(A Lot About My Grandmother; A Little About Molinard Habanita)

May 30, 2008:

Molinard Habanita is available from a number of online perfume discounters.  In the edt concentration, it is an absolute steal (100 ml for $31.99 at ImaginationPerfumery.com).

Images: photos, top, are of my grandmother; bottle image is from leaderparfum.com.

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I’ve been looking at photographs taken of my grandmother when she was a young woman and wondering what perfume, if any, she might have worn at the time.  Her name was Rebecca, she was born in 1902, and judging by the photographs, she was a stylish young lady, with her fur capes and collars.  Raised in the small town of Dauphin, Pennsylvania, in her twenties she enjoyed a career as a legal secretary at a law firm in nearby Harrisburg—and I say “enjoyed” in the literal sense, as my father once told me that her love of being a career girl greatly vexed her mother, my great grandmother, who thought she ought to be more practiced in the skills of home economics—particularly cooking and baking.  Apparently, she did not mind vexing her mother in this regard, as she never did learn to cook more than a few simple dishes: beef vegetable soup, chicken salad sandwiches and creamed chicken on toast being the three that I remember as her mainstays.  (“She’s an excellent cook!” I once pointed out to my father.  “She makes the best vegetable soup on earth.”  To which he replied, “Yes, but when it’s the only dish in one’s repertoire, it should be the best.”)   As for baking, she ignored that aspect of the culinary arts completely; while her mother (whom we called “Nana”) turned out ginger cookies so whispery thin they would melt on your tongue like snowflakes, my grandmother used her oven for storage—of pots and pans she accumulated but rarely used.  Not that it mattered to me or my sisters, because she always kept a bag of Hershey chocolate bars (not the miniatures, but the full-size bars, with almonds) in her purse, and with none of the typical parental concerns as to what time of day it was and whether it was too close to supper, would turn to us with a twinkle in her eye and inquire, “Are you in the mood for a treat?”  

Having been born around the turn of the century, my grandmother enjoyed her twenties during the twenties—the roaring 1920s—and this might explain why she took her sweet time settling down.  My father once told me that she loved the excitement of Prohibition—its parties and speakeasies with their hush-hush exuberance and live jazz—and I remember her describing to me how the liquor for those parties would arrive with a secret knock on the basement door, which she used to tap out for me with staccato flair.  No wonder then that she married relatively late, for a woman of her time period, and bore the first of her two children just before turning thirty and the second one in the month after she turned thirty-eight.  She married well—my grandfather, who had started life in the immigrant town of Steelton, Pennsylvania, had ascended to a distinguished position as superintendent of The Telegraph Press, a then-prominent publishing firm that circulated a daily newspaper known as the Harrisburg Telegraph.  But when he died of a heart attack in 1945, she was left a widow with a teenage daughter and a five-year-old son.


Suzanne's Perfume Journal

I came into my grandmother’s life in 1962, so naturally, the woman I knew bore little resemblance to the stylish, jazz loving, slightly rebellious and independent girl I just described.  The grandmother I knew was a quiet, soft-spoken woman who lived alone in a big double-house, both sides of it absolutely adrift in clutter, who didn’t own a car and whose passion for the modern world had largely been replaced by a passion for gardening.  Kind and loving, with a lively wit and an infectious giggle, she loved the entertainments of her grandchildren and thrilled in our games of make-believe.  Grandma existed on a steady diet of cigarettes, strong black coffee, and horribly medicinal throat lozenges; she indulged her grandchildren with junk food and meals taken, like indoor picnics, in odd nooks and out-of-the-way places of her house.  When I was eight or so, I went to stay with her for a week, and because she knew I loved to read, she set up a card table, a coffee pot and toaster on the landing between the upper and lower part of her staircase, where there was a built-in bookcase, a slender panel of window and just enough space for the two of us to sit and have breakfast—to pore over Life and Look magazines and talk about books.  And when you are young person being treated with the kind of respect typically accorded adults—yet not expected to act in the formal and stuffy manner of adults—well, it makes you feel cherished in a way that you never forget. 

In her sixties, she traded style for comfort; she wore a simple uniform of a cotton shift dress, a sweater, and white Keds sneakers.  Most days she puttered in her flower garden, which was in the style of an English cottage garden, more rustic than formal.  She favored foliage over big blooms, and was fascinated in experimenting with angel-wing begonias, May apples (which reminded her of fairy umbrellas), and bamboo.  Her garden had winding pathways, pockets of woodsy shade, and was contained by a stone wall, giving it a sense of deep privacy.  At its furthest reach, where a swinging gate opened into a back alley, there was a small chimney and hearth that had been built into its back corner.  She told me that gypsies used to camp out there in the “early days,” and though I doubted whether this was true, her face took on such a misty, far-away look whenever she talked about the gypsies, their lively music and dancing, that neither could I convince myself she was telling me a fib. 

My grandmother died in 1980, when I was a freshman in college, and in the time I knew her, she never wore perfume.  After years of constant smoking, I’m not sure she would have been able to smell perfume.  But when I look at photos of her younger self and see this stylish woman, I can’t help thinking that she might have worn fragrance at an earlier time, and the dreamer in me wants to assign one to her anyway.  So I spent a day thinking about and wearing Coty Chypre, which came out in 1917, but other than its greener qualities, nothing about it seemed reminiscent of her.  Then I hit upon my sample of Molinard Habanita (the edt concentration) and found my answer: this scent not only personifies the young woman she once was, but in a very real sense it smells like the grandmother I knew. 

Habanita was created in 1921, not as a perfume, but a fragrance to scent cigarettes.  By 1924, its popularity led the company to create Habanita perfume.  It is a fragrance that opens with a punch of piquant tobacco, a smell similar to the tobacco-leaf wrappers of a cigar.  Not long after that, fruity notes emerge, giving it a slightly cherry’d effect, as if the cigar has been wetted by a quick dip into a glass of wine or kirsch before being lit.  The scent stays smoky with a pinch of sweet-and-sourness to it, for about 20 minutes, and while the tobacco never goes completely away, it eventually succumbs to the most ladylike  underpinnings of delicate flowers and talcum powder that I’ve ever had the pleasure to smell.  Thin tendrils of tobacco smoke spiraling around powdery flowers like smoke rings: that is the drydown of Habanita, and indeed it is similar to what my grandmother smelled like.  Despite the fact that she smoked like a chimney, she didn’t have the acrid stench that so many smokers do: when I leaned in close to hug her, I could smell her treasured Pears soap and the talcum powder she applied daily with a big pink puff.  Her skin always smelled clean and soft, and her love of throat lozenges and gargles gave her breath a slightly mentholated quality (not that there is a menthol quality to Habanita—there isn’t). 

I’m sure many fans of Habanita find it sexy and would not like to hear its name associated with anything that smacks of “grandmother.”   For me, however, Habanita is not sexy in the way that the edgier Caron Tabac Blonde is sexy; what it does represent—to my nose, anyway—is an old-fashioned, roaring-’20s sense of glamour that is high-spirited and flirty while still maintaining a sense of decorum—a politesse and innocence, if you will.  The woman or man who wears Habanita might be independent, free-thinking or even a little eccentric, like my grandmother, but in the end, she or he heeds a code of honor that is in-born.

My grandmother couldn’t follow in her mother’s neat-as-a-pin path; still, every day she walked down Main Street to visit Nana, her devotion to home and family never wavering.  She was a Habanita woman—if not in reality—then in spirit.