Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dandelion perfume

Since the kids had an early release day from school yesterday, my friend Nancy and her daughter Samantha came over for lunch, and then we took a long walk in the woods.

As we walked, the girls collected dandelions. Holly loves dandelions. As far as she’s concerned, they’re brilliantly colored flowers, fragrant and beautiful. The idea that some people see them as weeds means nothing to her, proving once again that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Once we were back at the house, the two girls went inside and closed themselves in the bathroom for several minutes while Nancy and I drank ice water and talked some more.

I didn’t give much thought to the situation: the two girls find all kinds of mysterious activities to keep them busy together, and I’ve never yet known them to incur any damage. So when I arrived home after doing a short round of errands later in the afternoon, I was amused to see on the kitchen counter a small glass jar half-full of cloudy water with a few flower petals floating in it. On the label in black marker was scrawled “Holly and Samantha’s perfume.”

“What did you make perfume out of?” I asked Holly.

“Dandelion petals, grass, and some of those little soaps we have in a dish in the bathroom,” she said. “Then we added water. It smells really really good and we’re going to keep it and use it forever.”

It made me smile because that’s something that I used to do at her age also. I remember so clearly the times we would go to my grandparents’ mountain cabin in Colorado for a dinner picnic. While the adults had cocktails and prepared dinner, the kids would wander around in the fields and woods. My sisters and I always collected pine needles, sagebrush, wild grasses, and lumps of pine sap to mix up for a perfume. Each component was separately so fragrant…but the perfume part never really worked, though we pretended it did. We didn’t know that alcohol is the main ingredient in commercial perfume.

But what I remember even better than making perfume was one day when my Aunt Mary said to me while we were doing something quite unrelated to this, “At my grandparents’ cottage on Lake Michigan when I was a girl, every summer I would gather pine needles and try to make a perfume that would last all year and smell like the countryside around their home. But it never worked.”

I’m not sure how old I was when she said that, but I remember being surprised to learn she had had the very same impulse I did – and been equally frustrated when it didn’t succeed very well. From what I understood, she’d even had the same period of denial, pretending that in fact the perfume really did have a lasting scent. I think it was my first inkling that some kinds of child’s play are truly archetypal: they just exist for each child to discover anew; no one needs to teach us.

And so it was with Holly and Samantha yesterday afternoon: gathering aromatic scraps from nature to make a perfume, just as I used to do, just as my aunt used to do, just as girls throughout time have probably done, each of us hoping it would work and then eventually shrugging off the disappointment when it didn’t; each of us, or most of us, probably realizing that there’s nothing organic about perfume at all, and to make it successfully you need alcohol plus elements manufactured in a lab, not flower petals and tree sap.

Holly’s perfume jar is still in the kitchen, and I’ll let her leave it there for as long as she wants to. She still thinks it smells of flowers and the forest and soap, even if I’m having trouble detecting much of a scent beyond the detergent with which the jar was last washed. She’ll eventually learn. In the meantime, she can be yet another generation, following dozens of others and probably preceding dozens of others as well, dreaming of replicating a walk in the woods on a spring afternoon in a carefully labeled jar.

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