In the tropics, one gets used to lizards walking the walls and mosquito nets over the beds, to turning your pillow over and over to find a cool, dry place.
Wet heat, heat, heat.
My mother hated it. As young as I was, I knew she hated it.
But this life afforded her rare freedom -- there were two maids, one dedicated solely to caring for my brother and I. My father was always at the base. And, even with meeting her social obligations: the teas, the receptions, the cocktail parties -- which she also hated -- my mother, an Ava Gardner type, could spend most of her time at the club pool, reclining in her two-piece suit, eyes closed, iced tea at her side, working on that fifties-fashionable tan.
We lived in a low-slung house with bare tile floors, bamboo furniture and "native" artifacts (the obligatory mahogany sculptures of topless women were evident -- my dad's risque sense of humor, I guess). I remember loud pink and red floral print cushions on the rattan sofas. I remember the fish/rice aroma wafting through the house from the maids' quarters.
Each day, I went to the American school, which happened to be Catholic, and would come home in the afternoon, my white blouse and plaid jumper soaked in sweat. Lenore, one of our maids, would meet me at the bus and she would take my schoolbag and hold my hand as together we trudged up to the gate -- the house was behind a high wall -- which she would open with a key, and lock behind her.
And this is what I remember best and what I really want to talk about: the garden behind that gate.
Lushness and a scent that I can't seem to duplicate.
The back lawn was grassy with palm trees at yard's edge, by the wall. A shed in one dark corner with, of all things, a plaque of Jesus' Sacred Heart on its arched wood doorway. Many, many flowering shrubs grew around, up and over the wall -- I remember vivid color during the day, yellow and red flowers especially. But it was the whiteflower scent that was overpowering, especially in the evenings.
Sampaquita? Honeysuckle? Datura? Lilies? Gardenia? Jasmine? My sense is that they all were there -- and it's the amalgam scent I can't find recreated in a perfume. That, and the context in which I experienced it.
My mother's sultry ill temper was perfectly suited to this climate she hated. And I have a strong association with her, with that scent and female power. You could just feel it, smell it, emanating from her when she walked in the room. A perfumed danger, spoiling for a fight.
I loved that smell. I was always distant from her, but admiring. So much power in this beautiful, dangerous woman who was my mother. I loved that smell. I want to smell it again.