Tuesday, July 8, 2014


I'm a terrible housekeeper, but every now and then the urge to live like a civilized human being will come over me and I'll spend most of a day scrubbing and dusting. I never feel like I've accomplished much at the end of it, though. My house is old and hasn't been significantly refurbished in more than 20 years. Time and my slovenly ways, not to mention a steady succession of pets, have created an ineradicable griminess. Once the cleaning binge is over, I always wind up looking around and thinking, "Well, at least it smells clean in here." And then I always think about my Great-Grandmother Bullard.

We called her Mammy, and she was nearly 90 by the time I knew her. I remember a frail, sharp-faced little woman with a long mane of white hair she kept pulled into a ponytail. She was blind and held court in her bedroom like the Empress Dowager. Whenever the family would gather at my great-aunt's house, where Mammy lived, the kids would be sent in to her room, one or two at a time, to say hello. She'd pat us on the head and give us money. I can still see her fumbling with her old leather coin purse while Bella, her hired companion, hovered nearby.

By all accounts, Mammy had not always been the sweet creature I recall. Her children and even her grandchildren remember her as vain, hot-tempered, and bossy. Not unlovable, mind you, but not the easiest woman to deal with. And she didn't like housework any more than I do. She had six kids, four of them daughters, and as soon as they were big enough to wield a mop, the girls were expected to take care of all the drudgery. My grandmother used to tell me about the day my great-grandfather decided this was not the way it ought to be. The house was in particular disarray one morning, and before he left for work he told Mammy that he expected her to clean it up. "I don't want you making those girls do it. I want YOU to do it." The day went by and, true to character, Mammy didn't turn her hand to do anything. When my great-grandfather's return was imminent, she sent my grandmother and her sister off to the dimestore to buy a bottle of cheap perfume, which she proceeded to spray all over the house. "All right then," she said, "that oughta satisfy him."

My grandmother, who was as meek as her mother was fiery, would put her hands on her hips and mimic her mother's smug look when she delivered that line. She loved this story. I love it, too, even though I wonder whether it ever happened. I have a sneaking suspicion my grandmother read it or saw it in a movie and adopted it as her own. Who could blame her? It's almost too good to be true, especially from the kids' point of view. Escape from chores and the entertainment of watching the adults try to get the best of each other? Anyone who has ever been a child has got to love that.

Whether it's true or not, the perfumista in me is delighted by the idea of perfume as a weapon of female defiance.* My grandmother never said what the perfume was, and I never thought to ask, but I've always imagined it as Blue Waltz, which was the dimestore perfume of my childhood. Amazingly enough, you can still buy Blue Waltz — it's cheap as dirt, and still comes in a little heart-shaped bottle. I don't know what the current stuff is like, but I have a bottle that's about a dozen years old, and honestly, it's not bad at all. I'm wearing it as I type this, and the scent that's wafting up to me is very similar to Canoe, with maybe a tad more spice. People spend boatloads of money on stuff that isn't half this pleasant. I'd spray it around my house any time.

*Speaking of the subversive possibilities of perfume, Barbara Herman, author of the terrific vintage perfume guide Scent & Subversion, is currently raising funds to create a new fragrance with some of that wild, retro spirit we love and miss. There are a just a few more days to contribute to her Indiegogo campaign. Check out this interview for more info on the project. I've chipped in, and I hope you'll consider doing the same. This is going to be an amazing perfume.

Room in a Dutch House, Pieter Janssens Elinga, c.1670

1 comment:

Barbara Delaney said...

The Vermont Country Store website has two small bottles of Blue Waltz for $14.00. Incredibly cheap, especially considering what I just paid for a bell jar of a Serge Lutens fragrance.

I just stumbled upon your blog through a really circuitous route....I don't remember where I started. But I read your essay on your wedding ring, it made me wonder how you're faring now after that gut punch.

The Barbara Herman project sounds fascinating but then I remember Secretions Magnifique. I have a bottle of that stored in a Russian doll style nest of boxes, it's stored in my basement . I think of it as just slightly less harmful than nuclear waste.

I've worked in the homes of some nasty wealthy people who accused their housekeepers/maids of just spraying Pledge around instead of actually cleaning. It seems the Mammy story has nearly the status of an urban legend.