What was perfume for?

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WHEN I was a little girl I had an aunt who was emotional and liked to cry a lot. She also liked to ``save things to use on a better day.'' I used to wonder why the tops of her perfume bottles always stuck so hard that I couldn't manage to turn them if I wanted to sniff what was inside.

Naturally I had to do this when Auntie was busy in some other room dusting or scrubbing. It never occurred to me in my innocence that it was wrong to try to smell her perfume -- what else was perfume for?

One Christmas this Aunt received a very special gift. It was the largest bottle of perfume I had ever seen, and it came from a man who waited on her in the grocery store.

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Up to this time none of us knew that Auntie and he had ever said more than ``Good morning.'' But I took a good look at the size of that bottle, which must have cost him a ``pretty penny'' as they said in those days, and even I wondered what was going on between them.

By the time all the packages had been opened and the tissue and ribbon disposed of, I was curious beyond belief about that big bottle and how the contents would smell. When Auntie was in the kitchen helping Mother mix the gravy and mash the potatoes, I tried to loosen the perfume stopper.

Because always before any stopper had refused to budge one-quarter inch, nobody was more surprised than the little girl, who was I, when this stopper opened right now. I was so shocked I dropped the bottle of perfume.

You should have seen the stain it made on the front-room rug. The fragrance of rose and jasmine penetrated to the kitchen and out-smelled the wonderful aromas of turkey, sweet potatoes baking in the oven, and cinnamon mixed with the apple sauce.

Auntie came running into the front room intent on demolishing her niece. Fortunately I had been able to get the bottle righted before all the perfume was gone, and she had some left to douse on her blouse.

That afternoon the grocery man came to take her for a walk, and he seemed quite pleased that she smelled of roses. So did our rug. In the dead of winter for years people used to think there were live roses in the room. In desperation my mother put some red paper roses in a vase and one memorable day a neighbor went over to the library table to smell them.

As for Auntie, she never forgave me in so many words. But she doused herself liberally whenever the grocery man came to call, and she began to open up all the old perfume bottles on her dresser and let me sniff them.

I saved up dimes until I had a whole dollar to spend on her birthday present and, out of guilt probably, bought her as much perfume as I could afford at the corner drugstore. She opened it at once and invited me to put a little on my white handkerchief with the pink tatting edge done by my grandmother.

Auntie stopped saving things for a better day, and began to smile a lot more, and to have a better time, and be easier to live with, it seemed to me.

And as for myself, I remember that awful moment of the spilled perfume as one of my best Christmas experiences. I learned once and for all that gifts are to be opened and used, whether stationery to say Thank You to a friend, a book to be read, or a blouse to be enjoyed before Christmas Day is over.

I had almost forgotten about this until last season when a little boy for whom I had left a package at the door told his young mother, ``I know who gave me this without your telling me.'' She asked him who it was, and he said this had come from his adopted ``Auntie Ruthie.''

When his mother wanted to know how her little boy could be such a good detective, he said, ``Because the paper always smells like her face does when I give her a hug and a kiss.''

I've never been more complimented. The boy recognized me by the perfume my husband likes to give me because it means he doesn't have to shop and figure out what else to buy, and he knows I love to use his gift.

So, there, Auntie, I'm not sorry for the Christmas of the spilled perfume. I did it, and I'm glad. And I just wish I could spill the wonderful Perfume of Christmas over the whole wide world so that its loving fragrance would last all the days of the entire year.

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