By Julia Wilson
My 21-year-old son and I are wearing, by happenstance, matching pairs of Birkenstocks. Yes, we live in a city which is the epitome of the liberal East Coast. I spend my days chatting with people who I wholly agree with on the subject of Democrats vs. Republicans, Trump, abortion, vaccines, social services, climate change, and almost everything else. It all seems so obvious to us. Of course, the opposite opinions seem obvious to the opposite side, I’m sure. The disdain everyone harbors for the other side is palpable. Where is the tolerance?
I was born in 1963 and by 1966 was living in northern California — hippie mecca — with my family. We had a house in the suburbs; my father worked at a news station; my mother stayed at home. We had neat haircuts and sensible shoes. I experienced the 60s Revolution mostly by stealthily peering through the railings of the staircase to catch glimpses of my parents and their friends downstairs in the living room, drinking and laughing and swaying to Judy Collins and Bob Dylan. They were dressed in flowing Indian cotton gowns and puffy sleeved paisley shirts unbuttoned at the neck. The women had long, loose tresses and the men had sideburns and hair curling at the napes of their necks. My father had a substantial moustache.
These were not the hippies of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, living crammed In ramshackle houses covered with batik bedspreads, smoking hashish pipes and living hand to mouth. My parents and their friends lived across the Golden Gate Bridge in quiet Marin County. The men, and a few of the women, got up each weekday, put on business clothes and spent eight hours in an office. They were married, not shacking up, they had department store clothing-dressed children whom they helped with homework after a casserole dinner competently prepared by the wives, who bustled around the kitchens of their actual mid-century modest 4- bedroom homes.
Occasionally Marin County and Haight-Ashbury would find their lives intersecting. They crossed paths on the sidewalks of San Francisco or Berkeley, they mingled at Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin concerts at the Fillmore, and they dressed up in motley costumes for the Renaissance Fair. The Renaissance Fair was a family event, and I attended dressed as a court jester.
My parents were intrigued by the hippies. I doubt I could say the same for the hippies about my parents. I think my parents romanticized the nomadic existence of the hippies; I know the hippies had no use for the 9-to-5 suburban hamster wheel life of my parents.
But there was one commonality — they all seemed to love patchouli oil. The scent of patchouli oil punctuated my childhood years. My parents going out for an evening and the babysitter coming in — wafts of patchouli colliding in the doorway. At neighborhood barbecues and at the local swimming pool, patchouli weighed heavily in the air. The musky scent lingered in the halls of my elementary school. Miss Sheldon, who roller skated in the halls after dismissal, wore it every day. The scent of patchouli was the scent of the middle section of a Venn diagram – a drop of the oil was where vastly different worlds met and intermingled.
Patchouli oil, which is an extract from an Asian plant, is sweet, strong, and spicy, with earthy tones of the forest and the meadow. It’s musky and inviting, and smells like heat. It’s not the scent for a corporate boardroom; it brings to mind passion and arousal. Patchouli oil was the essence of the freedom of the libertine 60s. It could easily be overpowering.
I don’t know why my mother, who was far from libertine, wore it. But I do know when she put it on, a dot or two on the inside of her wrist, and then shimmered down the stairs in a burgundy colored gown festooned with tiny mirrors, she was transformed in my eyes from the mother who made grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch into a spirit of nature who delighted us all.
We are missing, in this time of strife and name-calling, a bond in the form of a simple, pleasurable metaphorical bridge like patchouli oil to calm our angry antagonism.
Julia Wilson is a retired lactation consultant and currently pursuing an M.A. in Writing at Johns Hopkins University.