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.
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.