The Scent of a Century

Saturday would have been my mother's 99th birthday. (She passed in March 2002.)

I decided to "spend the day with her". Even though she was someone who never celebrated her birthday, I realized that I had written blogs this past year in honor of both my father's and stepmother's birthdays. So, the idea came to me to spend the day connecting with my mother's legacy of joy to me.


It was one of the worst days in recent memory.


The reason I didn't write a blog about it is because I am tired of writing about how hard the start of 2016 has been. But this Monday morning, I realized that I had let myself down by not writing my weekend blog post. As much as anything, even when joy is in short supply, this blog is about honoring the commitment I made to myself to be accountable to showing up to my daily practice of joy. Not honoring that commitment felt like cheating on myself.

So, my blog is going to be rather prosaic. It's about how I spent my Sunday -- all sixteen hours of it -- working and getting organized. And that, as it all turns out, was a "celebration" of part of my mother's legacy of joy to me: Discipline and hard work. 

Both my brother and I have acknowledged that one of the great gifts of growing up with Mary Grant Price was learning discipline. And we have both recognized that, without that discipline, we might have ended up like the many other people in the newspaper clippings in the file of cautionary tales my brother keeps of children of celebrities who took their own lives or died young of drug overdoses. Discipline, organization and hard work may not be the most joyful of joy practices. But they can be lifesavers, and we learned them from my mother.


By the end of the day yesterday, I had organized, tidied, and prepared for fourteen plus hours. I didn't even take my walk yesterday. But by clearing, sorting and making sense of the physical clutter of my life I had cleared some psychic space in my head, and that felt necessary. 

Yes, joy has been in short supply these days. There have been numerous events that have transpired that have raised some big questions for me -- you know, those meaning-of-life questions. And, as usually happens with those "big questions", they have slammed up like tsunami waves against the values inculcated in me by my mother. Many of those values, given to me to make my life "better", instead launched a lifelong battle with shame, self-worth, deservability, and self-loathing. It would both break my mother's heart to know that, but also elicit some strong "pull yourself together" language. Because everything my mother did, she did to try to make my life better. But here's the kicker, most of what my mother did was motivated by fear more than by love. And fear is, well, a motherfucker.

In a fluorescent-lit coffee shop on Waikiki over a lackluster late lunch, my mother unburdened herself to me at the end of her life. She revealed probably the truest thing she ever let me see. She said, "I am afraid of fear." And then she proceeded to tell me that, from the moment I was born and she saw how much my father loved me, she was terrified. Terrified of doing something wrong that would lead to my demise and break my father's heart. Hearing that admission explained everything, because that terror ruled my life for as long as I could remember.

As a little girl, I felt her fear like a pall over me, and I was determined to do anything not to be like her. I rode horses with names like Nip and Tuck who threw me over fences. I would gleefully fly through the air, land on my ass in the dirt, and get up feeling emboldened by the dusty proof of all the ways I wasn't like her. But, at the same time, I protected her. I could feel her terror and I tried to ease it in any way I could. 


When my dad left us for my wicked stepmother, that fear almost killed her. Living in an apartment on the fringes of Los Angeles, the former Mrs. Vincent Price had a nervous breakdown and spent six months struggling with some unnamed but pervasive ailment. Her terror had become our mutual roommate -- one from which I tried to shield both her and myself. Yet slowly but surely, against my will, it took up residence in me. 

Facing down my fears has been a lifelong battle, and my greatest fears are that my mother is right -- that I am all the things she made me most afraid of being -- narcissistic, self-centered, selfish, (those might seem the same to you, but there are subtle differences and I have unpacked them all!) as well as ungenerous, undisciplined, morally wrong, unkind, proud, judgmental -- oh, you know, just an overall asshole. 

One of her greatest fears for me was that I would become a Beverly Hills brat. She warned me over and over again to wash my hands of any form of privilege. . .or else So, I have. I've worn my humility like a hairshirt, and rubbed my hands raw trying to degerm the deservability off them. I've whittled away at my own life til I've ended up in a Howard-Hughes like isolation. Somewhere along the way, I've done almost irreparable damage to my own humanity.

For years now, I've been on a journey of forgiveness with my mother. She's been gone fourteen years, and she is still the convenient whipping boy for all my struggles. Hopefully she's gotten on with it, and has moved past many of the fears that ruled her. But no matter how many adventures I've gone on to reassure myself that I am not guided by her fears, I still am. I still feel myself undeserving of almost everything.

I had hoped to write a joy-filled blog about how spending Saturday celebrating my mother's birthday had brought me release, forgiveness, and immense joy. I tried every joy practice I could muster on Saturday, and I got nowhere fast. By Saturday night, I was in the worst place I have been in years.

So, when I got up early on Sunday morning, I knew that the only thing that would help was to turn the day over to work -- and to use that to try to get back in the saddle. It wasn't until this morning that I realized that Sunday was as much a day with my mother as Saturday had been. This Monday morning, at the start of another busy week, I understood that, for better or for worse, the practice of joy can sometimes be deeply unglamorous, but that, however it comes, joy is a gift. On Sunday joy came in small increments, but it came -- through hard work and discipline. And, you know what, I'll take it.


That was the name of my mother's favorite perfume. It was the only perfume she ever wore. My father gave her a bottle of Joy when they were first married, and he continued to gift it to her until shortly before his death, long after they were divorced.

Joy was created for Parisian couturier Jean Patou by perfumer Henri Alméras in 1929. It is considered to be one of the greatest fragrances created. Joy came into existence in response to the Wall Street crash, which had wiped out the fortunes of much of Jean Patou's American clientele. Interestingly, despite being one of the most expensive perfumes on the market, it became a huge success. It is regarded as one one of the most famous and successful perfumes ever created and and is a "landmark example of the floral genre in perfumery." It remains Jean Patou's most famous fragrance.

You might be interested to know that "Joy is composed primarily of a combination of jasmine and rose; 10,000 jasmine flowers and 28 dozen roses are required to create 30ml of the parfum, contributing to its high retail price. Joy also contains other flowers such as ylang ylang, michelia and tuberose. Given its many ingredients, Joy does not smell like a specific flower. In fact, the whole point of its formula was to achieve the platonic idea of a flower, not one particular earthly manifestation. The bottle was created by French architect and artisan Louis Süe and was designed to have a simple, classical feel."

In 2000, two years before my mother's passing, Joy was voted "Scent of the Century" by the public at the Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards in 2000, beating its rival "Chanel No. 5".

"Joy does not smell like a specific flower. In fact, the whole point was to achieve the platonic idea of a flower, not one particular earthly manifestation." I get it. Unlike happiness, joy can be much more subtle, and it is not dependent on outside circumstances, but rather on showing up to what is already inside ourselves. While I'm still working on letting go of my mother's voice in my head, my daily gratitude practice reminds me every day of the many gifts my my mother gave me. And while those gifts may not all carry with them the glamor and big-ass smiles of my father's joy, they form the backbone of what has kept me on this planet. Showing up to hard work, the desire to be a better person, the hope of "contributing something worthwhile", a metaphysical discipline, and to the only thing that ever ever ever can and will eradicate fear -- Love (with the Big L) -- those were my mother's gifts to me. Those gifts are the joys that do more than perfume my life. They save it, over and over again. Every single day. And for that, I celebrate my mother with love and gratitude. 

The Scent of a Century


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