White Diamonds, Brown Family

April 9, 2011 at 8:12 pm (Uncategorized)

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The recent passing of Dame Elizabeth Taylor was not a surprise, but it was poignant.   Taylor’s legacy includes Oscar-winning performances, important AIDS awareness work, and marrying the same man twice.  For me, the passing of Elizabeth Taylor summons two words: White Diamonds.

Taylor released White Diamonds to the masses in the early 90s.  I was 11-years old when her signature faux diamond perfume bottle would become a fixture on my mother’s vanity.  Twenty years later, I still don’t know if she likes the fragrance, or if, like many aspects of married life, she has learned to live with it.

How did this happen?  How did my family become obsessed with White Diamonds?

The day we bought our first bottle was a routine Saturday morning on Long Island.  My mother worked every Saturday in Brooklyn so my father and I did things we weren’t supposed to do: McDonald’s, baseball games, inefficiently running around town to accomplish errands, Saturday morning cartoons which one day transformed into Saved by the Bell.  In contrast, weeknights my mother and I had a strict regime of homework, the PBS NewsHour, ballet on Mondays, piano on Tuesdays, Tap or Jazz on Wednesdays, and Thursday was a free night for Must See TV (when I wasn’t enveloped into my dad’s secret Masonic world).  Saturday was Dad’s day and had no rules.  We mostly drove around town in his 89, taxi-shaped Chevy Caprice and listened to CBS 101.1 oldies station until I learned about Z100 and Hot 97.  My first lessons in negotiation were shotgun radio station diplomacy.

My dad is a good guy and a bad gift giver.  He doesn’t have a clue. He hates shopping.  It was some upcoming Valentine’s Day or anniversary or a birthday and we were at Roosevelt Field or Green Acres Mall to buy a gift.  Offering to put my dad out of his agony, I told him to buy the new Elizabeth Taylor perfume.

I did it.
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Maybe it was the bling packaging, or those over the top TV commercials, but my 11-year old self fell for the marketing campaign.  My dad was thrilled to not have to think anymore.

We poorly wrapped the gift in a way only a preteen and Dad could.  My mom seemed excited to use the new celebrity fragrance and put it on her vanity next to her Hillary power headbands, big earrings, and numerous bobby pins.

Holy Headband!

Every morning, before she went to work she applied White Diamonds.  We were satisfied with our choice until buyer’s remorse quickly took over my nose.  From my next door bedroom I was convinced my mother swam in the perfume.  I would rush to vacate the top half of the house when I saw her reach for the sparkly bottle for fear of dying by White Diamonds asphyxiation.  One random Tuesday morning, she used half the bottle.  I imagined myself slowly drowning in liquid White Diamonds–even Dame Elizabeth Taylor couldn’t save me.  Every now and then my timing was off and I didn’t get out of her bedroom before the perfume bath commenced.  She would tell me to stop being a baby as my eyes watered and my nose itched.

We thought she loved White Diamonds.  My dad never had to think of a new gift again. A win-win!  For every occasion he bought her another bottle.  We had the industrial size, the small one topped with the delicate bling bow, and who could forget the spin offs: Diamonds and Emeralds, Diamonds and Rubies, and Diamonds and Sapphires. I could never really tell the difference in their scents. We even bought the CVS package sets with travel sized bottles and scented body lotion that burned my dry skin.  At this rate, I was convinced our family single-handedly financed Taylor’s eighth wedding reception.

Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds bottle

It never occurred to us in the decade that followed that the reason my mom drenched herself in the fragrance was because by the time she drove to Brooklyn it wore off.  My mother, a dentist, is very conscious of closeness and always has a breath mint on hand before she gets all up into your cavity.  Perhaps she was trying to finish the bottle quickly so that she could buy her own preferred perfume without insulting her present.  This tactic was consistently foiled by my dad’s self-congratulatory immediate buying and stocking of White Diamonds.  If New York is attacked, they will run out of bottled water before bottled White Diamonds.

As I got older, it finally occurred to me that mother was just being nice.  How do you tell someone the gift they have given you for every birthday, anniversary, and Valentine’s Day for the past decade is not that great?  “Let me guess, White Diamonds…what a surprise…” was a constant phrase in our house during Valentine’s Day.  I don’t think my dad detected the tone in her voice matched the diamonds on the bottle.

How did I let this get out of hand?  I was 11 when I made the gift suggestion, I didn’t know my father would bind me to decision for the next ten years!  I started to make jokes about White Diamonds, hoping that my dad would get the hint.  I figured if my mom wasn’t going to say anything, then I should be her advocate.  “Why don’t you get her real diamonds next year?”  My mother just gave a knowing smile and never took a side.  The White Diamonds bottle became a symbol of their marriage—always there through thick and thin, through cancer, but not necessarily the most exciting thing in the store.

The year the doctors found a grapefruit-sized tumor in my mother’s colon was the year I put my foot down.  How do you celebrate your wife’s birthday after her first chemo session?  Not with White Diamonds.  I was brainstorming ideas for my dad…she always wanted a classic Coach purse, but would never buy one for herself, was a luxury car too much?  Travel is clearly out of the question.  My dad was fixated on the idea of perfume and stubbornly unable to think outside the CVS locked glass perfume box.  Drawing on those early 90s radio station negotiation skills, and a good friend from work who lived these tumultuous years with me, we decided on Chanel No. 5.  Classic, upscale, fashionable, but not edgy, all in all the perfect perfume gift for mom.

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My mother has been in remission for five years.  My father’s gift for this joyous milestone?  Chanel No. 5.  It is the smallest bottle you can find, but for the past five years it sits next to the 90s headbands, big earrings, and numerous bobby pins.  A place of prominence next to the White Diamonds.  We still don’t know if she really likes Taylor’s perfume, but she keeps the bottle.  A reminder of how far we have all come.

I happened to be visiting home the weekend after Taylor’s death.  I went to my mother’s vanity and spritzed White Diamonds.

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