She was born with just right balance of moxie and elegance, which served her well throughout the years. As a little girl in the orphanage, she was always the one chosen to be dressed up in a pinafore with a big bow in her hair and displayed to the wealthy families who came to view the children for possible adoption. Even thought she would curtsy and smile just as she was taught, the little boys were always the first choice. It was Columbia, South America after all and the year was 1908.
It wasn’t a terrible life. The nuns were kind enough and even though they were too busy to pay individual attention to all their charges on a daily basis, they treated Isabel with a certain reverence. In her quiet, confident way, she seemed to stand out from the others and they sensed this. Mother Superior would always pat her on the head as she walked by and whisper “Eres una estrella brillante” (“You are a shining star”). Isabel treasured those words and would remember them for the rest of her life.
She had little choice where she was to go once she outgrew the orphanage. Mother Superior took special care to make sure that her placement fit her distinctive personality. She had her assigned to a positon as a maid in the home of a wealthy Spanish family who just happened to have a son close to her age. The rest would take care of itself, she surmised, as she smiled to herself and made the sign of the cross.
While Isabel felt fortunate to live with such luxury around her and absorbed the refinement and gentility into her nature, the years were passing by and she had a gnawing feeling that there was more to life. While the family was kind to her, and their son, Manolo, was noticeably infatuated with her, once he left for college, she felt it was also time for her to move on.
She had saved up enough money for a one-way ticket by ship to New York and set her plan in motion. Jobs did not come easy then, but with much determination, she found herself reporting to work at the National Biscuit Company a week later. Convinced that her factory job of sorting and packing cookies would be short term, she did so with that same style and grace that she was now becoming known for.
She met Florence on her very first day of work. Both strong-minded and full of dreams, they soon became best friends. Together, they made up for their lack of formal education with their uncanny ability to charm their way in (or out) of any situation. They would pool their money and smile coyly as they greeted the owner of the fabric store and then ask for a discount. Isabel would design the dresses that Florence would sew. Now, they felt confident enough to attend a dance at one of the big New York clubs or take in a movie together. They held hands as they had their hair cut off into a bob, the flapper style that was considered a bit rebellious.
Isabel had originally chosen New York for two reasons: it’s allure and the fact that Manolo was attending college there. It did not take long for him to respond in person to the note, scented with her perfume that she hand-delivered to the school office. They married as soon as he graduated and settled on Long Island, a suburban area of New York City. Hers was a charmed life in a beautiful home with a loving, successful husband.
She remained best friends with Florence her entire life, which is where I come in. Florence was my grandmother and that is how I got to know Titi Isabel (an affectionate term for aunt, in Spanish). Neither my parents nor my grandparents would dare make any decorating or fashion decisions without consulting her first. She was our very own Latin Coco Chanel.
I was used to the fact that my family did not allow sleepovers with minor exceptions; Titi Isabel and Manolo being one of them. As the oldest child in a household with a toddler and an infant, I was delighted to be invited to spend the weekend in such a sophisticated, adult world. Our scrambled eggs were prepared with just a dash of white wine. For lunch, we’d dine on buttered chicken sandwiches served on Pepperidge Farms bread (rather than the big loaf of no-name, sale white bread we’d have at home). Titi Isabel and I would dress together for our outings to New York City “Eres una estrella brillante” she would whisper to me as she’d dab some of her perfume behind my ear.
It was when Titi Isabel died that I was finally able to get my grandmother to divulge the name of her perfume. Just like her past, she wished to keep her scent a secret, hoping it would fade away with time. Likening her choice of fragrance to her elegant nature, my hunt, for the elusive product that now had a name, started at the most prestigious department stores. Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel; my search continued as I told myself that, in this instance, money was no object.
I cannot say that I was disappointed when I paid the cashier at Walgreens for the largest bottle of that perfume that I could find. It seemed a testament to a life well lived, made up of the top and the bottom, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad. One woman’s choices made with an inherent confidence that could elevate nothing into something all because of who she was.
I dab that perfume behind my ears every day with a smile, hoping its bouquet will give me a whiff of who I might become if I let myself unfold just a bit more elegantly and mysteriously.