Monday, February 18, 2008

Perfume Memories: Mitsouko

Adolescence is a strange and awkward time, yet it is in this period of life that we encounter sensory experiences that stay with us forever. When I look back on my adolescent days I recall feeling like no one could see who I was. I remember the nostalgic and admiring looks given to me by my parents’ friends, many of whom foisted their own experiences and expectations on my “potential” without giving any thought to my individuality. Though their intentions were good, I found their perspective extremely irritating. I retaliated by engaging in intellectual mutiny and though I was generally well-behaved, there was a distinct period when I did not enjoy spending time with my parents' friends. There was one exception, a beautiful woman named Aldona who reveled in decorum and femininity unlike any woman I had ever known. Aldona saw me for who I truly was, irrespective of the past or the future. Under the tutelage of her blue-eyed gaze she held a mirror to my senses and introduced me to myself.

Though she died nineteen years ago I can still hear her voice, its cadence wrapped in a soft Polish accent radiant with charm, wit and passion. With or without makeup, Aldona’s face was beautiful to look at. She was graced with high cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes and thick sable blonde hair which she kept up in a bun. Time, war and cigarettes gave her laugh lines and crow’s feet, but there was something about the way she carried herself that softened everything. If you stared at her face long enough, you could pull back the years and see her at twenty, lit up from inside, devastatingly beautiful.

My mother and I would regularly visit Aldona for tea and it was at her table that I first sipped Earl Grey. I had always associated tea drinking with being sick and never experienced it as a relaxing ritual, replete with porcelain teapots and cups. A refreshing floral aroma rose above the steam in my cup and my inquisitiveness was instantly stirred. Compelled by the need to know what was moving my senses, I asked Aldona about the aroma. She handed me a yellow Twinning’s tea tin and I learned the name of an ingredient that would become a lifelong favorite; bergamot. After drinking Earl Grey I gave up dabbing Love’s Fresh Lemon behind my ears and graduated to a more sophisticated fragrance; Max Factor’s Khara (1976), a fragrance which contained bergamot in the top note.

There were never any men at the tea table and in their absence matters of beauty would be discussed with abandon. This was preferable to conversations about World War II which would inevitably crop up if Aldona’s husband (a former soldier in the Polish army) and my father (a teenage survivor of Auschwitz) were tempted by tea and cookies. Once a month, Aldona was visited by an Avon lady named Rae who would deliver makeup and fragrance to her home. Eye shadow, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick, anything with color intrigued and excited Aldona. It was 1978 and I was in high school. Color appealed me and it was Aldona who convinced my mother that color cosmetics were not the enemy if they were used with discretion. In 1978, the same year Poland’s Karol Jósef Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, I became the proud owner of a few Avon eye shadow sticks.

It was shortly after my induction into eye shadow that the subject of perfume came up at the tea table. Aldona began speaking about Guerlain’s Mitsouko with the honey-like sweetness of someone peacefully talking in their sleep. When she said Mitsouko it was as if she had unleashed everything that shaped the woman she had become. Mitsouko was an eternal bookmark on a favorite page lovingly committed to memory for safekeeping, a symbol of femininity. Aldona got up from the table and went into her bedroom, returning with an ivory-handled hairbrush. She released her hair and began brushing it in long strokes as she spoke about how much she loved Mitsouko. I was mesmerized by the way her hair fell in thick streams across her shoulders, how it made her eyes brighter, her words more intense, everything about her more alive.

Aldona’s impenetrable spirit was no match for a weak heart. Eleven years later, in the month of March, the family dog began barking and crying at her bedside, rousing her sleeping husband. My parents told me that that Aldona was in the throes of a heart attack and died in her husband’s arms that morning. I was deeply saddened and at a loss for words, but moved by the way she left this world. I imagined her in a white cotton dressing gown, hair unfettered, meeting eternity like a beautiful heroine. I think of her every time I open a bottle of Mitsouko and the top note of bergamot hits my nose…

Florida at Dawn

The moon is low in the sky,
And a sweet south wind is blowing
Where the bergamot blossoms breathe and die
In the orchard’s scented snowing;
But the stars are few, and scattered lie
Where the sinking moon is going.

With a love-sweet ache a strain
Of the night’s delicious fluting
Stirs in the heart, with as sweet a pain
As the flower feels in fruiting,
And the soft air breathes a breath of rain
Over buds and tendrils shooting.

For the sweet night faints and dies,
Like the blush when love confesses
Its passion dusk to the cheeks and eyes
And dies in its sweet distresses,
And the radiant mystery fills the skies
Of possible happinesses,

Till the sun breaks out on sheaves
And mouths of a pink perfume,
There the milky bergamot shakes its leaves;
And the rainbow’s ribbon bloom,
Of the soft gray mist of the morning, weaves
A rose in the rose’s loom.

The fog, like a great white cloth,
Draws out of the orchard and corn,
And melts away in a film of froth
Like the milk spray on the thorn;
And out of her chamber’s blush and loath,
Like a bride, comes the girlish morn.
Source: Excerpt from: Harney, Will Wallace. "A Florida Dawn" Harper's New Monthly Magazine, June. 1875, Volume 51, Issue 301, pp. 66–67. Listen to the poem being read via MP3 here, courtesy of Lit2Go.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Aldona Joskow.