I never really got to know my mother’s father, Paolo Giustini. He passed away when I was only 5 years old. I have, however, heard many stories about him from his number one devotee – my mother. She’s told me how he spent his late teenage years in the navy and then his early adult life navigating the seas of the Orient, fighting in the second world war. He would, eventually, be wrenched from battle and sent to South Africa as a prisoner of war. He would later make South Africa his home. However, his heart never left the sea. He loved the dark blue sea; it’s marine smell; the open sky; and its wild-life – the whales, sea gulls and dolphins – that would follow the ship. My mother is always enthusiastic to tell me what a proud man her father was. He was proud to be Italian, proud of his birth place -L’Aquila in the Abruzzi – and proud of his family. He loved the Opera and the Ballet, in fact he enjoyed most of the finer things in life. He was always immaculately presented, from his pedantically ironed clothes to his precisely trimmed hair and pencil-mustache. He’d stand confidently at the entrance of a room, soaking in the gapes from both men and women. He was more than handsome, he was beautiful.
Regrettably, I only have a few tangled memories of him. The memories are like very short video clips but with distinct and vivid smells. In one clip he is sitting at the dining room table, quiet and ailing, his husky voice calls my name. He smells of the potent peppermint from his favourite Wilson’s XXX mints. In another clip, he is in his garden which is bordered with seashell-adorned-flower-beds. He calls me with his walking stick. I smell him and the wooden stick. This odour is so distinct and exclusive to him: The smell from the stick is somewhat woody, but certainly not Cedar, nor Oud, Santal or Pine. It is much more subtle than that. It is a time-worn and antiquated piece. The smell is comparable to the woody and musky scent of Ambroxan; And from him I get a waft of heavy marine with a delicate animalic note in the background. The scent is closest to the smell of Ambergis which is the excretion of a Sperm Whale that has been floating in the ocean, thoroughly cured for decades in the salty sea water and the baking sun. The smell is of a sea grotto or the recesses of the archway of an esplanade. Its nostalgic and unique to my memories.
Sadly, I will never be able to smell my grandfather again, however, my mother still has his stick and I often pull it out of the umbrella stand and take a long deep sniff of it. I am taken back 80 years, to the seas of the orient. It’s exciting, It’s glorious!