Today and Everyday by Lucy Santiago is a bimonthly column about faith and ritual.
My mother’s bedroom in my childhood home was strangely separate from the rest of the house, somehow both thrilling and opiate. I would stand at the door, at the point where the teal paint, warm wood, and noise of the stairwell came to a full stop. Inside, my mother’s room was all walnut dressers and shadows collecting in corners. The Persian rug covering the floor was rescued from my great-grandfather’s living room after his death. It made my steps sound muffled and only half-real. The room was a kaleidoscope of memento mori: antique sewing machines, a great-grandmother’s opera glasses, and innumerable gaudy brooches from long-gone aunts. I had to step carefully to cross the room, because there were always piles of files and old magazines in my way. Most of the time, the drapes were drawn, and there was just enough light to illuminate the dust mites that made me sneeze. Even with the lights on, there was always something smoky about the room. On the back wall, my mother’s writing desk––forever a mountain of envelopes and receipts––was broad and deep and dark. Above it, cast in shadow, was a framed print of John Singer Sargent’s “Fumée d’ambre gris.”
My mom loves John Singer Sargent, probably because Boston museums have so much of his work. Many of his oil paintings are portraits of the period’s elite, but his Orientalist paintings are some of his best––including “Fumée d’ambre gris,” or “Smoke of Ambergris.” A Western fantasy of the East, the painting is misty and exotic. Like my mother’s room, there is a pervasive haziness to the hall it depicts. The whole painting is done in creams, grays, and a few strokes of russet. At its center, a woman burns ambergris, holding part of her robes over her head to trap the smoke.
To this day, no one really knows what ambergris is. We know that it’s a substance produced by sperm whales, though for a while people thought it could be hardened seafoam or seabird guano. Ambergris was originally used in some Arab religious ceremonies. Then it became widely seen as valuable because it can be rendered into a scentless alcohol, which was used to fix the scent of perfume to the skin. It’s thought that ambergris is made up of the indigestible beaks of squid, partially processed then rejected by the sperm whale’s digestive system. The mass of material builds up over time, and once it becomes large enough, it passes through the whale’s rectum. This usually kills the whale––an unfortunate, though interesting, way to go. Then, the ambergris floats on the water’s surface until it’s collected by sailors or picked up on a beach. Its scent is first fecal, then musky. It can’t be collected commercially now for conservation reasons, but you can buy a half-ounce of synthetic ambergris cologne for $7.50.
Being an astigmatic and superstitious child, I naturally assumed that “Fumée d’ambre gris,” with its moody palette, smoky room, and figure in white robes, was a painting of a ghost. I avoided my mother’s room at all costs, and if it was absolutely necessary to enter, I didn’t dare cast a glance at the painting. It wasn’t until well into my teens that I realized it was a woman. Even then, it was only last weekend that I learned the painting was not set in a library but a large hall of some kind. It’s funny––I was sure I had a clear mental image of the painting. I had seen it so often growing up, and it was an object of such importance to me. Then again, I remember it not cream-colored but purple. And when I think of my mother’s bedroom, it’s mauve, although I know it was deep blue.
But now I’m confusing my memories. My mother’s room is mauve because it’s one of her favorite colors to wear. Remembering my mother’s room is as much a memory of my mother as it is my actual experiences of the room. And remembering “Fumée d’ambre gris” is as much a memory of its shapes and shades as its mystery.
I was not particularly artistic as a child, and still have trouble understanding art. But in a roundabout way, I think I understand my mother’s love for this painting now. The painting is beautiful, looking at it in full light. But what’s important is how it looks to a child in a half-dark room, how it feels to that child. It’s about how it will be remembered twenty years from now, not as a collection of perfect brushstrokes, but as a ghost and as an attempt to understand your mother. Like ambergris, art appears out of processes we can’t really fathom. But rendered down to its emotional experience, it fixes our memories to our skin. In our new house, I am painting my room mauve, and I will hang “Fumée d’ambre gris.”