Grandma Florine’s Perfume

Chanel No. 5 Eau de Cologne

Allison sat on the couch and opened a plastic bag full of odds and ends. As she sorted its contents, she told me, “My dad said he found some of my grandma’s perfume. It should be in here somewhere.”

Allison’s Grandma Florine had been born Myrtle Florine Heffington in Bee Cave, Texas, in 1922. She hated the name Myrtle and dropped it as soon as she could. She picked up her husband’s last name, Norman, when she married at 17.

I’d heard stories about Grandma Florine. Allison and I once both worked for the same vintage clothing store, and many of the stories had to do with Florine’s wardrobe: size five gold lamé Spring-O-Lator mules with mink trim; a black and white polka dot jumpsuit from the 1960s; a full-skirted maroon velvet dress with bows on the sleeve; filmy peignoirs. Photos show Florine more sedately dressed, but nicely turned out. In one photo, she sits at a picnic table looking tiny and composed, every hair in its place. In another, Florine stands proudly next to Allison on a California sidewalk. Her slacks are ironed with a crease, and she wears a crisp white blouse.

Florine spent much of her life moving around the country as her husband chased work. In later years, after her husband died, she moved into an apartment in San Luis Obispo. “She was a tiny dynamo,” Allison says of her grandmother. “She made my aunt’s prom dresses, baked cakes, painted china, and wrote with beautiful penmanship.” Her Puss ‘n Boots cookie jar was always full for Allison and her sister. Florine’s best friend, Joan, a big-boned blond who liked leopard print, might stop by.

Grandma Florine’s name for Allison was “princess,” and she called Allison’s sister “glamour puss.” Even when her fingers were crippled with arthritis, she would French braid Allison’s hair. “She would look at us, and her face would just beam,” Allison says.

For all her joyful living, Florine never had much money. She gave up her car later in life and told people she didn’t care to drive anymore. Years later, Allison discovered her grandmother didn’t have the money for auto insurance but was too proud to admit it.

In 1990, Grandma Florine fell ill. Allison, now living in San Francisco, kept the phone by her bed, fearing the inevitable call. When it rang one morning before sunrise, she knew Grandma Florine had died. Later that day, earthquakes trembled through the city.

At last, Allison pulled three bubble-wrapped packages from the bag on her lap. What perfume told Grandma Florine’s story? I unrolled the wrap from the first bottle. It was a small Chanel No. 5 Eau de Cologne, about a fifth full. The bottle hadn’t been opened in 25 years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been purchased 10 years before that. The next package held a small gold-tone atomizer of Lanvin Arpège, and the third a 30-ml splash bottle of a powdery floral from an anonymous drugstore brand.

It fit. All these fragrances were feminine and elegant, and when Florine bought them, the No. 5 and Arpège were top shelf at the drugstore — although the least expensive versions of them. Moneyed or not, Grandma Florine was a class act.

Have you ever thought about what your perfume says about you?

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  1. Kelly Red says:

    Oh Angela, you made me cry with memories. I too had a Grandma Florine (how weird is that because it’s kind of an unusual name). She was 4’11” of pure personality. My Grandfather was over 6 feet and she totally ran the show. She was french through and through and made no bones about what she liked and didn’t like. When I was 16 she told me every woman needed a signature perfume and she bought me Je’Revien (this was almost 40 yrs ago so it was the good stuff :) I wore it for more than a decade. She choose a perfume for both my younger cousins when they turned 16. No one argued with Grandma. She wore a dress everyday and good jewelry. She had drawers full of stockings, gloves and other mysterious items. When she passed away we “fought” over many of her clothes and purses. As the oldest granddaughter I laid claim to the Hermes “Kelly” bag because of my name. I still have it and carry it often, everyone of course thinks it’s a repro, but I know better. I also have a perfectly tailored 1950’s jacket by Dior in like a size 2!!! I can’t wear it, but it still holds her scent and I remember her wearing it. Thank you, thank you for todays post. I think I’ll go have a glass of wine and toast my Grandma Florine.

    • Angela says:

      What a coincidence that you had a grandma Florine, too! She sounds remarkable. A tiny, Kelly-bag toting French grandmother–a dream.

      (My grandma, who loved to refer to her girth by saying, “More of me to love” was neither tiny nor French. But I sure loved her.)

  2. kaos.geo says:

    Thank you for this lovely article!
    It reminded me of my aunt Nora, who also loved Arpege… but not N°5…. She favored Caléche, Ma Griffe, First, Nocturnes de Caron…. she was a natural! ;-)
    I miss her, but this article made me feel she was right here beside me.
    Besos! ;-)

    • Angela says:

      That’s wonderful! Aunt Nora sounds almost as good as Auntie Mame (and she sure had terrific taste in perfume).

  3. Jada in GA says:

    My Grandma Jeanette always kept a bottle of Chanel No 5 on her dresser, but I don’t remember her ever wearing it! She was a “farmer’s wife”, so her biscuits and fried chicken are the things that remind me of her. I expect she only wore her fancy perfume to church….

    My Grandma Eloise (also a country gal) liked Wind Song, and I do associate that smell with her to this day! Easy for her to buy in her small town I imagine, and the right price!

    BUT, it’s my Grandpa Leslie that I have the strongest scent memory: Vitalis hair tonic! I LOVE that smell to this day! I used to sneak in their bathroom and open the bottle to sniff it!

    Good memories!

    • Angela says:

      Wind Song was really popular in its time–and for good reason! Sure, Chanel No. 5 is fancy, but does it have a prince with ruffly sleeves advertising it?

      Now I long to smell some Vitalis….

  4. platinum14 says:

    What a great article Angela.
    We all need our grandmas back now! I sure miss both of mine.
    Monique was the elegant one. I have a picture of her at fishing camp, miles into the forest, and there she is, tailored skirt suit, heels, perfect hat, gloves and jewels. To my knowledge though, she never wore perfume.
    Then there was Berthe. My favorite picture of her dates back to 1928. She is 26, wearing riding britches, shirt and tie, fedora and riding crop. She never rode a horse. It was just her early, fearless style. She wore Emeraude and L’Aimant.
    To get back to your original question, I guess my own collection would probably point to the 80’. Those years when I first discovered my love of fragrances, when great classics were still available and classics, and when name like Coty, Rochas, Molynard, Caron, Grès , etc. meant something.

    Thank you.

    • Angela says:

      What lovely images! I can see both of your grandmothers from your description. I hope you have those photos framed somewhere.

    • platinum14 says:

      Oups, I meant Molyneux.

      • Angela says:

        I thought you meant Molinard, but Molyneux makes sense, too. (I love saying “Molyneux.” There’s something so satisfying about the way it feels in your mouth.)

  5. tejas says:

    My grandmother owned a beauty salon in a small Texas town (more like Steel Magnolias), nothing terribly fancy on the outside. On the inside, there was old fashioned Dr. Pepper with real sugar and bags of peanuts to put in the Dr. Pepper. It smelled of aqua net hairspray, perms, white shoulders and nail polish. I loved it.

    • Angela says:

      That sounds amazing–like the setting for a wonderful short story. Thank you!

      • tejas says:

        Loads of gossip, church talk, starched cotton dresses and country music. I smell White Shoulders and think of my gran. She worked 6 days a week at the beauty salon and was the church bookkeeper. After the church books were done, she would take us to dairy queen for a ice cream cone.

        • tejas says:

          She also did the hair and “makeup touchup” for the only funeral home in town because, “Floyd doesn’t know anything about good hair”.

          • Angela says:

            I love it!

        • Angela says:

          Wow, what a work ethic she had. I’m glad she indulged in a little Dairy Queen–she deserved it.

    • Rappleyea says:

      Fabulous descriptions! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Holly says:

    Thanks for this charming story, Angela.

    I didn’t have much contact with my grandparents as my family traveled out of the country quite a bit, so I don’t have scent memories attached to them. Since you like intrigue, my dad was a clandestine service operative for the CIA. (Ok, aka a spy.)

    My mom wore L’Air du Temps dabbed out of beautiful Lalique bottles, Arpege, and Wind Song. Being 5 ft tall, she found that store-bought “petite” clothes were demeaning as they were darling and demure, so she learned to sew and tailor her own stuff starting in the swinging sixties in London and continuing for many decades after that. Her creations were always cutting-edge. I learned a lot from her.

    My first perfume aside from stuff from the drugstore was Caron’s Fleurs de Rocaille. It was a special day for me when my mom brought me to a now-defunct department store and let me choose whatever caught my fancy. I was in the throes of adolescence, and we rarely had a good day together, but that one will always stand out for me.

    My mom now has pretty advanced dementia, and is no longer able to do what she used to, nor remember it. One of the best things I can do is share with her my own memories, and I have a nice collection for her of her favorite scents and my own. Sometimes we have fun, and sometimes it’s sad and I guess that’s life.

    I want to thank you again for your post on World Aids Day that gave me the incentive to share myself and my love of perfume with my eldercare and hospice patients and their families. We have all benefited in innumerable ways: sharing stories of romance fulfilled or thwarted, memories of seasons past, connecting to the present through fragrance.

    Thank-you also to my perfume fairy who helped me get the ball rolling. I’m forever grateful.

    BTW, I loved your newsletter! I am eagerly awaiting the book. ;-)

    • Angela says:

      Your dad was a spy–wow!

      I wish I could have seen you sharing scent and talking about it with eldercare and hospice patients. How touching and wonderful, and how generous of you.

      I’m glad you liked the newsletter! I have to work on making it look better, but it was fun to do.

      • Holly says:

        Well, we have some interesting, um, “conversations” about Edward Snowden. Thus the re-directing to more pleasant subjects when possible. :-) Like now let’s smell this!

        Thanks for your kind words re my sharing. Honestly, it’s all due to you, and I’ve had a lot of help getting stuff together for my patients to sample.

        I’m glad you’re having fun with the newsletter. I found it fun myself! I’d love to see a pic of you wearing that outfit.

        • Angela says:

          I wish the outfit were mine to wear! I especially love the rich green purse. Maybe I’ll have to wander over to the store and see it in person…

          • Holly says:

            I particularly love the purse as well! So here you go … you have my encouragement to go to the store and see what happens.

          • Angela says:

            Uh oh, a vintage clothing enabler!

    • Rappleyea says:

      So interesting about your father, Holly! When I lived in N. Va., our partner in the thoroughbred horse business had served in the O.S.S. with his good friend “Wild Bill” Donavan. Donavan’s grandson and his wife were good friends of ours.

      • Holly says:

        And so interesting that you were in the thoroughbred horse business. Or maybe you still are in some way? One of my terrible guilty pleasures is watching the Kentucky Derby every year, and I’ll also admit that I enjoy watching dressage. I’m not sure what to think about myself as it seems to me that both “sports” are pretty brutal. To complicate matters, twelve years ago I promised one of my leukemia patients that we would watch the derby every year as we had done during her treatment, squealing with glee. Sadly, she died shortly after that.

        So “Wild Bill” in the O.S.S., hunh? I’ll have to ask my dad if he had a nickname. :)

        • Rappleyea says:

          If I remember correctly, Wild Bill was considered the father of the intelligence community. They told some wild stories about him!

          I am still in the horse business, and while I grapple with it, for the most part the horses are treated very well (there are a few notorious exceptions). One of my close friends is a horse massage therapist so it’s not quite as brutal as you may think! Horses will race and play with each other in a field even once they’ve retired, so to some extent, it’s a natural activity for them.

          The main problem in my mind is that they are herd animals that wander over vast distances in the wild, so leaving them up in barns and stalls is not natural, although they adjust.

          • Rappleyea says:

            And something else you’ll appreciate – a lot of retired horses get used as therapy horses for physically and mentally challenged children and adults. As you can imagine, the results are very positive!

          • Angela says:

            I love the thought of therapy horses. Often, animals can touch us in a way people simply can’t.

          • Holly says:

            Thanks for the info, I DO appreciate it. :)

  7. scentfromabove says:

    Hi Angela. What an amazing post. You are truly a gifted writer.
    This caught my attention because I am recovering from knee replacement surgery (painful!) and pretty much confined to my living room sofa. I just got through watching the movie “Peggy Sue Got Married” (love this movie sooo much). In one of the scenes when Kathleen Turner went back in time, she hugged her mom and commented on how much she loved smelling her and her Chanel #5. She said it brought back great memories. I don’t have grandma stories to report like everyone else because neither one of my grandmothers really had signature scents that I can remember (may they both rest in peace). I just want to say how powerful “scents” are and how they make people react when they smell it. My mom was the one who introduced me to fragrance and she is why I am such a lover of fine perfume. Even today in my 40’s, I love my mom holding me close and hugging me. No matter what she wears, her scent always makes me feel safe and well taken care of. I am a lover of Jo Malone fragrances ( Nectarine Blossom and Honey being my signature scent). People always comment on how nice and clean I smell. I hope that when I am gone , someone will get a whiff of one of the fragrances that I wear and have fond memories. :)

    • Angela says:

      Yikes! I hope your recovery goes as smoothly as can be expected and that you’re up and around soon. In the meantime, it sounds like you smell wonderful, at least.

      Chanel No. 5 seems to be the fall-back perfume for scriptwriters. It’s time they branched out a bit, in my opinion.

      • scentfromabove says:

        Thanks Angela!
        Reading your posts make me feel so much better.
        Now, if you will all excuse me, I’m going to waddle to my bedroom to spray on something that smells yummy! LOL!

  8. Ericgmd says:

    Dear Angela,
    Thank you for such a moving story. I think we all have a Florine in our life or at least have known one. We look back and think that the older generation did not have the concerns that we are currently facing. But I am starting to realize that they had bigger challenges. Like keep food on the table for their families or other wars. And yet their manners, values and good upbringing reflected through everything they did.
    And you touched upon so many qualities they had: perfect handwriting, cleanliness and clean pressed clothing on a budget, their sense of pride and refusing to ask for money or help etc.
    Her bottle of Chanel 5 should be shown in a museum because it carried in its juice an entire life story!
    I am always inspired by your articles Angela and today’s was especially moving to me.
    Thank you again!

    • Angela says:

      I’m so glad you liked the post!

      Yes, the kind of class Florine had isn’t easy to find. Nowadays, when something goes wrong, instead of quietly dealing with it yourself, many people moan all over facebook. I think Florine would have been horrified by that.

      • Holly says:

        I recently read something (again) from Elizabeth Berg’s book Home Safe. The main character had announced that throughout her life that she was sensitive, the princess who felt the pea. Her best friend finally told her that everyone feels the pea, but they deal with it and don’t proclaim their superiority in having done so.

        I was seriously flabbergasted. I still am. Damn!

        • Angela says:

          Very well told!

        • Rappleyea says:

          Profound, Holly! Another book added to my TBR pile. :-)

          • Holly says:

            I highly recommend all her stuff. :)

          • Angela says:

            I second the recommendation!

        • ggperfume says:

          What a great line!

  9. annemarie says:

    I was most moved by the thought that Florine had little money but managed small versions of two of the greatest perfumes ever. That touch of luxury and femininity obviously meant a great deal to her, as it so often does to women who struggle. I still have my mother’s last bottle of Yardley April Violets. She wore April Violets for about 50 years, more or less.

    Here’s a contrasting thought: I suppose many of us have encountered sealed bottles and boxes of perfume in thrift stores. I bought a huge bottle of No 5 EDC like that once, $5. I have so often wondered what it’s story was. Given to someone who hated perfume, or hated No 5? (Or to someone who disliked the giver???) Hidden away for years, until the recipient finally died? Something like that I guess. No 5 is probably given a lot on the assumption that it’s perfume, French and expensive, so of course will be acceptable.

    Thanks for a great story, beautifully told.

    • Angela says:

      That moved me, too–that despite her income, Florine had two such wonderful fragrances and clearly treasured them.

      I know what you mean about finding old, sealed bottles. I only hope that their original owners weren’t saving them for “some time special.”

      • C.H. says:

        Not saving them for some time special–indeed! A lesson to us all.

        • Angela says:

          Yes! It’s so tempting not to wear the special perfume or the nice lingerie or visit that special place for dinner, but if not now, when?

    • AnnieA says:

      I think the unopened bottles of perfume were very often a case of women waiting for an important enough event to wear them. Sad, because the day seemingly never came, but also sweet, because they probably felt elegant just having the perfume.

      Many grandmothers saved beautiful things For Best. When my grandmother died she had all sorts of fancy, untouched kitchen doodads given as gifts still in their box, with notations like “Christmas 1975”.

      • Angela says:

        So let’s use up our good stuff and raise a glass to our careful grandmothers!

      • annemarie says:

        Early in my career as a museum curator I was part of a team that collected stuff from the house of an elderly lady who had died. I remember there being boxes of unused gifts, some only half unwrapped. A lot of them were hankies and talcum powder and soap, and I felt rather sorry for her. She had obviously been the recipient of the clichéd gifts you give to elderly ladies. How much talc can one person use, I ask you? There was also some perfume, a blue bottle that might have been Evening in Paris. And some unopened No. 5 EDC.

        In the case of this lady I don’t think she was saving it for best. She probably just didn’t really want any of it. Apparently no one had noticed that she was not a perfume and hanky person. And what was extra sad was that by the time we got there the family had already cleared out what it wanted, but had not thought to whisk away these unwanted gifts before they were seen by strangers.

        More than 20 years later I still have not forgotten this. Of course people who deal with deceased estates must see this situation all the time.

        • Angela says:

          There’s something so poignant in that story. I see why you remember it even now. (I wonder what it was she really longed to get? Whiskey and bluegrass music, maybe?)

          • annemarie says:

            And a 100 ml bottle of Habanita!

          • Angela says:

            She sounds like my kind of lady!

  10. teri says:

    I was fortunate enough to have a fabulous grandmother, too. Intelligent and headstrong, and pretty in a Maureen O’Sullivan kind of way, she had an impressive list of firsts in her small rural community – first woman to drive a car, first woman to graduate from college, first woman to play professional basketball (yes, really!), and the girl who finally brought down the most elusive bachelor in the county. Until my aunt was born, she was the head bookeeper at the largest business in her county. She would have stayed after my aunt was born, but in those days it was scandalous for a mother to work and the company insisted she step down.

    Not to be deterred for a moment, she invested her savings in land – potato farms to be exact. Not worth much when she acquired them, she spent months reseaching agricultural techniques and land management and within a couple of years they were thriving. She continued to buy acreage with her profits until she became the largest independent potato farmer in the state. And she was definitely the boss. Every year we’d pack up the family and she’d tour the farms, inspecting every building, talking to the migrant workers to make sure they were being well treated and auditing the books.

    My grandfather was in international sales and made a trip every years to Paris, calling on accounts. Each time he returned, he’d have a case full of fragrances for his ‘girls’ (his wife, two daughters and four granddaughters). There was always a statement piece of jewelry for my grandmother, too, or a fur, a fine leather bag, or some other piece of fancy French frou frou.

    I learned to love fine things from my grandmother who encouraged me to play dress up in her closet, wear her jewels and her perfume. I always felt like such a princess. And the jewelry she lent me to wear to my prom was the real deal. My mother was petrified I’d lose it, but I felt like the Queen of the World!

    Gran taught me some of the best life lessons, too. She taught me never to be afraid to show intelligence, never to say “I can’t do that” unless I’d tried and failed, that a lady always had fresh flowers in her home, and (in her words) “you may have to scrub your own floors, but you don’t have to leave the front door open when you do it”.

    My grandmother had plenty of perfumes, but I always associate her with Lucien LeLong’s Indiscret, which was a favorite of hers. She could be quite a tomboy on occasion, but I never saw her any less than impeccably groomed. She never appeared in the morning for breakfast without perfect hair and makeup, even if she were still wearing her nightie, robe and slippers.

    • annemarie says:

      What a great story! Indiscret is an interesting choice; quite feminine and voluptuous wasn’t it? I’ll bet she was the only woman in town wearing it. Did she ever get to Paris herself?

      • Angela says:

        What strikes me about Indiscret is how spicy and warm it is. “Feminine and voluptuous” is a fitting description.

    • Angela says:

      I love this story! How I wish I could have met your grandmother!

      By coincidence, I had an email late last week from someone looking for some Indiscret. Her mother had worn it, and her mother died when the person who sent the email was 18. It was a really touching story. Indiscret seems to have had a way of lingering in peoples’ memories.

    • Rappleyea says:

      What a wonderfully interesting grandmother you had! You (or someone) needs to write this woman’s biography!

  11. Dawn says:

    You know, I can’t really remember my one grandmother really wearing anything specific perfume wise but always loved those dusting powder with the puff. So every Christmas, we scour the malls and flea markets looking for it. She’s one of those types that it really doesn’t matter if it’s White Diamonds or some obscure scent, the loves the routine. My other grandmother has always hated Chanel perfumes and won’t associate with people who wear them but I wear them and she seems to be none the wiser but she absolutely loves Calvin Klein’s Euphoria.

    • Angela says:

      People don’t seem to use powder and puffs like they used to. How wonderful it would be, though, to have a big, soft puff and to powder yourself, especially in hot weather.

      How funny that your other grandmother loves Euphoria! I bet she’s not Calvin Klein’s target market, but I love it anyway.

  12. lupo says:

    Beautiful article Angela, what a talent for short stories you have!
    At some point in my life I happened to have 3 grandmothers: my mother passed away, my father re-married, and three families mingled in that odd way only Italians family do :)
    The three grandmothers could not be more different. One was from Naples, a beautiful, assertive, no-nonsense black haired lady, and her scent was talcum powder and some soft flowery cologne picked up at some drugstore. Never seen her without a little lipstick and her short hair in place. One was a sophisticated northern Italian lady, furs and make up and hair done and red nail polish: I remember as a kid buring my face in her furs and smell some strong powdery Avon perfume. She was a big time Avon customer :) and she smelled wonderful all the time. And the third one was a short half French business woman with lovely grey eyes. Lavender cologne on Sunday to go to church, and that was it. They all passed away, but I still have a beautiful picture of my Neapolitan grandmother in the 40s: high cheekbones, a beautiful smile, her hair done. I’m a traveller, and that picture is with me everywhere I go!
    Thanks for bringing back those memories :)

    • Angela says:

      What a marvelous collection of grandmas you had! Did they ever all get together? It’s wonderful to think of them sitting around a table, talking, their coats shrugged over chairs.

      I keep two photos of my grandmother on my dresser, too. In one, she’s holding me as a baby on her lap. The other, taken in the 1930s, shows her standing on the beach with my grandfather (who looks exactly like William Powell).

  13. floragal says:

    What a unique and fitting piece of writing on this overcast and melancholy afternoon. My grandmother was a very classy lady with exceptional taste. I enjoy thinking back on her life, interests, style, her way… I learned much from her including a love for perfume. Funny I can’t recall what scent she wore, but I can see a few bottles ever so dimly sitting on her dresser. I wish my love for fragrance was something I could have shared with her back them, but it was yet developed. Today I am blessed with such dear older women in my life that I cherish and will even more so after reflecting on this post. Thank you.

    • Angela says:

      I’ve been blown away by the fabulous grandma stories we’ve had in the comments. As I told Allison when we were talking about Grandma Florine, there’s something so pure about a grandmother’s love.

  14. Rappleyea says:

    Ah, Angela, this was wonderful! You had me in tears by the time Florine passed.

    It was my great aunt Bea whom I remember as the perfume-wearer (other than my mother). Her scent was Arpege and it fit her – she was always beautifully turned out in elegant clothes and with a classic French twist hair-do.

    I’m not sure what my perfume would say about me… maybe that I couldn’t make up my mind? ;-)

    • Holly says:

      I was thinking the same thing! It’s so interesting that many of us skipped over that question …

      • Angela says:

        Yes, very interesting! Anyone seeing my perfume collection would probably just hope I didn’t have the same mania for other things, or they’d be calling the crew at Hoarders ASAP.

    • floragal says:

      Yes, that’s me too! I can’t make up my mind; I’m insatiable as well!

      • Rappleyea says:

        They’d also say, “Oh, so that’s why she was so thin – she didn’t eat! There’s no food in her refrigerator, just perfume!”

        (not true – I DO eat!)

      • Angela says:

        “Insatiable” is so much better than “indecisive”!

    • Angela says:

      Aunt Bea! What a wonderful name. (I once had a friend named Bea, and her French boyfriend called her “Bea paradis.”)

      • Rappleyea says:

        Nice! So much better than my brothers using my name in the Name Game – Donna, donna, bo-bonna, etc. :-P

        • Angela says:

          “Angie” falls into the same category, so I sympathize.

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