional and flat: a framed image of young Della at four-years-old, a brown-skinned cherub with a crown of baby’s breath at an altar. They gave me her name as my middle name: an angel and a legacy. It was nearly twenty years before I saw another picture of her.
I breathe in the pungent scent of the square, black and white photograph of Della with her friends Annie and Rosie wearing sombreros in Tijuana circa 1942. She’s laughing wide mouthed – you can tell the lipstick is red. I decided her heavy drinking caused an early death. It was easier to be mad at her than miss the love I never got.
Neroli is the top note in White Shoulders and carries an intoxicating aroma and unbidden images of pastoral lands with rows of orchards and rolling green hills appear in my mind’s eye. Freedom to roam paradise on horseback with my hair flowing in the wind without a care in the world. On this aroma, I float in ancestral memory through Della’s lineage as a Daughter of the Dons, their vast ranchos, fiestas and regal composure. I hold the glass rectangular perfume bottle and my finger grazes the embossing of a woman with cascading, long hair, strong chin and bare shoulders.
The delicate neroli comes from the orange blossoms that turned into the fruit Della picked under clouds of DDT. She met my grandfather at the citrus packing house. He loved her perfume. Years later, Rosie told me they would get caught in the spider webs reaching through the thicket of branches to clip oranges and lemons for nineteen cents an hour. Only recently did I learn that perhaps a can of pesticides, not a bottle of tequila, took my nana’s life.
The bouquet which unfolds and develops a few moments after the perfume has settled on my skin begins with jasmine and rose. These two powerhouse flowers imbue confidence and burgeoning self-love that carry and sustain me through moments of self-doubt and timidity. I spray this perfume and automatically my shoulders square and straighten. The cloud of clove in the middle, also known as the heart of perfume, serendipitously strengthens memory and is also known and used for its heating and healing power. When I lift my face to the warm sunshine, I imagine the rays are her kisses on my cheeks.
Next, the classic floral blend of tuberose, lily-of-the-valley, lilac and orris speak to her feminine elegance and I can feel her tenderness. I sense the purity of our connection with these fragrant white blooms. This is how she hugs me and tells me she is always with me, has never left me.
Sandalwood, an aphrodisiac, is the first of the base or back notes. This is where she teaches me about sensuality. I imagine her a naturally, sultry woman who knows how to command the attention of a room dancing with magic technique to Sway by Dean Martin. And now the perfume weaves in the re-introduction of indole, an essence found in the earlier notes of neroli, jasmine and tuberose, as well as the civet and musk that come from animal pheromones. Unapologetically seducing along a fine line between arousal and the forbidden, these indole notes orchestrate a genuine eroticism and unbridled passion. And now I see how we are a mirror image of each other. And I learn to love myself including in the most hedonistic, feral sense.
The oak moss also found in the base notes has a rich pleasant undertone of the forest that grounds me and grants me a sense of security. This is how she directs my feet when I don’t know where to go. The final notes of amber and benzoin work as an emollient, the balsam of understanding and appreciation. It is a salve to help heal and soothe the wound caused by her death. I feel her in front, beside, and behind me in a way she could not have been in life. I can reach for the stars and never be alone.
No one offered to take me to her grave so I found it on my own. I was 22. It was the first time I saw her name in print and she began to become real to me. The following year on Dia de los Muertos, I tried to visit her grave and became afraid – of what I’m not sure. I sat on a hill, perhaps five miles from the cemetery and hoped that the warm, electric Santa Ana wind would carry my words to her. Near midnight, when the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest, I promised my nana that whenever I smelled the scent of old photographs, especially if it came from nowhere, that would be our sign that she was with me. And when I need to reach out to my nana, I spray her perfume and immediately she surrounds me.
I leave the glass bottle of honey-colored perfume in my delicates drawer so it can infuse the layers I wear closest to my skin and embolden me with a love that death could not destroy.
(This essay was originally published on Manifest Station.)