Thursday, October 21, 2010

SOTD: Serge Lutens Chergui. And musty houses.

A recent discussion on Muse in Wooden Shoes motivated me to try Chergui again. In the comments, I didn't agree that it was musty, but I've changed my mind. It's honey, tobacco, sticky pastries, and old-house mustiness.

I used to be a bit doubtful about this fragrance, but it's growing on me. Wondering why, I find that the old-house note reminds me of a great-aunt's house that my family visited many times during my childhood. The surprise is the realization that I have positive memories of the place.

We were the sort of frugal family that spent all holidays and vacations staying in relatives' homes, with the kids permanently planted on the sofa listening to the adults reminisce about the decades before they were born, telling the same stories year after year.

I have a photo-clear memory of an evening in the home of someone's cousin or school friend, when a son of the family offered me a book of Doonesbury cartoons to read. Compared to the usual experience, it might as well have been a ride on Star Tours. I had a mild crush on the son (who I believe I never saw again), and a tremendous fondness for Doonesbury, for years afterward.

I remember how orderly all of those houses were, my great-aunt's most of all. The furniture and ornaments were generally older than me, and often older than my parents - this wasn't a family that went in for decorating trends. But every single thing was impeccably maintained, dusted, cleaned, un-shabby, and when someone chose it, however long ago, they chose it carefully.

This being the American South, most houses had the traditional "for company" living room and dining room. Furniture was arranged in one position for a lifetime, and ornaments, down to the doilies, were almost as permanently fixed. The only thing likely to change in these spaces was the multicolored hard candy in the cut-glass covered dish -- another spark of excitement for visiting children bored out of their tiny minds. In one way, this sounds simply dreadful. But in another way, it reflected a commitment and attention to detail in the home environment that I craved.

My parents weren't all that interested in our home -- it was adequately furnished, adequately maintained, generally adequate. The roof didn't leak and the appliances all worked, but nobody loved it. Drawer pulls fell out and weren't replaced. Drawers got stuck, and no one squared up the furniture or ran soap along the runners. The furniture was whatever was sufficent and cheap enough when something wore out. Shabby spots happened - nobody cared enough to get those extra pieces of fabric for the arms or the heads of the chairs, at least not until the fabric was already worn through.

I particularly remember the rice pot. It lost its handle and the knob on the lid, and for my entire childhood, we lifted the lid with a bent fork poked into the hole the knob left behind, and lifted the pot with a hot pad wrapped around the metal stub that once held the bakelite handle. And nobody ever considered buying a new pot. It wasn't that we couldn't afford one, it was just that nobody ever looked at that pot and said, "This is silly. This is depressing. Let's get a new one."

So when I sniff Chergui and see my aunt's impeccable living room, full of overstuffed furniture twenty, thirty, fifty years old and infused with mustiness that even the most determined housecleaner couldn't remove, everything clean and carefully placed, wooden floors shiny enough to go sock-skating, that awful sentimental figurine on top of the piano , and all that uncluttered  space between the furniture -- that memory smells good to me.

Image: By Takk. Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Ooh, this post really struck a chord. In particular the boiled sweets being the only thing that changed...

    And sock-skating now has a name thanks to you - excellent!

  2. Very nice post - descriptive and engaging. I loved reading it.

  3. Oh, lovely one, CF - I'm right there with you in Great-Aunt Leacy and Uncle Enoch's front parlor. Hard sofa covered in stiff burgundy velvet... matching china pug figurines on either end of the mantelpiece... peacock feathers and pampas grass in the big ceramic urn in the corner... and, yes, those hard candies in the pressed-glass candy dish.

    However, most of my grandmother's friends were from hardscrabble backgrounds, as she was, and their houses were jam-cram-packed with floral-print furniture on its last legs, pickle crocks in the front hall, bent halltrees, cracked dishes, gaudily-painted plaster plaques of Bible scenes, and broken umbrellas. We'd go visit Miss Josie and Miss Zola and Miss Ethel, and Dodie and Agnes (do I make up these names? I certainly do NOT), and I would spend the time on the creaky rocker or the vinyl hassock with split seams, eating hard candies and retying the laces on my red leather school shoes, while Bambaw and Miss Willie Maude drank instant coffee and talked about church and neighbors and cousins I'd never heard of. Sooner or later I might be offered a hard cookie and a glass of milk, which I'd accept, because hard cookies are better than boredom, and I'd eat it sitting in an aluminum chair at the kitchen table, staring at a lumpy plaster Jesus on the wall.

    (This may be the difference between Modest and Really Poor. I noticed early on that the houses of my father's relatives were very different from the houses of my mother's relatives.)

  4. Great post! You made me think of my grandmother's house and the summers we spent visiting there. Is was a tiny war-time house, with three bedrooms and she raised five kids there. The three boys sharing one little room and the two girls the other. There was a claw foot bathtub that I would fill with cold water and sink myself into when it got too hot. The smell I remember most was the smell of the shed behind the garage, where grandma had stored boxes of old pink crinolines my sister and I would play dress-up with. It smelled of mildew and mothballs and grass.

    She had a dish of licorice allsorts in her front room, and I hated them.

  5. Howdy, flittersniffer! I had forgotten the sock-skating. And Reader's Digests - my aunt had every Reader's Digest she'd ever gotten, I think, some from the forties and fifties, and we used to pull them off the shelf and read them by the dozen.

  6. Thanks, Josephine! I feared that it might be pure Depressing Ramble, so I'm glad. :)

  7. Yo, kj! Whole summers? I'm imagining a whole summer in my aunt's house; I can imagine that it might have been fun to settle in and, especially, to no longer be expected to be Right There for the endless adult conversations.

    I can almost see the crinolines. :)

  8. Hey, Mals! Oh, I love those names. I don't know if anyone could make them up.

    I may be misinterpreting, but it sounds like accounting for the difference in resources, both of the sides of your families loved their houses, in a way that my relatives did, and my immediate family for some reason didn't.

    In any case, I'm enjoying all of your mental pictures. :) Including the aluminum chair and the plaster Jesus.

  9. I love the memories, but I must say, Chergui for me is a pale grey day with a candle burning on the waxed mahogany table. No fustiness or mustiness in sight. One of my all time faves. Goes to show doesn't it, how different we can each be in our scent associations/perceptions.

  10. Hey, Lucy! Very interesting; that sounds like a scent I'd love, but it's not what my nose makes of Chergui. :) But my nose, I must admit, is a little weird.