From the most terrifying moments to the most intimate, a scent can trigger a diverse emotional spectrum within our bodies and minds. Our memories, experiences, and the associations we attach to smells have the power to influence us for an entire lifetime, perhaps even beyond. For me, the scent of Old Spice cologne has the power to evoke a longing and nurturing down to the marrow of my bones. I wonder sometimes if it is the result of an unmet need, or the distant ghost of an actualized moment in my infancy.
Old Spice, original, was the cologne used by my father. I do not know if my dad still wears Old Spice, and if he does I do not know if it would it still create longing within me. My guess, or perhaps hope, is that it would not. My dad is not absent from my life, he is still alive and married to my mom, but our interactions are rare and often times loaded with emotional expectations that can’t be defined. I was raised in a household with six siblings, our small 3 bedroom, 1 bath farmhouse had seven kids and two adults; personal space and respectful autonomy was severely limited. My dad was a distant and abusive father through circumstance; he was overwhelmed by noise and chaos and had a strong need for control. The stress of an impoverished, domestically violent marriage coupled with his emotionally void spectrum meant that he often retreated to his garage and was rarely parenting with any joy. Most of his interactions were based on administering discipline; a punishment that was often released when the fuse inside him exploded and became uncontrollable.
I once asked my mom why she had so many children, when each birth created more stress and dysfunction, and her response was that my father was so gentle and loving when she was pregnant. Pregnancy was a way to feel: taken care of, nurtured and safe? Perhaps a selfish and ironic thought process since every addition to the family meant fewer resources for any one member. I am the second oldest and learned quickly to navigate my childhood with as little noise and need as I could. While I may not have understood the dynamics that were being played out between my parents, I did witness, with a certain consciousness, the violence and neglect escalate. For the most part I didn’t question anything; my family was my reality. But the unique violence that occurred between my dad and my brothers was something I always felt hopeless and angry about.
My brothers, Jon and Aaron, were children four and five in the birth order. By that time, my mother had already started the “I want a divorce” rant and it seemed like life was full of threats; real and imagined. Emotions were constantly spilling over between rage and grief. Resources were tight, tensions were high, tempers flared and things were falling apart, but somehow we stuck together. Whether through fear, stubbornness or religious ideals we still managed to present as a loving and resilient family. However, one of the tragedies of our childhood was that my brothers gradually became the brunt of my dad’s criticism and rage. They were “boys” and in that I think my dad unconsciously gave himself permission to be harder on them, to expect more from them and used them as an outlet to process his own, never identified, childhood abuse.
Have you ever told yourself, “I’m not going to be like my mom” or “I’m not going to be like my dad?” I think when families experience some internal combustion and pain it’s a common theme. We all have a desire to be different than our harmful experiences. My brother Jon was no exception, as a teenager he used to cry with me and repeat over and over, “I don’t want to be like dad.” Jon was a very loving and sensitive kid, but he was also the epitome of masculinity. He was physical and rugged, had dark looks and the strength of a warrior. He would give and give from his heart, but was often wounded in non-reciprocity. My dad used to beat him for normal childhood absent-mindedness, like leaving a hammer outside, but he was also beaten for Aaron’s behaviors. He was repeatedly told that being older made him responsible for Aaron’s actions as well. His world was filled with violence; violence against himself, his sisters and his mother whom he adored. Jon’s world was chaos and he internalized that chaos into believing he was a failure and deserving of the abuse. Perhaps he didn’t even know what he wanted, or how to experience it but I believe he knew in his soul it should be different.
There are two things that call to mind a certain fondness for my dad. One is the smell of his pipe tobacco and the second is the smell of his cologne. Despite not wanting be like our dad, Jon assumed both of these scents into his life. As a teenager he adapted using the cologne into his grooming repertoire and by his early 20’s he picked up the pipe and used the same tobacco brand as my dad. I am often curious as to where the fondness for these smells come from. While I don’t actually have many conscious memories of loving behavior from my dad, somehow my psyche developed a positive relationship to these smells. When I was a teenage girl I spent a period of time yearning for a father. I longed for a figure that could exhibit what fatherly love looked and felt like. I didn’t know it at the time, would never have been able to put it into words, but I was trying to fill an emotional hole. Whenever I caught the barest scent of Old Spice, I would stop, sniff and look around for the source. Could this person be my father, could this person love me? It was primal and unconscious but the smell turned me into a two year old, and as my sexuality bloomed, it turned whoever was wearing it into an attractive figure for my teenage desire. I wonder what this void looked like for my brother and how is it that we were attached to the same scents despite our gender and age differences.
Jon and I had the opportunity to live together when we were in our 20’s. He was my best friend and quite honestly, I believe, my twin spirit. I had no premonition that suicide was in his timeline. I still remember how I wish I had said, “I love you.” as I headed out for a soccer game that Sunday evening. In the ninety minutes that I was gone, Jon altered the course of our family’s path. It’s a moment that I grieve and cherish simultaneously. It transformed me in the ways that are hardest to appreciate; the momentary destruction of my heart and soul. Before my brother’s death I was unable to see the depths of depression and abuse in our family history. I just assumed that life was hard for everyone, that suicidal ideation was the normal thinking process for struggling humanity everywhere. Since Jon’s passing I have had to process a lot of anger in feeling like he took away my ability to choose my existence. Death was no longer an option; once you witness the grief and confusion of a suicide you hesitate to repeat the pattern, especially to the same family. But in grief I felt even more stuck and hopeless.
I had created a distance of opportunity from my parents. I didn’t consciously condemn or feel active anger towards them; I just didn’t feel inspired to cultivate a relationship beyond the Holiday family gatherings. Regardless of that distance, regardless of the high level of denial in our family, I still had to call my parents and tell them that their son had taken his own life. It was a role that still haunts me at times. It was late, perhaps 10 p.m., and my parents arrived within the next couple of hours. I can’t even imagine the drive, the grief and guilt probably bearing down on them more and more with each passing mile. My dad arrived angry, upset with me that the first responders had released my brother’s body from his noose and taken him to the morgue before he had arrived. I recall a comment about how disrespectful I was that I didn’t let him “handle” his son’s death.
The week following my brother’s death seems like a blur, family invaded the house and lots of arrangements had to be made. I had two sisters in high school, a boarding school in California, and a sister in North Dakota with three kids, all whom had to be flown to Oregon. We hunkered in as a family and shared tears and whiskey all the while questioning, what went wrong? I’m sure there was confusion and grief for my parents, a sense of failing their children, of failing themselves, but the way anger and denial often manifest is with blame. So the defensiveness was erected right away, there’s no one to blame, and we did the best we could. I never really accepted that. Yes, I do believe, we all do the best we can, but you still have to take accountability for how you affect the lives of others, including your own children and the ones you love.
Sometimes my mom tries to get me to be compassionate for my dad. She likes to tell me I am his “favorite”, the anomaly of both rough and tough and sensitive; a good mix of both genders perhaps. But I think that it is more likely that I am my dad’s biggest conscience check, that my aloofness and self-dependency is a challenge for him. I don’t conform, I don’t try and like him and sometimes I can even convince myself that I don’t care how he feels about me. I certainly don’t strive for his approval or support. I had already been too hurt and some things can’t be undone, some words can’t be fully taken back. The death of his son inspired my dad to find ‘his Truth’, to share the things that are on his heart in case he loses the opportunity. On the Tuesday of that dark week my dad felt it in his best interest to tell me my “life is not a blessed life”. I wasn’t really sure what he was saying at first, grief was so heavy on me; was he blaming me for Jon’s death? But then he clarified. There are two kinds of people who go to hell – those who commit suicide and those who live homosexual lifestyles.
Oh yeah, I’m transgender and live a lesbian lifestyle. My dad wanted to know; was all of it his fault?
It is now 7 years later and six months ago I finally moved out of the house where my brother died. While there is a world of difference between how my family and I lived back then and how we live now the grief of death never really goes away, it just evolves. I have multiple times removed my brothers’ possessions out of my space, dwindling down the mementos that can no longer capture his essence; my only true tribute to him now is a beanie hat that I wear year round. Sometimes I feel like I can still smell him in the knit of the fabric. We shared a lot of common outdoor activities together so every time I sit by a fire, talk a walk in the rain, or play in the snow I get a scent of his body, his hair, his blood pulsing with life.
But when you move, you find hidden treasures, or twisted reminders, depending on how you choose to categorize the past. My nephew is now old enough to want to know if there are “things” of Uncle Jon’s that he can embody; a book, a backpack, a pair of shoes. So I cleaned out the garage and went through the only two boxes remaining. Is there anything worth still hanging onto? Surprisingly I came across an old bottle of his cologne, Old Spice, the original. Not a bottle from the store that just smells the same, but the very bottle that he put his finger on and transferred this scent to his living body. A scent that connected him to his dad, our dad, and despite the violence, despite the injustice of his childhood, he still in some part embodied a longing for this fatherly love.
So I now wear my dead brother’s cologne. It soothes me, reminds me of a happy and loving childhood, a father who was safe and gentle – even if I don’t actually have these memories. It reminds me to keep striving for a soft heart, one that will someday see my parents without a child’s neglected perspective. I choose to feel nostalgic when I smell Old Spice, I choose to honor the path of longing my brother and I shared in the desire for safety and love. I choose to recognize the ways I can create them within my own future family. Jon will be an uncle, a brother, a son that will forever be missed but his scent still lingers in our hearts.
I’ve kept my distance, done my healing, learned to accept my parents for who they are. My dad has since found Eastern Orthodox religion with a passion, committed to working on forgiveness and acceptance. He is actually a kinder and more gentle man but not necessarily more expressive. He is still incapable of saying “I love you”, even when it is said first and he merely has to agree. This year he asked me if I was all healed and over Jon’s death. He shared that it doesn’t concern him anymore and he doesn’t understand why it is so hard on my mother and my sisters. I told him that I am at peace with the situation and that I deal with my grief in my own ways but that every ones process is different. I’m still not able to be honest enough to say how ignorant he is. My dad is confused by love and loss, unable to truly acknowledge that his behavior led strongly to my brother’s mental health, that there is much more accountability to be had in our family. Neither of my parents will apologize at this time. For they did the best they could and forgiving themselves of blame is the only way they survive.
L. Ruitzel lives in Portland