A Sense of Memory



I feel an electric current of memories run through my fingertips, up into my arm until it finally hits my brain. In my hand, I hold two old, partially faded photos that I found in an envelope at the bottom of my mother's overstuffed keepsake drawer. These pictures are just some of the many treasured images of my maternal grandmother scattered about the house. 

My grandmother was born in Mexico City and came to America in the late 1920s when she was about twenty-three years old. She met my American grandfather while enjoying an outdoor church bazaar in California with her aunt. Although she learned to speak English and eventually became an American citizen, Nanny always retained her heavy Spanish accent and often times expressed herself in broken English, especially when under stress. 

It's well established that the tastes and smells of food trigger memories. Whenever I have the pleasure of eating Spanish rice, I immediately think of Nanny. Her rice was like no other comfort food to me. And although no one's rice is an equal substitute for my grandmother's recipe with its own unique flavor and texture, I am instantly transported back to my grandmother's kitchen table. And Nanny's dinner wasn't complete without her accompanying chicken noodle soup. So, every Winter, I try recreating the taste and feeling of my grandmother's soup. I imagine blowing on a pool of golden hot liquid as it sits on my spoon, both steam and smell wafting off of my bowl. My senses quickly recall the taste of Nanny's soup, made possible by the savory stock and leftover meat from the chicken she slow-boiled for her rice. 

Sometimes I call up my grandmother's scent and the olfactory memories quickly inhabit my nostrils and brain as if Nanny were sitting right here in the room. My nasal passages fill with traces of Ponds face cream, Jean Naté spray, and a fragrance belonging to an Avon roll-on deodorant my grandmother used. The combination of scents never fails to bring up images of my grandmother as I remember seeing her most. I see her downy white-silver hair, the large black rimmed eyeglasses, and her bright, almond-shaped brown eyes peeking out from behind her lenses. I picture her multi-colored patterned housecoats, Nanny's preferred house attire, well worn but never tattered. And I see Nanny dressed impeccably on Sundays despite her usual and more casual household attire, always wearing one of her many lady-like beige, navy blue, or gray skirts to the local Jehovah Witnesses Kingdom Hall, much to my Catholic grandfather's chagrin. And as these visions become vivid, I feel an ache in my heart too as I picture Nanny in her mid seventies through her early eighties, barely four feet and eleven inches, insistently moving her painful arthritic knees down her steep front stairway for her doctor appointments, shopping, or congregation service. 

Filled with Nanny's scent and image, I am reminded of times when my Nanny protected and saved me from tremendous pain as I was growing up. I think of weekends and school vacation weeks spent in her home where I occasionally hid from my own mother, who struggled with untreated depression. I wince as I recall a night at aged seventeen, showing up at her back doorstep, drunk and unkempt. Nanny hid my condition from my grandfather and parents, undressed me, and put me to bed. The shame I felt over distressing and disappointing my grandmother that night ensured I never did anything similar again. But the pain I feel from this memory is soon replaced with deep love and gratitude for a grandmother who understood me and loved me unconditionally despite coming from a different culture and generation. 

As I pick up and touch my own children's gameboards and decks of cards, I pull up happy snapshots in my mind of Nanny and me playing raucous rounds of Old Maid, Go Fish, and Aggies. I laugh out loud as I remember the sound of her infectious laughter each and every time she left me with the Old Maid card or bumped me home with one of her Aggie marbles, racing me around the wooden board for the win.

Finally, I remember what it felt like to rest my head upon Nanny's soft bosom and doughy belly when she comforted me. I remember the look of her round, smooth face and the precious space that existed between her two front teeth. My senses are filled with memories of my grandmother, bringing me nothing but joy. 

The grandmother I knew barely looked like the woman in the old photographs that I held in my hand. Instead, this woman appears much younger, perhaps in her mid to late twenties. The first photo is of a woman and a man standing next to an elderly couple. The younger woman is clearly pregnant in the picture. The young woman's chin is slightly tilted up; she looks proud and almost serious, with just a hint of a smile as she holds the hand of the more solemn and fair skinned man standing next to her, who I know to be my grandfather. The woman's thick dark hair is pulled back into a loosely tied bun, and she doesn't wear the familiar glasses I remember. The second photo depicts an even younger woman whose beautiful dark eyes seem to flirt playfully with the cameraman. She is dressed glamorously, wearing pearls, a fur stole, and lipstick. At first, I thought this vivacious woman couldn't possibly be the same sweet, older, rounder Nanny from my memory. But as I look closely into the face and eyes of the woman in the photo, I see my Nanny's familiar eyes looking back at me, and I immediately feel an intimacy I have missed over the last thirty-five years.

 

Maria Teresa was my grandmother, my sweet Nanny, and I loved her. She is always within my reach, tucked away until I need her, lovingly waiting for me to sense her in my memories. 

The End

About The Author

Margo Griffin is a Boston, MA area public school educator and has worked in urban education for over thirty years. She is the mother of two amazing daughters and to the love of her life and best rescue dog ever, Harley. You can find her on Twitter here: @67MGriffin