By Raphaella Brescia Barkley
Influenced at an early age by my grandmother, who was
a horticulturist and raised prize winning roses, I’ve always had
a fascination with the fragrance and beauty of the rose,
as well as all flowers. As well, one of my first memories
of my mother was one that was deeply imbedded into my
conscious; my mother had dropped her bottle of
Shalimar perfume and she was on her knees, crying,
sopping up the precious liquid with handkerchiefs.
(there were no paper towels back then)
In Virginia during the 1930’s thru the 1979, my grandmother
owned three acres of land that was dedicated solely to the
cultivation of roses, camellias and irises. She produced
several new varieties and received numerous major awards.
Also on her property, there were magnificent flowering trees of
dogwood, cherry, crepe myrtles, magnolias, crab apple, peach and apple.
Along with these trees there were dozens of lilac, gardenia and azaleas
shrubs, filled in with daffodils and wild gladiolus flowers. What a
sight this was throughout the spring and summer!
My first memory of grandmother’s field of flowers was when I was no more than five years old. I vividly recall sitting among her prized flowers as bees droned lazily around me. I remember the blue summer sky above me, the sun shining down on me, butterflies dancing about and a soft fragrant breeze.
I remember being completely aware of the incredible beauty of flowers in their natural state, growing right out of the earth and I knew I was close to God. As the bees went about their work, never bothering me as I sat transfixed, I pondered my first thoughts of life and of a world that was simple and perfect.
Far in the background, Willie", a black gentleman and her hired gardener, would be singing old southern songs. I loved to hear him sing and he was always a kind comfort. He understood me and never scolded as others may have.
I loved staring deep into the petals of a flower as if looking into its soul.
The jewel-colored irises were a favorite. The velvety deep beauty of purple, lavender, yellow and blue nearly broke my tender heart!
Oh, and the smell of the earth from which those flowers grew. Even that rich, Southern soil was fragrant in its own way.
Have you ever gazed into a flower and thought, as you deeply breathe its essence, “I want to be one with this flower”? That was me at age five, and still, I feel that today. Flowers and their fragrance have that effect on me, as I know it does for many of you.
To this day, whether I am in Costco or outdoors, if a flower is near me, I am drawn to go look it and stick my nose into it's center; taking a moment to enjoy. It is my "Zen" moment.
I remember one hot summer’s day, I picked some of my grandmother’s prized roses, though I must have known that I should not. I used her pestle and mortar and ground the precious petals, trying to discover their essence, trying to produce oil.
I must have had a longing for the alchemy of perfume even then.
I can still smell the fragrant beauty of the many-colored rose petals, red, yellow, pink,
white and my favorites, peach and deep orange. Of course, my grandmother found
me, happily trying to produce rose oil and rose “mash” mixed with iris.
I was sent to my room. I know now my grandmother understood a child’s fascination,
as she smiled at me patiently and explained to me why I could not pick her flowers.
The next day, she allowed me to gather any roses that fell to the ground and play to my heart’s content.
I would make rose water and drink it, thinking it was magical. I would decorate my grandmothers homemade cakes with fresh edible roses.
To this day I miss my grandmother and wish she were here to share my love of fragrances. She passed at the age of 88, but is still with me in spirit very much today. Her flower fields are gone now, the trees cut down, having been replaced by now blighted apartment buildings. The fields I used to run through during hot summers, barefoot and wild, fresh peach juice all over me, are now gone. Over the years the camellias, gardenias and azaleas (she had hundreds) have been ripped up. Nothing is the same and I always feel a deep sense of loss when I visit my home and old neighborhood.
I still do, however, feel blessed to have grown up in that rarified “perfumed air”. So please remember, my friends, you all have fragrant stories that you have lived in your own lives. Whether it is the smell of your mothers cooking or Christmas memories that involve the sense of smell, recall those memories and keep them close to you. It is your family and it is our memories that can give us a sense of who we are.
Because my grandmother lived during a time when most people didn't have the opportunity to splurge, she may have been shocked to know the extent of my fragrance collection today.
I have no excuses. I admit it, it’s all because of her fields of flowers.