Living the Sweet Life: The Scents of Our Life

By Alisa Murray
Nationally recognized
portrait artist and
award-winning columnist.

The day my Nana died was as good a day as ever there could be.  She lived to 102 and was done.  A few hours earlier, I had been summoned by sister to “get here quickly,” but in reality, Nana wasn’t going anywhere until I arrived. She was a wonderfully grumpy old lady in those last years and was none too happy about being left without my mother nor my father, as they had already departed as had all of her siblings except for one last sister, along with everyone she ever cared about in her Sunday School class. So, on this day in particular, she was ready and able but could not quite make the dying thing actually work until she knew that she had said goodbye to each of us.

Elizabeth and I had worked it all out, or so we thought.  The funeral arrangements had all been paid for, and Nana had picked out her very own casket all lined in “Carolina blue.” She made it quite clear the following fall while visiting me in Houston that she would not be cremated despite my pleading. “But I want to keep you with me,” I begged.  She said if I stayed here with you, I’d never leave.  “You’d pack me in a Louis Vuitton, and keep me where you can look at me with your cats,”  Nana would say. To which I would reply, “You are absolutely correct.”

After having both parents pass, Nana was the only living legacy of my family, and I did not like having to trek to North Carolina to visit empty graves. I’d rather just keep her close and not be very far away. None the less, we thought we had it all worked out.

Nana was supposed to be okay. Although I could tell when we last spoke right before the surgery to fix a little “C” in her bladder, that at 102, putting her under would potentially cause a problem. She did warn me, of course, like a great mother should. She said to me very matter-of-factly, “Now Alisa, if I do not make it, that is perfectly fine! I am ready to go see your parents, and you are ready for me to go.”

Nana did, however, make it through the surgery, and when my sister called me, she was fine. A day later, she was not. Elizabeth phoned to say that “something has happened.” Nana had developed a clot post-surgery and had a massive stroke.

Alisa Murray with Aacovic Rodriguez at Zoetry Rolinda in Isla de Mujerres.

All along, the plan was for me to fly in and help conduct the funeral. We knew as that matriarchal torch was passed, I would then be the one to make sure that everything went as planned.  My sister phoned several days later with Nana having nothing but an IV drip of sugar water to say quite desperately, “She just won’t die. I think she needs you, and that’s why she’s refusing to leave.” I left on the next flight out.

When I arrived, I realized had Nana been able to just get it over with, she certainly would have. First, I began to trim Nana’s nails, and then I started on her hair. Nana had given me locks of my mother’s hair when she was killed, and so it was customary to have these things. Like an old shaman, I then retrieved a bottle of Estee, the very same in fact that I had given Nana each Christmas under the tree. I began to cream her arms and back, and at the perfect moment, one I will never forget, she looked directly into my eyes. I said, “I am here.” For seconds only, we connected, but on those few blips of what was left of her precious life, she knew she could finally let go.

Scents are powerful. Did you know that if you bag up a worn shirt or a pillow case and stick it in the attic, years later you can open it up and smell that person? I just love that. When James Edward was a little baby, I would place my wig in his crib at night and that child would sleep! There’s something so comforting and powerful about our sensory memories.

I still have my mother’s perfume, JOY by Jean Pattaeu. One night over twenty years ago, I was dreaming, and when I awoke, I remembered smelling her perfume. After some deep recollection, I realized that she had indeed “visited” me somehow during the night and held me in her arms. Although I had not seen her face or heard her voice, I just knew she had come to me. It’s that kind of stuff about this life that amazes me.

Recently I was on an island with my love celebrating our 28th anniversary, and we went to the spa. As they laid a soaked towel on my head, suddenly I remembered a time twenty years ago when my daughter was a baby. I was immediately transported back recal-ling her fat little cheeks and her sweet giggles. And that’s when it hit me that the scent was identical to some special spray I used on her as a baby. I had been looking for this spray for almost twenty years. Off and on, I would buy this or that essential oil hoping to create it once again, and finally, somewhere along the way, I had given up, but now, it had been given back to me! After I left the room, I ran to the desk and asked to buy whatever it was. I explained to my new friend the mystery behind it, and he offered to go to Cancun and purchase several bottles for me.

You never know what will trigger a memory, but when it happens, it’s like a coming home of sorts. I’ll be sure of whose company I am in the presence of when I first smell Estee or JOY.  I’ll know that my day with the Lord will be coming, and my angels will have come down to guide me home. My friends, everything is connected, and our memory banks are an untapped resource to recovery and recollection and the biggest moments of our lives!

Take Care of YOU!