One year, when I was 9 or 10 years old, I convinced my brother to pool our money so we could buy our mother a truly stellar Mother’s Day gift. Our dad took us, as he usually did before Mother’s Day, to a store at our local mall called Cherry, Webb & Touraine, or CWT for short. This was, in our opinion, the fanciest store in our neck of Southern New Hampshire and thus the perfect place to shop for special occasions for my mom.
Like the girl on a mission that I was, I led my dad and brother directly to the CWT makeup counter, where bright lights and glass cases displayed rows of slickly packaged eye shadows, blushes, mascaras and, what I was looking for, perfumes. Or rather, one perfume in particular: Estée Lauder’s White Linen.
Inspired by the glossy ads I had seen in various magazines of serene looking models — dressed all in white, lounging in picturesque settings — I knew this gift would be the height of luxury for my mom, who seldom wore white and rarely lounged.
I knew this gift would be the height of luxury for my mom, who seldom wore white and rarely lounged.
On Mother's Day morning, my mom accepted the gift with the same deep appreciation and enthusiasm that she did all the gifts we ever gave her, remarking over and over how special it was and that she couldn’t believe we had done such a thoughtful thing for her.
She never actually wore the White Linen; she usually wore Jean Naté or Shalimar, and White Linen, love it or hate it, has its own strong fragrance. But she kept that bottle for years and years, collecting dust on her bureau. I’d take it down every once in a while and smell its pungent contents, the same way I’d try on her jewelry, experiment with her makeup, and try on the few dressier dresses she kept in her closet.
Why did she keep that unused bottle for so long? My mom passed away before I had my own children, so I wasn’t able to ask her, but I’ve thought a lot about it over the years, especially in the past decade or so that I have been a mom myself.
As a mom, the feedback you hear most often — or perhaps just most loudly — tends to be the non-laudatory kind. Rather than “Thank you for making dinner,” it’s “Tacos again?” Rather than “Great job keeping that laundry going 24/7,” it’s “Why are my black shorts never clean!?” Rather than “Thanks for going to the grocery store three times this week,” it’s “Did you get more insert-name-of-thing-you-were-convinced-no-one-liked-anymore-but-now-is-the-only-thing-anyone-wants-here?”
I think my mom kept that dusty bottle because being a mom is hard.
This past year, closed schools and remote learning seemed scientifically designed to set up a difficult dynamic between mothers and children, as mothers went from doing what was already a sizeable job, to being mothers and teachers, help desk workers, full-time screen police, around-the-clock snack providers and sibling referees.
I’m not sure about anyone else, but despite all my efforts, I didn’t end many of these days feeling cherished by my children. And a lot of days, I didn’t blame them.
Which brings me back to White Linen. I think my mom kept that dusty bottle because being a mom is hard. It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I know my mom felt this way as well, but it doesn’t mean every day is a breeze.
I think my mom kept that bottle because it reminded her that there had been an evening where the three people she loved most in the world visited a fancy store and looked around for something special that would show her how much we loved her. A time when my brother and I stacked together our grubby allowance money to buy her something truly useless, with the very best of intentions.
A few years ago, for Mother’s Day, my daughters gave me a beautiful full-length blue dress. It has a lovely grosgrain ribbon around the waist and is made of floaty fabric that billows when I walk. I’ve tried the dress on a few times over the years, but have not yet had the occasion to wear it anywhere.
Still, it makes me happy just to see it hanging in my closet. It pairs well with the memory of White Linen.