2010-11-17 / Columns

A little bottle of scented lotion brings a flood of memories rushing back


I recently came across a long-forgotten lotion scented with vanilla and velvety to the touch. I had put it in a drawer of our bathroom vanity, probably in one of my periodic attacks on clutter. And for me, out-of-sight is inevitably out-of-mind.

But this lotion was special, and had unique memories attached to it. For that reason, it stopped me in my tracks.

The bottle itself was graceful, all curves and arches. The cap was silver. It was clearly an indulgence product.

I seem to remember that it cost more than I, the queen of thrift, would typically pay for a lotion. Usually, it’s a fast stop at the discount store for whatever is on sale.

But again, this bottle was different.

This bottle was part of an assemblage of lovely things that I’d collected one dark late autumn day when my mother was in the last stages of her battle with lymphoma. She knew it, and so did I.

I wondered what in the world I could do to brighten these long, sad days when Mom’s mobility was so compromised, and her strength was dramatically diminished.

I’d tried diverting videos, but she seemed to lose interest in them quickly. I’d tried music, but again, it didn’t seem to cheer her for long.

She loved looking at old family pictures, but even those saddened her. The emotional impact of endings was upon her—and so was a certain melancholy at her own presence in those images. “I didn’t look like a sick old lady,” she sighed as she looked at the photos from even just a few months ago.

That’s when it hit me. Vanity, I decided, can be restorative sometimes. In the very best sense, it can even be affirming.

Even at 97, my beautiful mother, always committed to looking her best, had very recently just surrendered. Some mild chemotherapy treatments had left her skin pale and dry.

So one night, when she seemed particularly despondent when I arrived at her apartment, I proposed the notion of having a “pampering party.” Mom’s face lit up. Even though she wasn’t sure what I meant, there was an instant twinkle in her eyes.

That was all I needed.

The very next day, I went about collecting lotions and creams, blushes and even eye shadow. I sought products that looked beautiful on the outside— my mother was always a visual sort who loved pretty things. And how she loved the smell of vanilla! I found whatever I could that had that sweet scent.

On one of those days when the sun refused to shine, and nasty winds hinted of the winter ahead, I arrived at Mom’s apartment with my “goody bag.” But this time, it wasn’t food or vitamins or, thank goodness, more medicine.

This time, out of that bag tumbled this assemblage of splendid indulgences. I recall Mom saying they were just too pretty to open.

But open them she did, with the zest of a five-year-old surrounded by birthday gifts. It was such a great joy just to witness that excitement, so long gone from Mom’s last weeks and months.

I loved helping her with the beauty products, from the skin coolers and body lotion to her favorite, the lip balm that made her dry and parched lips feel moist again.

I loved watching my sweet mother, quintessentially feminine despite all the renunciations, respond to pampering. And comfort.

I loved the way she smiled with pure pleasure at the way her skin looked and felt. Even as she tired, I knew she wanted more, more, more.

Mom died about two weeks after our lovely “Pretty Party,” and I hadn’t thought much about it for so long. But just seeing that bottle of vanilla lotion brought it all back to me three years later. No cameras had recorded the event, but stored away in my heart are images of a frail 97-year-old lady enjoying what women so often do—a bit of pampering indulgence.

I opened that vanilla skin lotion and drank in its sweetness.

And this time, I placed it front and center on the bathroom vanity, where I can cherish it— and never forget. . pinegander@aol.com

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