a chest, unlocked



I still have the carved chest. For years my mother stored all her sweaters in it, and they had the distinctive smell of camphorwood. There was a shallow inner box that sat on a ridge around the top. She kept small containers with various pieces of jewellery on the shelf, and gloves. I keep my sweaters in the chest, and the linen tablecloths that have come from John’s mother (embroidered with brilliant flowers by his grandmother in Suffolk),as well as several from the Goodwill on Pembina Highway in Winnipeg, bought while I killed time between readings on a book tour in 2001. I keep my pashminas there too, a kaleidoscope of them, many of them gifts from my children. Everything that comes from the chest carries the smell of my childhood, sharp and arboreal. — from “Tokens”, Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

Sometimes the scent is all it takes and there I am, back in my mother’s bedroom, watching her dab on a tiny drop of My Sin as she got ready to go out with my father. I would have been 6 or 7, and the chest was new, brought home by my father from a long naval trip to the Far East. (I wrote about the trip and the chest in my last book, Euclid’s Orchard.) I’ve been tidying my study, trying to find room for all the papers I prepared for an anticipated visit from librarians interested in acquiring my archive, then delayed. So the papers are organized in boxes and laundry baskets and there’s nowhere else to store them. Given my magpie nature and my tendency to just pile stuff up (“I’ll deal with it later.”), it was hard to find my way to my desk. I have the habit of clearing my desk and as much of the study as I can when I’m trying to find my way into regular writing again and so this weekend I cleared and dusted and moved stuff around. It’s hard to actually get rid of any of it. The big rocks from various riverbeds and beaches. The spruce and pine cones from trees on several continents, including a tree in front of my grandmother’s house in Horni Lomna, in the Czech Republic. My beloved dog Lily’s pelvis! A small level made by John’s paternal grandfather of oak and brass for a tool box he’d put together for John’s father when the family emigrated to Canada in 1953. Worry dolls. Books, books, books. A scanner I was keeping even though I couldn’t download drivers for my current computer but then yesterday, on a whim, I tried again, and voila!

I found room for a small set of bookshelves I built in grade 12 and put all my field-guides and plant books and bird books and that meant moving the chest to another location. I polished it with wood-cleaner and then opened it. Her scent, in a way; at least, her scent in the years she wore Pringle sweaters and gloves stored in the chest, and very occasionally dabbed on My Sin (though the bottle is 3/4 full so she couldn’t have used it very often). At the bottom of the chest was a bag with fabric in it.

two silks

The plain one is actually a very vivid cherry raw silk from Italy, though I bought it in Ottawa, from Woven Streams (actually in Gatineau; I crossed the river to find the shop). The other fabric is Atlas ikat silk brought as a gift by my brother when he worked in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The silk is made from the silk produced by Atlas moths, huge and beautiful creatures; and the fabric is used to make clothing for Uyghur women. I look at these two lengths and imagine something really luxurious—I don’t know, an opera cloak? A rustling skirt? But I can’t sew well enough for anything so lovely and the fabric sits in the chest where it smells of camphorwood and Pringle sweaters and maybe just faintly of My Sin.

Years ago, I read Penelope Lively’s wonderful memoir, A House Unlocked, about her family’s ancestral home in Somerset and thought what a good way to record a family’s history: through its domestic context, its gardens, its implements. For my parents’ home, this would have meant the Melmac plates, the china vase in the shape of a bible with a homily on it, a plaster-of-paris picture of a lighthouse, a lamp on the television in the shape of two ducks flying with a candy dish as its base. We were not a grand family. And after my parents died, I found silver-plated cutlery, including very beautiful salad servers still in their original package, and linen napkins, all wedding gifts, never ever used but saved for an occasion that didn’t happen. What would that have been, I wonder? I use silver for family meals and the linen napkins that are now stained a little but I think of that as a patina, part of the experience and pleasure of use.

On each recovery of Golsoncott, each return to the place now safely stashed in the mind, intact and inviolate, I review the familiar landscape of the house. A left turn out of the vestibule, past the gong stand—the cloakroom door now facing me and, behind that, the red-tiled floor, the wall of pegs slung with old raincoats, riding macs, gardening aprons, sou’westers, my aunt’s hunting bowlers, the rack of walking sticks, the dog leads, everything tinged pink with Somerset earth…Here in the dining room my grandmother played Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky 78s that clicked and clumped from within her adventurous purchase of a radiogram. Here Rachel worked at wood engravings at the fireside. Here, each evening, I laid the table for dinner, abiding by an inexorable formula—the correct selection of implements and impedimenta from the sideboard and the silver cupboard. — from A House Unlocked

I thought of my childhood as without ceremony and ritual (there was no “inexorable formula” for setting the table with the Melmac plates and the glasses—former Cheez Whiz jars, printed with pheasants and ducks), yet when I look at the camphorwood chest, I remember the dusky scented room with my mother stepping into her high-heeled shoes, draping a chiffon scarf around her neck before reaching for her muskrat fur jacket. I remember tracing my fingers across the surface of the chest, trying to read the story of the two men lifting their end of a sedan chair with a pagoda roof (in the photo above you can’t see the man at the back, holding up his end), the occupant just visible through a small opening. I imagined I was that occupant, perhaps being carried to the mountains, the scent of camphorwood heady in the air.

What lasts: a meditation on My Sin

When my mother died two years ago, I carried home the camphorwood chest which my father brought back for her from southeast Asia in 1962. I was in grade one and it was the first time I remember my father being away from us for any length of time. He was in the navy and that trip was three months, or maybe four. A long time for my mother to be alone with 4 children, no car, and no contact with her husband. This was before inexpensive phone calls. He wrote letters. He sent postcards to my brothers and me. And he brought home the chest filled with gifts.

One of the gifts he brought my mother was a bottle of My Sin Eau de Lanvin. She kept it in the trunk and wore it for very special occasions. She’d dab a little behind her ears, on her wrists, and on a little cotton pad which she’d tuck into her bra. Once when I was about 15, I went surreptitiously into her bedroom, opened the trunk, and soaked a tiny cotton pad with My Sin which I tucked into my own bra before going to a school sock-hop. I felt so sophisticated. I imagined boys swooning at my feet. But alas, I don’t believe a single one asked me to dance.

I have the bottle of My Sin on my desk as I write. It’s still in its original box, though the top of the box is missing. Paris France is printed across the bottom of the box and a circle with 85˚. On the back of the box: 225 GR.Env.Par Flacon. The bottle is ¾ full of an amber liquid, the Sin itself.

my sin

I imagine my father bought it at a dutyfree store. Did he sniff a number of perfumes and did this one speak to him of my mother, whom he loved, and the woman she was to him, elegant and alluring? Before they had children, I think they went to a few fancy dances but that ended with our births. There wasn’t often enough money for babysitters or new dresses. But very occasionally she’d dab on her perfume and put on her muskrat coat, check the seams of her nylons to make sure they were straight, and out they’d go, into the night, her scent drifting back to me. As it does now, sniffing the cap of the bottle.

I try to find out about My Sin. There are many sites on the Internet devoted to the history of perfume and this is what I learn about my mother’s: Lanvin My Sin (Mon Peche) was created back in 1924 by a mysterious Russian lady called “Madame Zed”, who worked on several more Lanvin fragrances.This feminine, provocative and dangerously seductive fragrant composition begins with aldehydes, bergamot, lemon, clary sage and neroli. The middle notes are: ylang-ylang, jasmine, rose, clove, orris, lily-of-the-valley, narcissus and lilac. The base is oriental – woody with vetiver, vanilla, musk, woody notes, tolu balm, styrax and civet. The perfume was discontinued in 1988, but it is still available on line.”

What do I do with a bottle of fifty-year-old perfume? (I am 57 myself.) It’s not something I’d wear. I discovered Chanel 19 in 1972 and never have found any reason to change. I don’t even know if this bottle is still viable. Does perfume turn to vinegar, as an opened bottle wine will if not used within a reasonable time? When I sniff the bottle cap, I say that I smell my mother but how can that be? She wore perfume so seldom —  ¼ of a bottle over 48 years. Maybe she knew she would never have another bottle of French perfume, maybe she wanted to ration it to keep the memory of my father’s return fresh. What I am smelling is the way I would like to remember her, in a rustling cocktail dress one or two evenings only, her feet wiggling into pretty shoes, checking her seams in the bedroom mirror, her eyes bright with anticipation – she loved to dance! Not the old disappointments, a daughter who didn’t visit often enough, the house sold, her husband dead, the days growing shorter and shorter as the year approached the longest night, the bottle of French perfume forgotten in the camphorwood chest, among the gloves and her one cashmere sweater, an old silk square from Zanzibar folded neatly on the bottom.