A few days after my grandmother passed away, I found myself putting on the Maja perfume I had stored in my drawer as memorabilia. I sprayed a bit on my neck and wrists, but the smell quickly inundated my small New York City bedroom. I was immediately transported to the days I spent at my grandmother’s house, perusing her makeup vanity without her permission. I quickly realized that I’d never get to smell her again.
Abuela Justina grew up in the rural area of Puerto Rico in a town called Aguas Buenas and stopped going to school in third grade. She later moved to Caguas, where she birthed a dozen kids and helped raise over 20 grandchildren. By the time I was a teenager, the Santiago Cáez clan could easily sum up to 70 people in one party. Abuela was the matriarch of us all, even before my grandfather Toño died in the 80s.
Her signature scent was Maja, the Spanish brand that took over the vanities of abuelas throughout Latin America, established in 1918. My abuela wore the polvo every day, carrying the smell of citrus, lavender, spice, and woods with her. Her house, bedroom, clothes, and even my mom’s car after we dropped her off smelled like Maja.
The latter years of her life she spent at an elderly home, where me and my mom would regularly visit. She’d stare at our faces, trying to battle the decade of dementia that had taken away her memories of us. The smell of Maja was also gone.
Last year, I bought myself my first bottle of Maja perfume. I was in Barcelona, visiting the Poble Espanyol, when I stumbled upon a shop selling Maja products. There were body washes, makeup, soaps, and, of course, the perfume. The seller could see I was flabbergasted with the Maja stand, looking through the products in awe like I once did at my grandmother’s vanity. “I’ll take the perfume,” I said to the store clerk, handing over 40 euros.
I hadn’t planned on wearing the perfume at all. I simply wanted a memory of who my grandmother used to be before her memories washed away. I wanted to hold on to the power of her smell, that incredibly inundating smell of abuela that made me miss her and the times we all spent with her.
Abuela’s death in October 2020 shocked me like an earthquake. I was in New York City in the middle of a pandemic unable to travel to Puerto Rico to say goodbye at her funeral. I recited Psalm 23– the one she taught me as a ki– in an effort to feel closer to her, even if I’ve distanced myself from Christianity for years. But still, nothing could bring me abuelita back.
I opened my top drawer to find the bottle of Maja perfume, knowing that once I opened that bottle, I’d cry tears of joy and sorrow. The smell made me feel like abuela was never gone as long as I held on to her teachings: to always look my best.