The Perfume of Love

Seeta Sistla - Providence, Rhode Island
As heard on the This I Believe Podcast, December 8, 2014
Seeta Sistla

As a teenager, Seeta Sistla dabbled with perfume but found the floral scents to be overpowering for her. But, after watching her father lovingly care for her ill mother, she has come to see that the perfume he anoints his wife with is a powerful statement of his love.

Age Group: 18 - 30
Themes: love
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I believe in the power of perfume. Perfume is meant to cover our natural scent, to hide whispers of sweat and the living body in subtle floral overtones.

At fourteen, my desire to be sexy conflicted with my poor understanding of the powerful amber liquid in my mother’s bottle. I quickly came to prefer my own scent to the overpowering fragrance of my misguided dabbling.

I did not understand the beauty of perfume until several years later. Having returned home from college for break, I saw a new bottle perched on my parents’ bathroom shelf. This gift from my father to my mother continues to stand as a beacon of glory among mundane toiletries and unnerving hospital supplies. The growing collection of latex gloves, tubes, and medicines packed in sterile plastic reflect the increasingly losing battle that my mother is fighting with multiple sclerosis.

In more than 25 years of immunological revolt, her active mind and endless humor are increasingly trapped within a body that refuses to cooperate.  The disease has steadily spread from trembling feet when I was young to complete paralysis around the time that the bottle appeared.

My parents cannot embrace each other, nor dance together.  My father must go alone to Macy’s to get the perfume my mother loves but does not ask for. He purchases the bottle despite the knowledge that they will not be going out this evening—or any evening.  My father is a thoughtful man not given to expressive statements of emotion, regardless of the impossible circumstances that life has presented. One could say that the odds were against them from the start—an unusual pairing of a vivacious Russian Jew and a quiet South Indian—immigrants whose circuitous life paths have led them independently to meet in upstate New York.

In recent years I have come to better comprehend the intense understanding of each other that has united my parents from their early courtship through these many years. When he helps my mother at the toilet each morning, cleaning and dressing her, my father remembers the perfume. But this fragrance is not intended to hide her odor.  It is an acknowledgment of their past and a reminder of their present captured in a scent.  By dabbing the perfume on her neck, he tells her that she is more than her body; she is a woman, his wife, stubborn and sexy.  It is his statement of love.

Walking with my father in a department store last Christmas, I paused for a moment at the perfume advertisements. They are messages of models draped in beautiful clothing—alluring creatures proudly bearing the scent of “J. Lo” or “Chanel.” I have learned to believe in the power of perfume, but I am not swayed by these ads. I have my own.

Seeta Sistla is an ecosystem ecologist whose research has taken her to far flung corners of the world, ranging from the Alaskan Arctic to rural Nicaragua. Seeta's parents spurred her dream to explore by recounting the lives they had lived abroad and encouraging her predilection for collecting all manner of rocks, plants, and shells. She will soon be heading to the Berkshires with her husband to begin a professorship at Hampshire College.

Recorded by WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island, and produced for This I Believe by Dan Gediman