The Magnitude of the Magnolia

I love flowers for their treachery
their fragile bodies
grace my imagination’s avenues

without their presence
my mind would be an unmarked
grave.

–from The Spring Flowers Own by Etel Adnan

May, my favorite month, the month of ambrosial blossoms—jasmine, honeysuckle, catalpa, clover, and magnolia, the flower Neruda loved, comparing it to a wave, a seagull, an onion (an onion??). Onions aside, he celebrated the magnolia’s perfume. That nose jolt of heady, honeyed air always makes me stand still and take long, deep breaths, fully present.

I rarely encounter a blooming magnolia tree without remembering my mother-in-law, the quintessential Southern woman. Despite having lived the last fifty years of her life in Tennessee, she never stopped pronouncing her r’s like h’s. She grew up in Tallahassee but was always quick to point out, “I was bohn in Chahleston, and ouh family is descended from Govnuh Bull, the first govnuh of South Ca-uhlina.” She was especially proud of her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, perhaps because it compensated for the sorority she was cheated out of as a young woman.

At first, I didn’t think she was keen on the idea of having me for a daughter-in-law. I was not in the same social class. My mother was a working widow with a sixth-grade education who had never heard of the DAR, and, even if she had, wouldn’t have been impressed. As for me, I was a little uneasy in the presence of a woman so meticulously groomed, so well-versed in Emily Post etiquette, afraid of using the wrong fork or of spilling something on all that linen or creamy carpet. She was the only woman I had ever known who hosted teas, owned a mink stole, and employed a housekeeper.

But she was not a reader, and that fact alone soon made me feel superior. Only a non-reader, I thought, could hate having Ophelia as a middle name, Hamlet’s fair Ophelia who inspired all those beautiful Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Libby was the only name she acknowledged. Still later, when I was mature enough to realize that biology rules everything and that who we are is mostly luck, I was more understanding of her literary apathy. I believe she may have had, like all of us on that troublesome continuum, a mild form of ADD which caused her to avoid tasks that require sustained concentration. As I came to know her better, I also realized that she and I had something fundamental in common. Our fathers died when we were teenagers, and there was not enough money to send us to college. Because of that, we became adept at reinventing ourselves through our innate talents, for me art and literature, for her social graces. She wasn’t a reader, but she had refinement, classic taste, and a joyful personality and was popular and admired in her small town in East Tennessee.

Her favorite perfume for as I long as I knew her was L’Air du Temps.L'Air du Temps parfum Nina Ricci launched that fragrance in 1948 to commemorate the end of WWII and to capture ‘the spirit if the times’ which marked a return to optimism, elegance, and romance. A frosted glass dove perched on the stopper, symbol of peace and love. Libby would have been 29 then, a young wife with a five-year old son (my future husband) and a husband establishing a career as an electrical engineer. After piloting a fighter bomber during the war, he earned an engineering degree with honors in only eighteen months. Like many starting from scratch, there was no wasting time.  She probably wasn’t able to afford that fragrance for several more years, but it was in her sights as surely as the success her generation knew would come with hard work and frugality.

I can still see her spraying it on the insides of her wrists and saying, “I feel so rich.” She said that often, whether wearing a new outfit, tasting a rich dessert, or opening a birthday or Christmas gift, but I don’t think she ever really did feel rich even after my father-in-law’s engineering firm became successful. Maybe it was just her generation, but she rarely bought anything that wasn’t on sale. My husband used to joke about how her kitchen counters were always covered in paper towels spread to dry for re-use. I can’t imagine her ever buying the expensive L’Air du Temps parfum, certainly not in the Lalique bottle created in 1951; I only remember her using the eau de toilette.

When I met her, L’Air du Temps seemed a bit old-fashioned to me, like Shalimar and Chanel No. 5. I was into White Shoulders and Estée and, later, Je Reviens, Paris, and Rive Gauche. I was fickle where perfume was concerned but now realize that all the fragrances I have loved are, like L’Air du Temps, florals, all formulas rich in Southern white flowers—gardenia, jasmine, magnolia. Over the years, I saw my and Libby’s taste overlap in other areas, not just in perfume—we both loved finding bargains, beautiful old-fashioned things, hot tea, Chopin, fresh flowers—and we were both born in May, our birthdays four days apart. I no longer wear perfume because 95% of the chemicals used in affordable fragrances today are synthetic, mostly toxic compounds derived from petroleum, and I doubt Libby ever knew about the cheaper reformulation of L’Air du Temps in the 80’s; but I miss wearing them. And I miss Libby.

She was socially active until the very end when she suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage alone in her assisted living apartment. She was 82, had been a widow for fourteen years, and was dancing the night before she died. Certain things will always remind me of her—peignoirs and Daniel Green bed slippers, porcelain eggs and demitasse cups, Limoges china and Hummel angels, Jif Peanut Butter, saltines and instant grits (which she carried with her whenever she traveled)…and, of course, L’Air du Temps, her signature perfume, and the fragrant month of May.

It comes on like a flower from the earth
advancing with decisive aroma
up to the magnitude of the magnolia;
but this flower from the depths already burst
brings along all the light ever abolished,
all the branches that never burned
and all the spring-source of whiteness.

–from The Wave by Pablo Neruda

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About judy loest

writer, reader, artist, walker, Tai Chi-er with a passion for literature, libraries, reader- as opposed to shopper-bookstores, cats, cemeteries, film (esp foreign, esp French), nature, organic food, and old things, esp ephemera (photos, postcards, letters), buttons, lace, esp old things made in France...does that make me a Frantiquarian?
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One Response to The Magnitude of the Magnolia

  1. Once more, I enjoyed your words. My mother-in-law was quite different from your Libby. She was a reader and thinker and didn’t give a second thought to keeping a house clean and orderly. Nor was she into elegance of any sort, but she would sit at the table for hours after a meal and discuss anything I wanted to talk about. And she had always just read something of great interest. She educated herself on physics and other sciences through her reading though she had no college education. Thanks for turning my thoughts to mothers-in-law. I miss mine also.

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