06 May Chanel and Fresh Herbs: The Scent of My Mother’s Love
The author at the age of 4, left, with sister Briana, 2, and their mom, Brigitte. (Photo courtesy of Olivia Lozano)
Commentary, Olivia Lozano
I know my mom is about to leave for work when Coco Chanel drifts into my room. As she passes by, her signature scent wafts through the cracks in the shut door, and I’m softly awoken to the notes of jasmine absolute and warming amber. I am a light sleeper and accustomed to nightmares so when the smell reaches my nose, I am instantly eased and carried out of the bad dream.
Smell is how I relate to my mom. Within my core memories lies a file cabinet labeled: “Smell, place, time and Mom.” If you were to open the individual files, you’d find a host of herbs, spices, foods, plants, perfumes, and random household products I associate with precious moments spent with her.
If you peeked into the “2007” folder, you’d see Mom carefully packing new soil around some potted mint shrubs on our porch in Hercules. They’d grow a little more until just right to de-stem, wash and boil. Our small house would be overtaken by the beautiful aroma. After coming in from playing outside, my sister and I would race to the kitchen to see what she was making. Mom would crush some leaves in her hand and hold them up to our faces to smell. I’d take one deep breath and inhale the sharp, minty aroma
“Doesn’t it smell so good? Fresh herbs are great for your body. We used to grow plenty of this on the farm,” she would say, referring to her childhood home in Switzerland. My vivid 9-year-old imagination would envision my mom at that age taking my hand and leading me through her garden and showing me the mint shrubs, compelling me to pick them.
After my little daydream, I would reach out for another leaf on the countertop, crush them between my fingers, and wonder if I was smelling Switzerland mint or Hercules, California, mint. Next, Mom would strain the leaves and add some sugar to the hot herbal concoction. Once cooled, the magical tonic would be poured into a tall glass with ice and served to my sister and me. To this day, I can’t quite imagine anything greater than gulping down Mom’s cool mint tea on a hot afternoon.
Now, 15 years later, I find myself back home again navigating my quarter-life crisis. I’m a new, jobless college grad in the midst of a global health crisis. You can call it self-sabotage, but I tend to ruminate a lot on impending doom. What if I can’t pay back my student loans? What if I never find a job? What if someone I love dies from COVID? What if my parents’ health conditions worsen? What if our world finally implodes from the devastation caused by the climate crisis? These thoughts race through my head like stock cars on a track. I’m at a train station in my mind, and one train leads to the past and the other to the future. The past is saturated with “what could have beens,” while the future is self-doubt.
I snap out of it and remember I’m on a walk with my mom along the Marina Bay Trail. On these walks, usually half of the time is spent in silence because I don’t have much to say. I simply have no energy to give — not even to my sweet mother.
As we round the bend where the path to Costco and the path behind the condos intersect, Mom stops at a bush. She reaches out and pulls off a few stems. She crushes the herbs in her hands and brings them to her nose to inhale. “Ahh, I love fresh rosemary,” she exclaims. “Here, give it a try.”
She holds her hand up to my nose, and I inhale the pungent, evergreen smell. For a moment, I’m grounded. My mom then begins a conversation about growing up on the farm, which leads into her life in her early 20s and how she sacrificed many things to move to California. She doesn’t know it, but her talking helps me get out of my head for a bit. I feel the tension ease in my shoulders, my chest relaxes, and I look over at my mom and smile. She’s got her head down, focused on the trail and her words, but I feel her love.
Mom’s love for me is the petrichor after a storm. It’s the grounding and calming feeling I get when I crush herbs in my hands to smell the aromas. Coco Chanel is the scent of love because it reminds me that I’m never alone, even in the darker moments of life.