A Whiff of Class

Sometimes, I’d look through Mum and Dad’s bedroom closet when I could get away with it. Mum was away in hospital, and hard to communicate with at the best of times, and Dad sometimes got mad if I asked him too many questions about the past, but I remained curious and became a bit of a sneak, searching for clues in their closets when they weren’t around.

I found some little treasures belonging to Mum’s family: a framed photo of the Mona Lisa bought at The Louvre in Paris in 1921, and a strange brass music box, about the size of a cigarette lighter. These were not the kinds of possessions that my Dad’s family would have tended to have. Dad was intelligent and savvy, but didn’t seem to care about art or music, and seemed resentful of folks who presented themselves as upper class.

The mysterious “La Donna” musical atomizer…

The music box had the name “La Donna” inscribed in elegant cursive on the case, and winding the little key on the back produced a pretty little tune. It also had a little tubular brass piece that popped up out of the case. I could not figure what that was for.

The whole thing smelled like tarnished brass with a hint of old perfume. It was scratched and dulled with age, but hinted at some kind of past elegance.

I couldn’t figure out what it was, and I put it back in its box right where I’d found it. The Mona Lisa photo I stole right away, and put it up on my bedroom wall. Mona Lisa belonged to me now – my classy little piece of trophy art.

Over forty years later, on December 2019, my nieces Meaghan and Christina presented me with some items they’d been given by their Mum (my sister Kim). Among them was that same little brass music box.

We talked about it, and after a few minutes of Googling, we realized that it was a perfume atomizer, probably made in Japan sometime around 1940. The little spring-loaded pop-out piece was actually the trigger for pumping out the perfume. I detected that same slight scent lingering on the metal, and it took me right back to the day I’d first seen the thing. Smell is such a powerful and persistent memory trigger.

I would guess that it belonged to Mum’s mother Edna, or someone from her family – perhaps Edna’s Aunt Constance Maud Gillman, who passed away in Victoria in 1948.

So now, that scuffed and scratched little atomizer sits up on my bookshelf, representing my mother in a way. Standing next to it is a well-worn steel lighter that belonged to my Dad, which still has a whiff of lighter fluid.