My Mother’s Perfume

Words by Katie Stewart

  • Photos by Ross Stewart.

    Photos by Ross Stewart.

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Ever since I can remember, my mom has only worn one perfume: Poison by Christian Dior.

It’s a bold statement. It comes on strong, like Pepé Le Pew flouncing past your nostrils—peppery, floral, thick. As a child, I would go into my parents’ bedroom after they’d left for an event just to walk through the clouds of Poison that lingered there.

My mom bought her first bottle as a young working professional, living on her own right out of high school. It was one of the earliest purchases she made, just for her, with her own money. I can picture her back then: naive, sheltered, and hungry for things that gave her a sense of control over her life.

She has curly hair, a prominent Maltese nose, and high expectations. She is a good mother despite not having a mother of her own; her mom died of acute pneumonia at 31 after going grocery shopping in the rain. And while my grandfather shopped around for a new wife, my mom bided her time at a Catholic orphanage. She spent a year surrounded by giant, grim-looking nuns toddling around in black habits while her two siblings stayed with relatives. She is four feet and 11 inches of resilience.

When I smell Poison, no matter how faint, it slams me back into my early memories of my mom—of her bedroom with its fancy purple bottles and bulbous costume jewellery. Even as a child, I was fixated with memory and secrets: I rifled through her dresser drawers looking for love letters, old photos, or clues into her past. Unlike me, my mom doesn’t relish in her history. Her parents were born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt and then immigrated to Canada as Maltese citizens. They brought nothing with them, so neither does she. Her memories are etched on her heart, nowhere else.

I haven’t seen my mom since December 2018, due to a bulky set of provinces (I’m in British Columbia, she’s in Ontario) and a global pandemic between us. But we talk often. Maybe every other day. We compare the weather; we discuss the meals we eat and the shows we watch. Sometimes we talk about the news, but mostly we are just present for one another.

In our case, distance really does make the heart grow fonder. I was an adorable child, but an asshole of a teenager. I gave her deep parenting anxiety with seances at skateboard parks and an infatuation with nude photography. And while we maintain our relationship from afar, the overarching storm cloud blowing through the phone is that we likely won’t see each other until there is a vaccine for COVID-19.

So this is where I find myself: in Shoppers Drug Mart and Sephora and Hudson’s Bay, seeking out sales representatives who are willing to indulge me in my mission to reconnect with memories of my mother. While these masked attendants get the special keys to open the special case of special perfumes and spray a little white card with Poison, I tell them that it’s not for me, it’s for my mom. I tell them it is her favourite perfume and it reminds me of her. I tell them she lives across the country and I miss her.

I tell them about how she is a shy Maltese Catholic who met my Protestant dad at a bar. They were playing Saturday Night Fever and my mom was sporting her favourite cork wedges. My dad was wearing a white suit with a powder blue shirt, unbuttoned. His chest hair promised passion, and his military career promised international adventure and security. She would go to balls and wear gowns. She would wear expensive perfume and live in foreign cities.

I speak slowly to the sales reps while fanning the card in front of my face, eyes closed. No one expects me to buy a bottle.

Over time, we all change: our chemistry, our bodies, our preferences. But like her perfume, my mother stayed constant. She stuck to her guns.

I carry around the little Poison-drenched cards in my pockets and my backpack so that when I go about my day, little wafts of my mom remind me that we’ll get through this pandemic. They remind me that you can always seek out luxury and indulge in memory. They remind me that you don’t always need to wear the same scent from 1980, Mom. You are expansive. You contain multitudes.