On a recent walk through the park near our house, I noticed a small tree that had a tag loosely affixed to it, so I stopped to have a look.  Upon closer inspection, I saw that the tag was actually a plaque identifying the young tree as a shagbark hickory, donated to the park by a woman whose name I recognized because she had once been a journalist at our local newspaper.  The tree had been planted in memory of her son, whose name I remembered also, and in that instant their story came flooding back to me: a snowy morning some years back, the roads dangerously slick, she had been driving her kids to school and had pulled over to the side of the road.  I’m not certain of the details, but somehow her little boy got out of her car and was fatally struck by another vehicle.  I remember hearing the tragic news on the radio, first, and then having it brought home to me when my niece arrived at my house later that day.  The boy’s older sisters attended the same middle school as she did.  My niece did not know the little boy, but was shaken by her classmates’ loss, and I recall my own forlorn feeling at not having answers to her questions about this kind of tragedy: is it God’s will, or just a terribly unfortunate accident, the cost of being human on planet Earth?  I’m not sure what I said to console her, those several years ago, but when I unexpectedly came upon this tree in the snow and read its marker, a shock went through me, as if I’d stumbled upon a bookmark to a passage I had once known, but had completely forgotten; a strange wormhole in the space-time continuum of grief, even grief that is not your own, but the second- or third-hand grief of someone else.

February 21, 2008

In Memory

In her book, Circling My Mother: A Memoir, author Mary Gordon chooses a number of angles at looking back over her mother’s life, so as to remember her in the fullest way possible, in all her many roles: family breadwinner, whose earnings paid her parents’ mortgage and put four of her siblings through nursing school and college; survivor of polio that severely crippled her at the age of three; devout Catholic; single mother; stylish dresser who loved movies and theatre.  Because her mother’s life at the end was ravaged by alcoholism and dementia, Gordon seeks to resurrect the vital woman she once knew—the mother she yearns to “meet again”—through various means, including the experience of wearing and exploring her mother’s perfume, “the perfume my mother always wore for ‘special occasions,’” Gordon writes, “Arpège by Lanvin.”  After spotting an advertisement for Arpège at a duty-free shop on her way home from a trip to London, Gordon asks the sales clerk for a sample to try on.  After rubbing some on her wrists, “I walk around in it,” the author writes.  “To see if I can bear wearing my mother’s scent.  To see if I can bear being my mother.”

Gordon devotes a number of pages in her book to her exploration of the perfume, but it is her memory of the ritual involved in her mother’s application of the perfume—and of her own attempts as a child to latch onto her mother’s perfumed scent—that I find nostalgically touching. Gordon writes:  

When my mother wanted to use Arpège, she would cover the opening of the bottle with her index finger, tip it back once, twice, then press her moistened finger first to her wrists, then behind her ears.  Then she would hold a linen handkerchief against the bottle’s opening and tip it back until a drop or two saturated the cloth.  She would put the cloth into her special handbag—for evenings out—and the more vivid scent that the cloth had absorbed would be taken into the leather.

“When she was away, at work or out at a meeting, I would go into her drawer, open her purse, and put my nose close, close against the leather, breathing it in, the animal leather smell an undercurrent still against the sophisticated scent that had become one with its essence, with its texture, the absorption transforming them both.  So I would smell the leather, then the handkerchief, and then, in a fit of radical daring, open the bottle to smell the perfume itself.*

If I had not recognized the names on the plaque of that tree, I probably would not have been so affected, but I think I’d still have been moved.  Because in the moments after I stopped thinking about Andrew, the boy who died, and Margaret, the mother who remembered him with something that seems so fitting in spirit with a little boy—a young tree, poised for upward, sprawling, leafy growth, in a park where children play—I thought about all of the ways that people memorialize their loved ones.  There are, of course, the really big memorials, the mausoleums and statues and what not, but I was thinking of the quiet, tender, wholly personal ways we choose to honor someone’s memory.  Most of the time, these are visual markers, like roadside shrines or tattoos (I had not realized how many people get tattoos in remembrance of loved ones until I watched Miami Ink) or something carved in stone or brick.  For some, the spoken word or music becomes the tribute through poem or song.  And for writers, such remembrances often take the shape of a memoir (which, though monumental in terms of undertaking and scope, is at its heart a work of great intimacy).

Reading Mary Gordon’s moving memoir, seeing the small tree in the park, I think about my own family—the three people I miss most, who have been dead for many years now: my father, who was a farmer and yet also a man who liked to go out on the town, a sharp-dressed man who loved tailored clothes and the bottle of Guerlain Vetiver I bought him from the drugstore when I was a teenager; his mother, my grandmother, who never wore perfume but who instilled a love of books and art and flower gardening in me; and my maternal grandfather, who was also a farmer but, again, a man who liked to put on a good shirt and necktie, to go out dancing, and who also loved the scent I bought for him—the Chanel Pour Monsieur that I gave to him when he was 90, and which he went through an entire bottle of when his “lady friend” declared that she liked it too.

I wonder if my life now is my memorial to them—an accidental memorial, rather than one made intentionally—this dabbling with perfumes and book publishing.  My renewed enthusiasm over the last few years for flower gardening.  On a good day, I like to believe that my life pays tribute to them, at least in some small way.  In my humbler moments, I realize these things are not a memorial or tribute of any sort, but rather the souvenirs they left me, their imprints on me.  Either way, they are markers:  reminders of the people I had the great fortune to love, and a reminder, too, of how very brief our time is with anyone that we love, no matter what age they live to.

*From Circling My Mother: A Memoir, copyright © 2007 by Mary Gordon (Pantheon Books, 2007, page 220).

(A special thank you to my friends Mary and Kara for recommending this book.)

Images: photo of Lavin Arpege from ImaginationPerfumery.com; photos of tree are my own.

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