My great auntie Jean has died at the age of 97. My mother’s mother’s sister, auntie Jean – which is what we always called her – passed away in a nursing home in Birmingham, fortunately not alone, and not of the virus. My parents were not allowed to visit her in recent weeks, for obvious reasons, but it was a great relief to them that she was in bed holding the hand of a caregiver she felt calm with and liked; that she passed away relatively peacefully. Rest in peace, auntie Jean – I think we are all relieved that your suffering is over and you can go on now to the next stage.
Jean loved flowers, and always enjoyed coming to our house to sit and look out at the garden (my mother’s pride and joy). Both in our old house where I grew up, and the house my parents moved to later, there was always a bay window that she could gaze out on to the garden from when she came to visit. I can see her in that corner armchair. Hair always carefully done. Well presented. I had thought she had loved daffodils the most. My mum told me the other day that in fact she loved peonies and carnations the best of all: I remember vividly we always had gorgeous peonies growing in the hedgerows of the garden in summer; I adored them. Now I always associate the sound of wood pigeons cooing and the late light of early English summer evenings with those flowers, whose heads I sometimes could not resist furtively picking and peeling back to see what was inside; then immediately regretting it. Jean would definitely have berated me. But there are few flowers more magnificent; they need to be left to bloom and unfurl in their own, slow, beautifully serrated, peonish time.
A very glamorous woman – and thus the envy of my grandmother, Ivy – Jean was married four times, was a show girl in the war, and she wore a lot of perfume – always clouds and clouds of Clinique Aromatics (though I do remember a period of Clinique Wrappings as well; as a young boy I was always very interested in such things); a scent that would announce her presence before the front door even opened when she came at Christmastime or Easter and she proffered a cheek for you to kiss. Soignée and suave, it suited her to a T; I don’t think I have ever really known a person so utterly connected to one particular perfume – the signature that she wore for years; decades.
Later, as her health began to deteriorate and she went from semi-autonomous living in sheltered housing to constant care at her final nursing home, she stopped wearing perfume. But she still always smelled clean in the last few times I saw her; soft, powdery, soapy. Benign. She liked talcs and rosy, feminine-smelling products that my mum would take to her regularly ( mum has been an extremely dutiful, loving and patient niece ; hats off, mum….seriously xx).
Black Peony by Satori – a poudré, unsweetened orange blossom orientally douce musk coaxed with geranium, citruses and violet to approximate the sharp ink of the heart of a head of peony, is by no means a life-like rendition of those beautiful flowers that Jean loved (there were also always flowers at her windowsill, in the care homes she eventually lived in where she sat in her room, looking out); but this perfume has an atmosphere to it, a softness, that I think she would have enjoyed. Some scents seem almost designed for those in their twilight years; there is a sensual secrecy at the heart of this perfume, the vanilla and oakmoss, the savoury ambered patchouli that nestles like chalk on the skin and that you can imagine a person sinking into and smiling at private memories; a warmth and a sageness. I see theatre goers in Ginza; ladies in best dress. A discretion. Jean about to go out on the town, with her Frank Sinatra-loving late husband, who though the last man she married, I think was her first true love.
It is peony season now in Japan. Auntie Jean never came here. But I know she would have definitely enjoyed the peony gardens at Hase temple and at the main Hachimangu shrine in Kamakura, where visitors can stroll, take in the blooms.
She would have loved it.
Though naturally saddened by the news, given the current situation, I was also pleased to hear at least that there is actually going to be a funeral this week, even if it will only be attended by my mother and father, and a priest who never knew her and will be reading back to my parents the information they gave him to read about her (which seems almost comical in a way; maybe she will be laughing) – but I am still, at any rate, glad that Jean is not going to be totally alone. So many people are not given the luxury of a funeral service in these sad and drastic times, and I am thus happy that she will not have just left this world unobserved, in statistical silence. Auntie Jean lived to a grand old age, was a proud, yet private woman; had a dramatic life with a lot of ups and downs, but she will now hopefully be reunited, somewhere, with her beloved Albert, who she lost far too soon.
A peony from our garden.