My Father’s Pillow
by Lorne Taichman
Most nights my father slept on an oversized down pillow. It must have been about 3 or 4 times the size of a regular pillow. I think the it helped to alleviate a chronic backache. What made that pillow so memorable was its smell: a warm, comfortable, all-embracing smell that originated from the use of Vitalis. Vitalis was a pale-yellow, greaseless hair tonic for men. It was supposed to keep hair in place all day. It came in a small, clear glass bottle that had a tiny opening at the top so that the bottle could be inverted and the tonic sprinkled on the top of the head without dousing the user. My father applied it every day. He didn’t have a big bush of hair, rather, he had brown, straight hair of medium length, and after he splashed on Vitalis he would work the tonic in with a comb. Before creating the part he would comb his hair forward, straight out in front of him, forming a flying wedge, a pointed prow, a bridge to nowhere. Cantilevered out there it held its shape, defying gravity. When he wasn’t around we kids would sprinkle Vitalis on our heads and try to create that same effect, but we had inherited our mother’s frizzy hair gene making our hair incapable of matching that proud beak.
The smell is difficult to describe. It wasn’t the odor of Vitalis, that clear, pungent, crisp, antiseptic smell; it had the essence of Vitalis at its base, but the scent had been transformed and reformulated by years of sweat, skin oil, body warmth mixed with whatever magic the feather down brought to the brew. It was a smell you didn’t whiff; you buried your head deep into the down, drew in a full breath and allowed the personality to totally envelop you. It was a smell that meant security, safety, continuity, comfort and well-being.
The alternate hair product for men, for those who wanted something more substantial, was Byrlcreem, a greasy, white cream you removed from a wide mouth jar with two or three fingers and rubbed deeply into your head. Again, the purpose was to keep hair in place all day. We kids used Brylcreem – Vitalis was too old fashioned. It took a bit of rubbing to work it evenly into your hair, but once in place it held your hair, no loose ends, guaranteed. Brylcreem was first advertised on television with the jingle “Brylcreem – A little dab’ll do ya! You’ll look so debonair. Brylcreem- the gals’ll all pursue ya, they’ll love to run their fingers through your hair.” Ronald Reagan used Brylcreem. I think we teenagers stuck to Brylcreem because it gave a bit of sheen to our mops, and it felt manly to rub it vigorously into our heads.
Brylcreem had a mild soft odor and although we used it every day, our pillows never acquired a distinctive, friendly Brylcreem-based aroma. In fact, years of Brylcreem led to no pillow odor at all. If you wanted comfort you went to the big pillow.
When we divvied up the contents of my parents’ home, one of the items I took was the big pillow. It rests in a large, green, plastic bag in an upstairs, out-of-the-way closet. That size bag is usually used for tossing out large items of junk, though it fits the big pillow well. However, the smell is gone. As hard as I try, as hard as I pull air through that down into my nostrils, I cannot find that familiar smell. I am filled with deep sadness every time I try. Something so personal, dear and so intimate, is gone forever.
I was an academic medical researcher for several decades at Stony Brook University. I joined the IRP three years ago and have coordinated two courses — Cancer Therapy and A Broken Heart with Bob Braff.