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Scent of a Woman

I noticed it almost immediately as I stepped out onto the front porch. The fragrance drifted around the side of the house and lingered in the air. I followed my nose and walked to the edge of the porch where a large gardenia bush was showing off — its limbs heavy with waxy white blooms and shiny green leaves.

God really outdid himself when he created the gardenia (Gardenia jasminoide). There’s just nothing like them. Sure, there are more striking flowers in a Southerner’s garden and landscape, but the glorious gardenia’s fragrance makes it stand out. They smell as fresh as the Garden of Eden must have smelled to Adam and Eve.

I closed my eyes and inhaled.

One Christmas when I was about ten or eleven years old, my mother drove me and my older sister, Audrey, to Eckerd Drugs in Houston Mall in Warner Robins. Mom pulled up to the curb, gave Audrey some cash from her billfold, and told us to go into the store and buy our grandmothers something for Christmas from us kids. Identifying a Christmas present for my Grandmother Ona Jarriel was pretty easy. She loved White Shoulders body powder. It came in a round, peach-colored container with a powder puff applicator.

But finding an appropriate gift for my Grandmother Maggie Lanier proved difficult that year. We explored the elements of her life looking for a clue to a fitting gift. She and Aunt Colleen lived on a farm in the Union community just outside of Metter. She liked to crochet. She loved listening to old time gospel music. She enjoyed watching “the stories.” She liked beaded necklaces. She loved attending Sunday services at Rosemary Primitive Baptist Church and had learned to drive after Papa Lanier passed away so she wouldn’t have to rely on others to drive them to church every week.

We considered round, jewel-colored bath oil beads and Jean Nate After Bath Splash, but put those back on the shelves and continued our search. We eventually found something called, “Jungle Gardenia Cologne Spray Concentrate.” Even at a young age, my sister and I knew the lovely fragrance produced by the gardenia bush in our own yard, and for that reason, we purchased the Jungle Gardenia perfume for Grandmother Lanier.

A few weeks later, Grandmother and Colleen came home with us to visit for a week or so. One morning, as I sat at the kitchen table with my mother, Grandmother Lanier ambled through the house. That’s when I smelled it — Jungle Gardenia. It was as noticeable and in-your-face as real gardenias.

Instant pride washed over me. I believed her wearing the perfume was validation that Audrey and I had succeeded in our effort to buy her something that made her happy. She liked our gift and wanted us to know it, so she sprayed herself with Jungle Gardenia that morning.

But my usually-mild-mannered mother was not pleased. After Grandmother was well away from us, Mom looked up from her newspaper and half-whispered, halfsnapped, “I hate that damn perfume. It’s just too strong, and it gives me a headache.”

My mouth fell open.

My grandmother wore her Jungle Gardenia perfume every day of her visit with us — the aroma filling every room of our house each and every day, 24/7. Each time she walked by, I saw my mother’s face wrinkle with irritation and displeasure, but fearing she would hurt my grandmother’s feelings, Mom kept her feelings to herself. She never uttered a word to Grandmother about the invasive smell or the headaches caused by the strong odor.

For years, it was the butt of jokes (the perfume, not my grandmother). Sometimes when we would make the final turn onto the dirt road leading to Grandmother’s remote farmhouse, Mom would say in fun, “Will one of you please sneak into the bedroom and hide the Jungle Gardenia perfume so I can breathe this weekend?”

And so every time I smell gardenias, I think of Eckerd Drugs, Christmas gifts, strong perfumes, my grandmother, my mother’s headaches, secrets, jokes, and a childhood of moments that remain imprinted in my mind. All it took was the scent of the flower to remind me of the scent of a woman — a woman I loved.

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