“She always smelled of jasmine
and wore black shoes that shined
crowned with a ribbon on top.
It is Grandmother I’m talking about,
with her jasmine scent
and her world marked and bounded,
as clearly as her prayer rug.
And as she prayed her arms would rise from the prayer rug
like pillars soaring into the sky
to the height of creativity
to the pinnacle of heaven,
then again to the depths of submission…”
~ Farzaneh Milani
My childhood is laced with the scent of jasmine. It followed my mother wherever she went, coiled in the fringe of her blue-and-black Moroccan shawl.
The origin of this fragrance was a small bottle of Red Jasmine cologne by Caswell-Massey. When I felt particularly lonesome or in need of comfort, I would uncork this Old-World bottle and take a long whiff of my mother’s invisible presence.
Sadly, the company discontinued Red Jasmine, and so I must content myself now with jasmine water, which comes the closest in smell, but lasts only a few seconds.
Then, a few weeks ago, attending an event in downtown D.C., I caught a familiar scent in the air. It hovered over the buffet table, where delicate bone china cups and saucers were stacked, near a silver service and vases of elegant flowers.
“Is that jasmine?” I said aloud, to no one in particular. The woman on my right nodded and said, “Yes, it’s me.” Naturally we struck up a conversation, and she told me of her work as a consultant on peace and education in Pakistan. Whenever she goes back to her homeland, she brings back attar of jasmine – the purest and most concentrated floral essence.
“If you like, the next time I go, I’ll bring you some,” she offered spontaneously. I thanked her, gave her my address, and soon after, we went our separate ways. I was doubtful she would follow up. After all, this is Washington, where connections are mostly ephemeral and utility-driven (quid pro quo really is a reality here…).
You can imagine my surprise when, several weeks later, I received a small package in the mail. Cutting open the brown paper, I opened a small white box. Inside was a magical bottle – as a friend described it, something straight out of Aladdin or Shaherazad’s tales. Pulling out the stopper, my office was filled with a spicy golden aroma– rich, secretive, and familiar.
From a stranger then – a graceful woman who flies between continents – I received a small bottle full of memories.
She expected no payment or anything in return. We have lost touch, but this act of kindness is a physical presence on my desk, reminding me of the veins of meaning and trust that thread through even the harshest and most alienating urban settings.
As I look at this phial of attar, I think of all the other gifts I have received over the years, from friends and strangers. Kind words, true listening, sweet encouragement. A prayer in someone’s heart. A good thought sent in my direction when I’m not even aware of it. Gifts of time, sight, openness. Stories of pain, healing and beautiful transformations.
This essay itself was inspired by the gift of a message from an unexpected source, a message full of hope and generosity.
How can I be worthy of such gifts? Slowly I’m learning that such a question, rather than causing me shame at my unworthiness, instead can strengthen my resolve. Being worthy means being strong and healthy. For how else can we be patient, hard-working, and capable of both giving and receiving?
Even with something as automatic as breathing, it takes conscious effort to learn its full power. How often do you let your own breath fill you completely? And how often do you expend your breath in true service to someone else?
Similarly, how often do you let a gift completely fill you with its beauty? And how often do you give a gift with no thought of reward – not even a thank-you? It’s hard to be truthful with ourselves, but with practice, such gifting-and-receiving can become a way of life.
With gratitude, AE