Everything and Nothing: The pursuit of Joy

Aïda Rogers

Posted Feb. 2, 2022

By Aïda Rogers

I was in my broke twenties when I first encountered Joy. We didn’t run in the same circles; a high-dollar item, Joy was out of my newspaper writer reach. Literally. That $500 bottle of French perfume, in its exquisite Baccarat crystal bottle, was held aloft and away from me in the expert hands of the Belk’s saleslady who educated me about it. I was writing a hypothetical story about what you could buy if you had tons of money; Joy, which required 10,600 jasmine flowers and 28 dozen roses per ounce, qualified.

This was 30-some years ago, when Savannah had an afternoon newspaper and Oglethorpe Mall was the only one in town. Joy was the signature scent of Jacqueline Onassis. When Paris couturier Jean Patou introduced it in 1930 for $40 an ounce, he promoted it as “The Costliest Perfume in the World.” His instinct to go high when the world’s wallet had gone low paid off. Olfactory rapture ensued.

I never forgot Joy, always wondering what could smell that good to cost so much. So a few years ago I went looking for it. And found it had fallen from its rarefied pedestal. Joy was no longer in Belk’s; it wasn’t in any department store, expensive or otherwise. There it was, though, on eBay, Amazon, and perhaps to its shame, in the catalog of the Vermont Country Store, “purveyors of the practical and hard-to-find.” I found a $40 bottle of eau de toilette on perfume.com and went for it.

Yes, it smelled good – maybe a little strong and sweet for me – but I sprayed the air and walked into its mist. Did joy seep into my being? Not really, but my curiosity was satisfied.

Here’s what I learned from Joy, or really, the wonderful woman who sold it. After Christine Schmidt told me where on the body to put perfume and advised me to “layer your scent” so it lasts, from soap to lotion to spray, she got down to the real truth of her work. She may have been selling products to help women look and smell good, but she was really in business to help them feel good. Or at least better. Many customers had come for years, ostensibly for perfume or powder, but really for a good friend with an open heart who listened when their husbands left them or their problems seemed unbeatable. And there she’d be, counseling at her counter, pouring out her empathy and sympathy, advising them to take care of themselves, through cosmetics or any other way they had.

Chris could advise because she’d had her own troubles. Her parents died when she was a young woman and she’d had to raise her younger sister. Seasoned and tested, she could bolster others. Those conversations wouldn’t have been cheery, but there was connection, and when there’s connection, there’s joy.

Every time I spray my bottle I think of Chris at her counter. When my friend Nancy visited from Germany, I told her about my pursuit of Joy. We started spraying it all around the room, then fell on the bed laughing. And while I really prefer pure sandalwood – also a costly scent, particularly when it’s not mixed with another oil – I now know what Chris knew then. Joy can’t be found in a bottle. It’s nothing you can buy. And even when times are bad, they’re always better with a friend.

Aïda Rogers writes from an old house in Columbia and a new porch in McClellanville. Her three-volume anthology series, State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love, includes stories by 108 Palmetto State writers.

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