digging (into) vintage: Jean Patou Joy, 1930

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(image source John Lund)

Perfumer Henri Alméras

I’ve mentioned a few times recently, so I suspect I’m trying to prove a point to myself, that I don’t view my life as a narrative. I suppose this is one reason that although I love perfume, I’m not terribly romantic about it. To call memory a reflection gives it too much weight. A reflection suggests more clarity than memory can offer. The jump from experience to memory is quick yet in that instant so much filtering and editing occurs that I can’t call memory anything but fiction.

When I think of Jean Patou Joy, I think of my mother. When she was a girl, her brother James Francis brought her a bottle of Joy from France when he returned from the Second World War. She must have been 13, but she kept it close for over 60 years. She wore it only on very special occasions and mostly it sat in its box in a bureau drawer. If she wore perfume otherwise, which was not often, she wore Lanvin Arpège. I don’t think my mother particularly enjoyed perfume–I never saw her sniff her wrist, never heard her mention it–but the bottle of Joy obviously had meaning for her. I think it held important memories—her youth, her older brother who doted on her and mostly the safe return of three of her brothers from the war. I’ve loved the scent for as long as I can remember and as a kid would often sneak a sniff of the bottle. I imagine I loved the fragrance itself more than my mother did, yet the perfume and the story were hers.

I recently found the bottle packed away in my father’s basement. I half expected Joy would sweep me up and carry me away—you know, Proust’s madeleine—but it didn’t. Despite the fictions of memory I do think of my mother when I sniff the bottle but it’s more pensive than visceral.

The bottle of Joy has had great significance for me over the years, its most recent lesson being that you can’t stage the ‘Rosebud’ moment. But I’ll tell you where the moment found me. My mother is living with very advanced dementia. She hasn’t been able to speak to me in years. Early in her dementia we used to talk by phone every day, though we lived on opposites coasts of the US. Most of the discussions were about nothing in particular but only as she grew unable to carry on the conversation did I realize how important the small ways of keeping in touch were.

Clearing out some papers last week I found a couple of folded sheets of paper that for god knows what reason I printed out years ago. The contents of these papers were a compilation of five or six emails back and forth between me and my mother discussing a recipe for tofu that my husband David had. I laughed out loud and knew that Marguerite would have, too. What could be more ridiculous than a decade-old string of emails about tofu? But here she was. I heard her voice, her laugh. I remembered.

My lesson about memory and how wonderfully little control I have over it is to wear the perfume and relish the emails.

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