The Anguish Of LavenderWednesday, July 08, 2009
I have written here before on how I rarely listen to my music CDs and records. One of the advantages of increasing old age is that I hear them in my head. The little music I listen to is always live music at a concert. When possible I want that music to be baroque. When I drive to Lillooet with Rosemary and the two granddaughters I carefully choose the music. I don’t want to scare them with strange selections but I want to make them curious. In this way Rebecca has discovered Gerry Mulligan, Bach, Vivaldi, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Oscar Peterson and a beautiful tango CD with a quartet with Daniel Barenboim on the piano. Rebecca knows that Barenboim was married to Jacqueline du Pré. Thanks to Emily Molnar Rebecca has a fondness for the solo piano sonatas of Philip Glass. We try not to play them on the way to Lillooet because Glass makes Rosemary nervous.
The music that I play for Rebecca (and eventually for Lauren when she shows more interest) is music that I can conjure with my virtual ears. I need not put the CD into the player to know what the music is like. Only yesterday I watched 20 minutes of one of the finest comedy scenes in all of film. This happens when Stewart Granger has to impersonate a clown (Scaramouche) to escape the nasty French cavalry captain that is after him. He manages to escape the captain to fall in the clutches and arms of the gorgeous flamed-haired Eleanor Parker. In those 20 minutes I realized I knew all the lines and that I can re-run the whole film in my head with Granger’s sonorous voice. I can imagine the pleasure of gazing on Parker’s many freckles beneath her Hollywood pancake makeup.
And so it is with smells. I can smell a sweet pea once every five years and that is enough to keep the “flame” alive in my memory. As I walked in today through my front gate after a tough day at photography school, I noticed a long row of Lavandula angustifolia. This is the most common and easiest lavender to grow in Vancouver. The trick is never to let it grow too woody. If you brutally prune it in early spring it comes back fresh every time. I did not stop to smell it.
Lavender with hints of Player’s Navy Cut and Old Smuggler Scotch (the Scotch that used to be made in Argentina long before the Japanese decided to make their Suntori Scotch) is what I could detect when I approached my father in his tweed jackets. When he kissed me I could smell the lavender which must have been Lavanda Inglesa Yardley since this brand was sold throughout Latin America. Hilary buys me a large container of Yardley Lavender talc and a carton of four soaps every couple of Christmases. Both she and Rosemary always have large supplies of Lavender bath salts for me.
I have never told them that my attraction to lavender has all to do with that tiny part of me that is still English. It is that tiny part that makes it imperative that I begin my day with an extremely strong and extremely large mug of tea made with the finest tea leaves I can purchase. It is this English in me that had me straddling the fence when the British fleet was steaming toward the Falklands and the Hand of God vanquished the British soccer team.
My father spoke English like an Englishman even though he had been born in Buenos Aires. His father Harry was from Manchester and so was his mother Ellen Carter. Because of my father I was called el inglesito (the little English boy) by our neighbours. Because of my father, lavender, Player’s Navy Cut tobacco and that hint of scotch is a smell that I cannot ever remove from my psyche.
It was my mother who often told me (she didn’t much praise me) that I had the pleasant smell of an Englishman. I never questioned her since I didn’t smoke Player’s Navy Cuts or drink Scotch. But I threw in the towel and adopted lavender as part of my life even if I don’t (and I don’t ) splash it on as my father must have. My mother used to hug me and smell me behind the ears. “Olés como un ingles,” she would say to me. She told me that Eskimos (she had no inkling of the existence of the Inuit) never kissed but rubbed noses and smelt each other. She said this was far more civilized. She explained how the civilized French had invented exquisite perfumes to hide the hideous smell that all the French had as part of their nature. My mother, while born in Manila, did always like her things English and therefore looked down on the French. She not only thought my father was handsome but she would cite other English men on her list of favouritee, actors like Ronald Colman, Herbert Marshall and her favourite of favourites, Leslie Howard. And, yes, Stewart Granger.
When I married Rosemary in Mexico City and then told my mother that she would soon be a grandmother she made it a point to insist, “Make sure that the baby is born at the American, British Cawdry Hospital. That made me smile. While in the clutches of the Argentine Navy I found various ways of thwarting my superiors’ demands that I be at my post at a certain hour and that I must report to work Monday through Friday.
On my way to my post I would arrive at the imposingly British train station Retiro (not really a replica as the British themselves had engineered it and brought the materials for it) in the 8:37 train from Tigre. The British loved to have trains arrive exactly on time at odd numbered minutes! I would then go to the station master (very Argentine in spite of his very British uniform) and explain what I needed. After a while I did not have to explain and he would hand me the sheet with his official stamp and signature. I didn’t abuse this trick too often as I could have gotten caught. The document in question stated that the train had been delayed by a derailment and had arrived at Retiro one hour late. This gave me time to go to the venerable Retiro restaurant and tea shop. It was and is beautifully wainscoted and the windows all have beveled edges and the chandeliers are all of cut glass. I would then order from the properly dress waiter a café con leche with medias lunas de grasa (exquisite croissants made from lard and which are extraordinarily chewy) which I would dunk in my coffee after slathering them with Argentine unsalted butter and strawberry jam. The Teniente at the office would look at my Retiro certificate and say, "This country went to hell when the English left. Now even the trains don't arrive on time."
The other “trick” was to donate blood. The Naval Book of Military Regulations stipulated that the naval conscript who donated blood could have the next day as a holiday if the proper certificate were shown. In the afternoon of a Thursday (as a perfect example on how well this trick worked) I would go to the British Hospital to donate blood. After looking away during the process ( I faint at the slightest hint of the shiny red stuff) I was told to rest for a while and then I would be served a “té completo”. This was tea, sandwiches and scones with marmelade and clotted cream. With certificate in hand I would go back to my office and hand the document to Cabo Moraña. He was a corporal in the Argentine Marine Corps who appreciated my tricks as long as I didn’t go over his head. And I would then enjoy a three-day weekend.
The folks at the British Hospital served me well even though they restricted my blood donations to every two months.
Somehow as I walked by the lavender today I wondered why it is called angustifolia. In Latin this means narrow-leaved. That is correct as the leaves of this lavender are particularly long and narrow. But I also think of the Spanish word angustia (or anguish) and wonder if the Latin root is the same. A check with my on line Royal Spanish Dictionary confirms it. A tight space or situation produces anguish. In order to keep that memory of my father alive I just need to have Lavandula angustifolia near at hand. I don’t have to smell it. It is enough to know that it is there. And so is my father. That is comforting.