I am a sucker for roses. Not necessarily the flower but for its perfume. It’s the finest thing there is anywhere. The bench mark of poetry and sweet romance established for me in Sri Lanka’s hill country where a playboy friend of my father’s cultivated roses. Not the roses one runs into at gardens in temperate northern climes these days. These were roses of a myriad hues so rare and magical; perfumed by ancient gilded poetry books and cobble stoned back alley perfumeries. Ancient stories of incense and myrrh and of unknown and mysterious love. The finest of spices and sweetest honey and sugar that some of them made you almost want to eat them. That moment in my life when all the fantasies that were yet to be imagined were shown to me in the form of beauty and perfume. A promise; a pact.
Sugary sweet in notes I had never known. Some ice creamy and sublime. Some were recognizable cream soda, one had the spice of cloves but sweetened and filtered without the harshness. The perfume of strawberries which I had yet to meet and infused with a pipette’s edge with coal tar. And cardamom. There was cardamom in those roses. Caramel. Burned sugar. There were so many others sweet smells that I did not even recognize except that it was the truth of some other place or other world. Never have I seen so many perfumes and hues and beauty in one place. The layers of petals their texture their soft tenderness; the way they were arranged petal on petal sometimes tightly coiled some beginning to open. Could it be that I had already seen so many thorns that they smelled sweeter than sweet for me. A fact that this was truth, this was beauty and never to be controverted. I believed. I believed then in the tender soft chill somewhere near Nuwara Eliya and I must have been ten? twelve? I don’t know. When I was still not sure where babies came from and things like that.
My father’s playboy friend also reared pigs to be sold for bacon to Elephant House or Goldi the then in-country purveyors of cold meat as it was called — Bacon, ham, sausages and such. Charcuterie was not a word I knew then. A luxury for most inhabitants and usually bought as a rare treat in our household. Great big animals wallowing in the chocolatey squishy luxury of mud. And just a few feet away from the fascinatingly disgusting pig pen was my father’s friend’s wondrous rose garden.
The rose and pig farmer had a peasant woman who he kept and she tended the farm with him though most of the time he was socializing in Colombo far away from the farm. She must have worked a lot. Back breaking work raising pigs and tending roses. Even at that young age I knew this was not legit but I was fascinated by the transgression of it all because I heard my parents discuss that he was a womanizer that he went out to posh night clubs with many a woman in Colombo and here he was with a peasant woman in peasant clothes not beautiful in the sense of Colombo elegance. The story was that he was an arch womanizer but he had a son with this woman and he must have been a toddler then about three or four at the most. We played together. Though the talk was of a womanizer, a playboy, a hunter, a dog owner, a rose cultivator, and his illegitimate son, I saw a certain nobleness in the situation. This confluence of a loku mahaththaya a hamu and a poor peasant woman and a child and the beauty of roses. The rose pig farmer truly loved his son even I could tell that. There was love there. But what did I know.
For our holiday those few days to a week we stayed with this playboy friend of my father’s in there country house which was more of a shack than a house and that is where I came face to face with life’s true perfume and beauty. Roses. While my father and my brothers and the other males went out hunting with dogs in tow and brought back rabbits and other small game I spent most of my hours sniffing and touching what seemed like hundreds of roses and feasting on their colours and perfume; in splendid isolation with occasional breaks to gape at the pigs.
Roses are not that common in a hot country like Sri Lanka and if one came across them they were from a somewhat ragged and leggy plant in the heat and humidity of Colombo; and the flowers were usually paltry and orphan-like. They did somewhat better in the hill country. But the roses at the pig farm were of sublime tender beauty, dewy and perfumed. Different colours from the black rose to the mauve to the pink to the white to the glorious yellow. Tea roses was a word thrown around then. Mottled, variegated. I had never seen anything like it except perhaps in the Colombo shops but there they looked artificial and often tired and unnatural in those settings. Usually red and nothing much else. No shades in between.
Every colour and shade on the earth and in the sky must have been present in that rose garden in the misty hills near Nuwara Eliya so close to those pigs. Anything that was sweet or pleasant smelling and perfume-worthy was there. Everything and anything that smelled like poetry. Like love yet unknown. And ever since then I’ve been smitten by the rose or anything rose-like in smell or taste. From rose water to Gewürztraminer. To soap.
Unfortunately where I’ve lived in urban settings I’ve never had the good fortune to grow roses. Long ago at home I did try to get them to flower and sometimes after much trouble one or two bloomed but nothing like what was grown by the pig farmer. May be in another lifetime. I have spent small fortunes buying roses or things with rose in them. While this is not a plug for Lush they have robbed me of a king’s ransom peddling heart shaped bath bomb type things that smell of roses. And when you put them in the bath about four rose buds float wondrously in the water and one can imagine you are Ophelia floating down river with flowers trailing except one is not dead. And I cheat truth buying bottles of fine rose water and put them in my water and sometimes in my tea. I even make rose jelly to top ice cream with. I know at least one woman in Quebec who makes perfect rose jelly and you can buy it in the Pembroke farmers market or at least you could when I used to visit. Then there is rose petal jam that sometimes comes here from Turkey. Again heaven with very good ice cream or even yogurt. And anyone who knows me well enough cannot escape this madness I have with the rose. I want to eat them I want to smell them and I want to see them and I want to be them. I want them in my mind like imagined secret lovers that are coddled and coveted secretly in my heart.
I shamelessly charm Arjuna’s girlfriends with rose water concoctions when he brings them home to me like lovely presents and it always works like a magic potion. I’ve yet to meet a girlfriend of Arjuna’s who did not go crazy over the perfume of roses. May be Arjuna first tests them with roses to make sure before he decides to present them to me.
I cannot imagine meeting someone who does not love roses. Of course I have never checked that fact out with everyone I’ve met but perhaps it is something worthwhile to check; may be they are nicer people if they like roses especially their perfume.
A few years ago; may be five, six, seven or more Arjuna decided he needed a break from Toronto and took a plane to Paris for a week. We are not big consumers and shoppers in our family and we are not very big about wrapping gifts in fancy paper and stuff. But when it comes to love we have a way of showing it. Birthdays, Christmas and stuff. When the French Laundry cookbook came out and I was going on and on about it and Thomas Keller I did not realize that anyone noticed until late one cold mid-winter night Arjuna brought it home to me. Unwrapped of course but inscribed with a little note saying – Happy Birthday Mom!!! One day I will make you something out of this book! – that was winter 2004 and may be he was still in University then. I still remember that night. I was up late and TV Ontario was playing a repeat of Buena Vista Social Club. Arjuna walked in and he probably came on the late bus and we watched the film and talked into the morning.
You think that your children don’t notice the things that matter most to you; most of the time it looks that way. You believe as you slog through the day to day, the mundane, the horrific, the cash flow nightmares, the illnesses, the loneliness, the betrayals, the daily insults of life that no one notices what matters to you.
But when Arjuna returned from his Paris trip he brought me a little present. Once again not wrapped or decorated just a little metal box with a picture of a painting of a woman holding a rose. I assumed perhaps it was a pair of earrings or a piece of jewellery but when I turned it over on the back it was marked – Marie Antoinette Savon. Rose.
Soap. Rose perfumed Soap. From Paris. The romance of Paris in a tin box. Of course I promptly opened it and smelled it and went mmm and was utterly delighted. Arjuna was once again reassured that he knew how to make his mother very happy. The perfume pure rose. Arjuna knows. Your children know what you treasure.
I said to myself then may be I’ll use this soap only for a very big life event. May be a wedding in the family like if Arjuna partners with someone and has that party with a pretty cake. I had these visions of a beautiful sari on my bed waiting to be worn and me all perfumed having bathed with rose perfumed soap – from Paris. Could anything be more special. I doubt it.
I kept the box of soap untouched for years where I keep my most treasured and personal things. Unused. Waiting for a special day or a moment. A wedding or a particularly special event did not happen. I kept it untouched for years. And one day a few years ago I took it out when other special events happened. And I started using it. First very sparingly and I let it dry out and then once again hid it with the rest of very special personal things. Unused again.
But over the years I used it more and more. First it was for special events and such. Saskia’s wedding. Then when I first went for dinner at one of Arjuna’s now former girlfriend’s parents. And one day I used the last sliver of it. The box lying empty in my bathroom cabinet with the rest of the mess that are its contents. Half used tubes of toothpaste; little boxes of eye make up; airline toiletries, lavender bubble bath cake; more perfumed soap, except not rose, dental floss, and other paraphernalia. The empty rose soap box sat there semi-forgotten.
I did not want to look at the empty soap box because I felt I had lied to myself by using up the tablet of rose soap when I should have had more self control and made it last forever and ever and ever and ever for a very big occasion. A sense of loss and even mild failure. I did not tell Arjuna that I had used up and finished the rose soap he brought for me from Paris many years ago. It was my secret shame.
But I always said to myself I will invent a rose cheesecake with pistachios for the biggest and best day of our life when it comes. One flavoured with rose and topped with a very thin glaze of rose jelly and gold or silver leaf. A crust made with pistachios and graham cracker crumbs and butter and sugar and yes more rose water in it. Something greater is possible something greater than Marie Antoinette’s soap. And soap melts doesn’t it? At least it does in water.
A few weeks ago I got sick and tired of keeping my floss picks in the plastic sack it comes in especially when I wanted them handy at the end of the day and when they ended up on the book stand thing I have next to my couch. I’ve been wanting to find a nice little container to keep them in along with all my immediate needs and desires all nicely arranged. Pen, books, photo of Arjuna and me, sometimes flowers, even roses. A small note book. But the floss picks were so ugly that I was compelled to make do with what was at home. Somehow every time I went outside I forgot about the importance of looking for a nice simple box for them. That’s why two weeks ago or so I realized I could put my Marie Antoinette rose soap box to good use. Its so pretty though I never was a big fan of rich coddled women or Marie Antoinette but the sentimental attachments I have to the box are tender as you can tell. And I carefully placed my floss picks in it and there it sat right next to where I lounge around reading the newspaper, watching television or just falling unknowingly asleep. And no ugly plastic packs of ugly looking things.
The other day Arjuna was here. He was dropping off something for me and I had made him some chicken stock to freeze for future use. I had left the Marie Antoinette Soap Box by my computer because I wanted to write about the rose soap and roses. I had forgotten that it was there and as I was pouring chicken stock into containers I saw Arjuna take the soap box. He opened it and then he smelled it. He was searching for the perfume of roses. I said nothing to him about the floss picks. I said nothing at all. I wonder what he thought. May be he did not notice them and was carried away by the perfume of old soap and roses. I am sure of that.
Toronto, October 7, 2014.