On Friday my mother calls to tell me Nonnie has died. Except she doesn’t say died.
She says, “Anne, I just called to tell you that Nonnie is gone.”
As if she might be on vacation. I picture Nonnie smiling, climbing onto a tour bus. She’s wearing a shapeless flower-print housedress and one of those short white cardigan sweaters she calls shrugs. Sleeves pushed up to the elbows, at least two pressed white handkerchiefs peeking out of the cuffs. That’s her uniform for going anywhere—the grocer, the drugstore, a movie, across the street to Irene’s house. Even to Church.
Not that she ever went to church, as in attending Mass. But as far back as I can remember, and probably even farther, she would make her monthly pilgrimage downtown to Church of the Holy Name. I loved going with her, riding in last seat of the bus, my legs dangling over the edge. Sometimes we’d go see a movie at the El Capitan or have grilled cheese sandwiches and fountain cokes at the Woolworth lunch counter.
But always before getting on the bus to go home, we’d slip in the side door of Holy Name, cross ourselves and head straight for the font. I can see her fumbling in her big black purse for the empty cough syrup bottles, filling them with holy water while I stand blinking in the dimness and inhaling the smells of incense and hot candle wax.
Raised a Roman Catholic, she attributed all sorts of miraculous properties to holy water. She blessed the car with it before family vacations. She flicked it on hospital room doorposts whenever she visits people. And when my sister and I were little, she was forever sprinkling it on us at the first cough or sneeze.
“..Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,” she would mumble. Janet always tried to wipe it off, but it made me feel protected.
“She didn’t want a funeral or any kind of memorial service.” My mother’s voice intrudes on my reverie, and I realize I have not yet said a word to her.
“So what will you do?”
“She wanted to be cremated and her ashes scattered up at the lake.”
She used to joke about dying—sometimes as if it would never happen to her, other times with the gallows humor of the soon-to-be-departed. “Just chop me up and flush me down the toilet,” she’d say.
“I thought Catholics didn’t believe in cremation.”
“As far as I know, they don’t. But then Nonnie was never too interested in being told what to believe. About anything.”
What do I say now? “I’m sorry, Mom.”
She sighs. “I am too, honey, but you know, she was in so much pain…”
Please don’t say it was a blessing.
Why aren’t we crying? Nonnie is, after all, my mother’s mother. At times, she’s also been the only link between my mother and me. Maybe that’s why. Maybe we’re afraid to rock this tippy old boat of emotion because Nonnie is no longer around to serve as ballast.
“I thought you’d want to help me sort through her things.”
“Have you called Janet?” The question is rhetorical; I know she would have called Janet first.
“Yes, I just talked to her. But she can’t come home.”
“Right. Being a doctor’s wife is a full time job.” I immediately want to bite my tongue and let the sarcasm bleed out of it, but my mother chooses to ignore it.
“How’s Rob?” she asks and the question startles me, although it shouldn’t.
“Fine,” I say automatically. “Working hard.”
“Have you two decided what you’d like for a wedding present?”
“We haven’t had much time to talk about it. Listen, Mom, I should call the travel agent if I’m going to get out of here tonight. I’ll call you back.”
But instead of calling Sally Pankoff, who always books my flights, I sit staring at the old fashioned black dial phone that used to sit next to a vase of flowers on a tiny table in Nonnie’s living room. My mind refuses to process the information that she’s dead. She’s been part of my life for too long. Even in the last few years when I’ve lived so far away and she’s been in a nursing home, even when she was so full of pain killers that her voice on the phone was slurred and muffled, I’ve felt her presence, hovering just behind me.
Reaching for comfort, I brush against a memory of a December morning in Nonnie’s kitchen. She has one of the ovens on low, its door open to take the chill out of the air. She’s baking today. Janet and I, 8 and 6 years old, are molding scraps of pastry dough on the oilcloth that covers the wooden table. Janet loses interest and goes into the living room to investigate the presents that are piled under the Christmas tree. I linger, rolling and re-rolling the dough, cutting it into shapes then mashing it back into a flat disk until it’s like gray leather
Nonnie peers into the pan that contains milk and poppyseeds—the filling for her kolaches. She hovers, stirring that, poking something else, frying bacon for our breakfast while muttering instructions to herself and occasionally to me. Time doesn’t exist in this room. One holiday blurs into the next. The kitchen seems huge to me, with the white O’Keefe & Merritt range and the squat little refrigerator, the table in the center where we eat—children first, then the grownups—because there is no dining room in her house. The counter is high and there is a pantry that stays miraculously cool, even in the hottest weather, and a metal breadbox where Janet and I know we can always find animal cookies.
Later when Nonnie comes to live with Mom and Dad and we go to clean out her house, I’m surprised at how small it is. I marvel at how she cooked and baked all that wonderful food with the aunts and uncles and cousins running under foot and still had everything tidied up and the table set with the good dishes when it was time to eat.
She’s a fabulous cook, this short, wide-hipped Polish woman. It’s instinctive with her. She can read through a recipe, and once she sees where it’s headed, she never consults it again. She knows how to get there as if by some homing device. Later as I become more interested in food and all its subtexts, I try to help her in the kitchen in hopes that I might learn her techniques. But these sessions always end in frustration for me, because Nonnie can no more explain what she does than a fish can tell you how to swim.
She can cook anything—roasts that are unfailingly tender and moist with beautiful crispy edges, surrounded by carrots and potatoes that caramelize to chewy sweetness in the pan juices. Her special creamed veal is something like Beef Stroganoff, but Stroganoff has to be chewed, while this seems to melt on your tongue leaving only a whisper of herbs and cream. In those pre-politically correct days veal was my favorite spring dinner, along with buttery mashed potatoes and fresh peas from her garden.
But mainly Nonnie’s a baker—of flaky pie crusts and feather light cakes, crisp chewy cookies and crusty bread that makes the kitchen smell like my idea of heaven. I think the recipe I covet more than any other is her poppyseed kolaches, which she only makes on special occasions. Golden short pastry encasing a filling of blue-black poppyseeds, sugar, milk, orange rind and spices. Sweet but not cloying, somehow smooth and crunchy at the same time. And tiny. One bite, like holding heaven in your mouth. I watch her, and I even write down what she does, but when I try to make them at home, they’re never the same.
“First you soak the seeds in milk,” she says.
“How many cups of poppyseeds?”
“About enough for 5 dozen kolaches.”
“How much milk, Nonnie?”
“You know, enough to cover them. So they’re moist, but not soupy.”
“Yes, but not too much. Poppyseed shouldn’t be too sweet.”
She buys all her herbs and spices in bulk at a small Italian grocery and keeps them in unlabeled jars. Janet and I call them Nonnie’s secret ingredients. She knows what they are by looking at them or smelling them as she rubs a bit between her fingers. She never measures. She just throws in a pinch or a few spoonfuls.
Rob’s not at his desk. When I leave a message on his voice mail; my only emotion is guilty relief at not reaching him. I feel like a mythological character who’s assigned a set of impossible tasks in order to gain her freedom. One down. Number two: I have to talk to Phil about taking some time off.
I used my sick leave when I had the flu, and my personal days when I flew home to see Nonnie this spring. The doctors were sure she wouldn’t last another 48 hours, but she fooled them. By the time I left she was sitting up in bed eating roast chicken and her friend Mrs. Pomeroy’s milk custard.
I took half my vacation to go with Rob to a conference in Palm Desert in January, and the other half is scheduled in September. For our honeymoon.
I met Rob three years ago when he was dating the woman who lived next door to me. I’d seen him a few times coming and going from her condo, but never really paid much attention. I had just broken up with a man that I had thought was Mr. Right and who, after 2 years turned out to be Mr. TotallyWrong, so I was kind of in hermit mode socially. I had convinced myself that I really preferred the company of my yellow lab to that of any man and that career celibacy could lead to a state of enlightenment.
One evening in early December I was coming home with my arms full of files, including one containing about 6 months’ worth of receipts for the expense statements that I’d been putting off for most of the year. It was raining—pouring, actually. One of those L.A. gulley washers where the storm drains, which are full of leaves and debris, back up, transforming the streets into cold, muddy rivers. I was hurrying to get to the shelter of my front porch while trying to find my key in the bottom of my purse, and of course I dropped one of the files. While I was trying to pick it up I dropped all the files. Stacks of paper went everywhere and started sucking up water, while stray sheets floated away like boats on the retreating tide. I started screaming “Oh shit!” and other obscenities that are best forgotten.
I was squatting down trying to keep my raincoat off the ground, scooping up soggy files when I realized that someone else was scooping them up, and doing it much more efficiently than I. In a few seconds we had everything and he followed me to my porch.
“Thank you so much,” I gulped, out of breath and embarrassed. He was laughing.
“No problem. I saw you coming and you looked like an accident waiting to happen. Are you okay?”
“You mean, other than feeling very wet and stupid?” I was still fumbling in my purse. When I produced the key, he took it and opened the door. And found himself looking into the muzzle of Edna, my lab, hair standing up on her neck, making that low growl in the back of her throat.”
“It’s okay, Edna,” I said. Immediately her hackles went down and her tail went up and she started sniffing his crotch. “Edna, no! Sit.” She complied.
“You named your lab Edna?” He laughed again. “I thought labs were supposed to have names like Cheyenne or Ranger.”
“Too rustic,” I said. “She’s very refined.”
“After Edna St. Vincent Millay.” For the first time, I really looked at him. Not movie star hot, but certainly not repulsive. Burberry trench coat. Expensive leather shoes, now soaked. “The poet,” I said crisply.
For a minute I thought he might snap back that he knew who Edna St. Vincent Millay was. Maybe even quote a few lines from Renaissance. But he didn’t. I got two towels from the hall linen closet and handed him one.
“Any other pets I should know about?” He toweled his hair briskly. “A biting parrot named Charles Dickens? Or maybe a boa constrictor named Jane Austen?”
“No, just Edna.”
He stood there, holding the towel, making no move to leave and I was struck by how—well, the first word that came to mind was cute—he looked with his light brown hair wet and tousled, his face smooth and damp like a child after a bath. He smelled nice too. Clean, but not over-scented.
Obviously Charlotte, the girlfriend, hadn’t gotten home yet, so he was probably looking for a warm, dry place to wait. I figured I owed him at least that.
“Would you like some hot tea?”
“Great,” he said almost before I’d finished asking the question.
I dug out some graham crackers and put them on a plate and over tea and crackers we exchanged life stories. He was a young, overworked and underpaid attorney in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. An only child. His mother was a wealthy widow. He didn’t put it quite like that, but he said his father had died several years ago and his mother lived in Newport Beach. I got the picture.
He actually showed an interest in my job with California Living Magazine, which Mr. Totally Wrong never did unless I had gotten free passes to a concert or tickets to a Lakers game..
He might have left after that, but we got started talking about movies. He was a fan of Oliver Stone, and my favorite director was Robert Altman. We graduated from tea to wine. His cell phone rang and he shut it off. We discussed books. He loved Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. I told him about In a Dark Wood Wandering. He took his tie off and I built a fire in the fireplace. We sent out for pizza. I won’t say we forgot about Charlotte, because she was definitely there, an invisible presence in the room.
Finally just after 10 PM, he started looking for his shoes. He said, “I should go.”
I sensed the onset of low grade guilt. Edna was snoring blissfully on her end of the sofa when I walked to the door with him. He didn’t say anything about Charlotte, or about seeing me again. When he tilted my chin up and kissed me, the static electricity shocked both of us and we laughed.
“I can’t…” My voice forgot what it meant to say.
I nodded in the general direction of next door. “I mean, you and Charlotte are…involved. And I’m just getting uninvolved. So.” I cleared my throat. “It was a nice evening, but I’m not really ready—”
When he kissed me again, it became obvious to me that it had been more than a nice evening, and while it probably wouldn’t be tomorrow or next week or maybe even next month, our paths would cross again. Ready or not.
I have total recall of how my life used to be. How the days moved in an orderly progression, how I conducted interviews, did my research, wrote my stories. Maybe they weren’t inspired, but they were good. Rob and I had dinner together when he could shake loose from work. When I said I was going to the movies or having a drink with a girlfriend I actually did it. I took for granted not having to lie. In my head I can hear my father’s favorite cautionary ditty: Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. How did I let everything get so complicated? And why?
It’s not as if Rob and I were miserable. Sometimes everything fit. Like those beds made of space age foam that conform to your contours when they meet with body heat. Yes, there were the political games he had to play at work, and the creeping realization that, as his wife, I was going to be expected to ante up, too. By far the worst of it was the long hours he had to put in. When I brought it up—jokingly at first, then not so jokingly—he always apologized, but there was nothing he could do, he said. He was being assigned high-profile cases. They were grooming him for big things. His mother was thrilled.
Just once I made the mistake of complaining about it in front of her. She wasted no time in letting me know that any normal woman would be grateful to be engaged to the rising star in the D.A.’s office. She also pointed out that the Crawford men were all overachievers. She even hinted that if I wasn’t happy, I could be replaced with someone more appreciative and understanding—I pictured her poring over the pages of a fiancé catalog—let’s see…something medium sized in the Stepford line.
I quit talking about it. I tried to quit thinking about it. I wanted everyone to be happy. Including me. My parents adored Rob. Okay, his mother didn’t adore me. In fact it pained her that he’d chosen me, but she bravely made the best of it. Rob moved in with me. I had a diamond. A big diamond that belonged to his grandmother. The date was set. The whole future was set from what I could tell. In cement.
And then this thing with Phil happened. It started innocently enough. The two of us scheduled lunch with a photographer who no-showed. A drink after work to talk about an investigative series dealing with construction kickbacks on the new stadium. It turned into dinner. I had no reason to say no because Rob was eating a turkey sandwich at his desk.
One quiet afternoon I played hooky and went to the zoo. And ran into Phil in the Hummingbird House. We were both headed for the Penguin Encounter. We both liked the funky used book stores on San Dimon Boulevard and the Hot Tin Roof Sundae at Evie’s Diner. I was lonely and stupid. I was doing all the things with him I should have been doing with Rob. Eventually I was doing all of it with him.
I dial Phil’s number hoping he’ll be at lunch so I can just leave a message, but he picks up on the second ring.
“Hi, it’s Anne.”
“Hi.” His voice warms. Just a degree or two. Not enough to pique the curiosity of anyone passing by his office door. Then he launches into the business at hand. “Hey, did Nicki get ahold of you this morning? She wanted to talk to you about the NewsBriefs format.”
“No. She didn’t.”
“Maybe you could give her a call. We need to get going on this thing if it’s going to be changed for the July issue—”
“I have to go to Denver,” I blurt out.
“Why?” He sounds angry.
“My grandmother died.”
“Oh.” He knows about Nonnie. “I’m sorry to hear it.” Then cautiously, “When will you be back?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Anne…you’ve missed a lot of work already this year.”
I hate it when he puts on his editor hat. “I’m current with my stories. I’ll finish the one on the water treatment plant and email it to you before I leave tonight.”
“Can you be back Monday?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to call you.”
“Okay.” He waits for some encouragement, but I don’t give him any. “Anne, I’m…really sorry. I know you were close to her.”
“Thanks. I’ll call you Monday morning.”
“Annie.” It’s barely a whisper. “I’ll be thinking about you.”
The air on the plane is heavy and stale. I lean back, close my eyes, picture a car spinning out on a hairpin curve. Tears form a salty knot in my throat.
The plane lurches, beginning the slow taxi out to the runway. I need some sleep. In fact, I need to go to sleep and wake up as somebody else. Maybe a glass of wine? Better yet, maybe a hot toddy. Just when I think we’re going to taxi all the way to Denver, the jets ignite with a low roar that vibrates in my chest, and we lift off.
The flight attendant brings me my hot tea, honey, lemon and brandy. After Holy Water, this was Nonnie’s favorite prescription for everything from head colds to PMS. The first swallow burns going down more from the alcohol than the temperature of the tea and then a glow starts to radiate from the pit of my stomach outward to my limbs, followed by a delicious drowsiness. I lean back, close my eyes.
The toddy does its job, and suddenly we’re landing in Denver. I spot my mother just outside the security checkpoint and my heart gives an unexpected lurch as I notice for the first time how much she looks like Nonnie. We hug awkwardly then rush outside where my father is waiting in the car.
He kisses my cheek and throws my bag in the trunk. “Is this all you brought?”
“I didn’t want to fool with checking luggage.”
At the house, he takes my bag up to the bedroom that Janet and I shared. I’d love to escape there myself, but my mother has baked my favorite—banana cake with fudge icing—and insists on making a pot of decaf.
We settle around the breakfast room table, chatting in that shorthand way of people who know each other well. My mother tells me Nonnie was only semi conscious the last four days.
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“I guess I was hoping she’d come out of it. Like she did before.”
If you’d called me and I’d come, she would have. I don’t say it, but I can’t help thinking it—like if you wash the car, it rains. If you find a magazine you like, the doctor calls you in. If you go to the ladies room, the waiter shows up.
“She wouldn’t have been able to talk to you,” my father says gently. “She could barely open her eyes even when she was conscious.”
“She didn’t recognize me last Thursday,” my mother says.
Summer daisies from the garden nod in the green depression glass vase; their pollen glows like sprinklings of gold dust on the polished wood tabletop.
My father slowly and methodically cleans, fills and tamps his old brier pipe. The age spots on his hands startle me. When did this happen? Wisps of heathery smoke curl up toward the ceiling unleashing yet another flood of memories—bedtime stories, Janet and me, hair damp from our baths, curled up on the couch, our bare toes overlapping while he smoked his pipe and read “The Princess and the Pea” or “The Boy Who Held the Ocean in his Mouth.”
The ancient percolator emits a final sigh, signaling that the coffee is ready and my mother brings it to the table. She has this habit of looking you in the eye briefly, then away at some object, then back to you when she’s getting ready to say something she finds upsetting. Now when she does it, I expect her to say something else about Nonnie, but instead she says,
“Rob called this afternoon…” I try to keep my expression noncommital. “Anne, honey, is everything alright? With you two, I mean.”
“Of course.” I smile.
“Did you not tell him you were leaving?” Her perfectly arched eyebrows reach for each other as she frowns.
“I did. But he wasn’t there when I called, so I had to leave a message on his voice mail. Which he doesn’t check very often…” I know I’m talking too fast.
“Maybe you should call him and tell him you got here okay.”
“He’s probably not home.”
My dad consults his watch. “It’s only 6:40 in L.A., Margaret.”
My mother wants to push, I can tell, but instead she bites her lip and tops off her coffee.
“He’s still working a lot of overtime.” I offer it up meekly, wary of looking at her too long. She has that sixth sense peculiar to mothers. If they catch your eye, you’re like a rabbit hypnotized by a snake. Janet and I were always amazed at how she could read us. When we were little we accused each other of ratting, but by the time we were teenagers, we knew that she didn’t need to be told. She just knew.
“You could try him at work,” my mother says.
“Mother, don’t worry about it. I’ll talk to him later.” I scrape the last of the chocolate frosting off the plate and lick my fork. “That was great, Mom. I’m pretty tired. Let’s get these dishes done, and then I’m going to bed.”
She gets up and carries her plate to the sink. “You go on, honey. Your father can help me with the dishes. Get some rest. We’ve got things to do tomorrow.”
I’m just unzipping my bag when I hear the phone ring downstairs. A feeling of pure dread slips up over my shoulders. Sure enough, before I can grab my pajamas and lock myself in the bathroom, my father’s knocking on the door. He hands me the cordless phone and kisses my cheek.
“Sleep tight, Princess.”
“Hi. Are you okay?” I picture Rob, still at work, feet propped up on his desk, tie loosened. I used to think that was about the sexiest thing I’d ever seen a man do. Till I realized that was how he was going to spend every waking minute.
“Of course. Didn’t you get my voice mail?” I’m angry at him for calling and making me deal with this now and I’m angry at myself for blaming him when it’s my guilt that’s the problem.
“I got it a little while ago, but I just wanted to see what was going on.”
“What’s going on is that Nonnie died.” I’m being a total bitch, but I can’t seem to stop.
“I know you’re upset, and I’m sorry…” It’s his litigation voice, smooth, calming, rational. It makes me furious.
“Not sorry enough to do anything about it,” I snap.
“What could I do?”
“You might have come with me.”
There’s a tiny chuckle; he always does that when I’m being illogical. If I could leap through the phone lines and claw at him, I’d do it.
“You were already gone,” he says ever-so-reasonably.
Already gone. Am I? Have I already thrown out the baby with the bathwater, as Nonnie used to say? I imagine her frown, the way she always shook her head when she disapproved of my behavior. And then suddenly my throat knots up and tears are coursing down my cheeks and I can’t breathe.
“Annie, don’t. Tell me what it is. What’s wrong?”
“Nonnie—I can’t—I’m just—” I stammer between gulps of air.
“It’s not just that,” he says. His voice is quiet but decisive. It’s the voice he uses in court to elicit confessions from evil-doers. Right now, that would be me. And it works. Before I have time to think, to lie, I hear myself blurting out the truth, punctuating it with sobs, but not with apologies.
“I’m seeing someone.” Seeing. What about all those other words for what I’ve been doing? Fooling around. Having an affair. Cheating. They all sound so sleazy. They couldn’t apply to me. I don’t fool around or cheat. I just see someone else.
“I know.” It takes a few seconds to sink in. “I saw you one day. It’s Phil, isn’t it?”
“You saw me?”
There’s a long exhale on the other end. “Yeah. I came by your office one day at noon. To surprise you. Take you to lunch. You were just coming out of the building with him.”
“But…” My mind reels backwards. It could have been any of a dozen days. Do I really want to know which one? And how did he know? We’ve always been scrupulously casual at work.
“I just knew,” he says, reading my mind. “The way you looked at each other.” Mr. District Attorney ferrets out the truth once again.
I feel like I’m going to throw up. Just say you’re sorry. But I can’t. I’m not even totally sure I am. But if I’m not, why do I feel like pond scum?
“Look, Anne, I didn’t mean to upset you. I know you’re dealing with a lot tonight. Let’s talk about it when you get home, okay?”
How dare he be so considerate, so understanding. Especially in the face of what I’ve just blurted out. That I’ve betrayed him.
I lie on my back in the darkness, hearing the faint sounds of the television in the den, which is directly beneath this room. I used to hate it when my parents watched the news and then Johnny Carson. My hearing was so acute that I couldn’t fall asleep. Now it’s just a muted hum, white noise. The day-glo stars and planets that Janet glued to the ceiling blur through the tears that seep out of my eyes and drip onto the pillow, soaking it. I don’t know if I’m crying for Nonnie or for Rob or for the rat’s nest that I’ve made of my life.
“I want to see her,” I announce at breakfast.
My father looks over the top of the sports section at my mother, who sets down her glass of orange juice and says,
“Anne, I don’t think you really want to do that. You just feel like you should. It’s better to remember her the way she was.”
It irritates the pee out of me for anyone, but especially my mother, to tell me how I feel or what I really want. I take a sip of coffee and swallow it, along with those bad words.
“Why not? Did you already have her cremated?”
“No, of course not. There’s a mandatory 48-hour waiting period before they can—”
“Then I want to see her.”
“Honey, she doesn’t look good.”
“Mother, she’s dead. How good can she look?”
“Annie…” The tone of my father’s voice carries a warning.
“She was emaciated. Wasted away. She looked—” My mother’s voice breaks and her eyes brim with tears.
I reach over to touch her hand awkwardly. “I’m sorry, Mom.” I take a piece of bacon off the plate in the middle of the table. “But I still want to see her.
At 10:45 we’re standing in the reception area of Carroll’s Funeral Home. There’s a list of viewings on a dark wooden easel and the smell of roses from three huge displays barely masks a sweetish smell that I associate with high school biology class. A long hallway, carpeted in ankle-deep forest green and lined on both sides with doorways, runs off to the left. A man in a dark suit steps out of one of the rooms, closing the paneled door behind him, and comes towards us tugging at his cuffs.
“Mrs. Callen,” he murmurs. My mother extends her hand and he takes it in both of his.
“My daughter, Anne,” she says. “This is Mr. Greavy.”
His hand is warm and slightly damp.
“I’ve put you in the small viewing room,” he says. “If you’ll just follow me.”
In a room about the size of my mother’s dining room we find Nonnie in a plain pine box. Greavy offers us tea and when we decline, he disappears. For a few seconds we both hang back. “It’s just that the box gets cremated, too,” my mother babbles. “Or we would have gotten something nicer.”
I know she’s just trying to fill the silence and doesn’t expect me to answer. I take her hand and we walk up to the casket.
It isn’t Nonnie. It’s a little wizened doll with waxy pale skin and no eyelashes and about three white hairs brushed over her forehead. But on her left hand is Nonnie’s sapphire engagement ring. My mother calmly reaches in, lifts the rigid twig of an arm and slips the ring off the finger that now is much too small for it. She presses it into my palm. It’s ice cold. That’s when I lose it.
I’m grateful to my mother for not reminding me that she told me I wouldn’t want to see Nonnie. She simply walks me out to the car and drives to the nearest Starbucks where we both order nonfat decaf mochas. We sit in silence, making designs in the whipped cream and waiting for the drinks to cool off.
“When will they—do the cremation?” I finally ask.
“Monday. Do you want to go?”
“I don’t know.” I take a sip of the mocha, leave a whipped cream mustache on my upper lip. She reaches over to wipe it with her napkin as if I were four years old. Then she sits back in her chair and gives me the look that’s guaranteed to vacuum up every scrap of information from my brain.
“Anne, what’s going on with you and Rob?”
I choose this moment to look deeply into my cup. “Nothing, why?”
“You’re not a very adept liar, my dear.”
When I look up into her steady, clear-eyed gaze, I know there’s no bluffing through this one. I sigh, stir the rapidly cooling mocha with the wooden stir stick. “We’re just not getting along very well, I guess.”
“Why do you suppose that is?”
“Oh, Mom, I don’t know.” I’m harboring the irrational hope that she’ll let it go, even though I know she’ll hang on like a pit bull till she finds out the truth. Or what seems true to her. She waits in silence—she’s a master of the technique. “He’s never there, I guess is the problem.”
“You mean he’s a workaholic?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“You seem to be doing a lot of guessing. Don’t you two ever sit down and talk about things?”
“Sometimes. I mean, I’ve tried. I can honestly say I’ve tried. He just says that’s how it is right now. They’re supposedly ‘grooming’ him for something big.”
I shrug. “The powers that be. It’s getting very political and when he’s not working, we have to go a lot of stupid parties and events and stuff. I hate it.”
“I would think that would be a treasure trove for a journalist.”
I roll my eyes. “Do you know what would happen to his career if I ever used any of that stuff?”
“Does he know how you feel?”
“He’d have to be deaf and blind not to.”
She puts her elbows on the table and rests her chin in her hands. “Are you going to break off the engagement?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well…” She takes a compact from her purse and carefully reapplies lipstick. “I know you’ll make the right decision.”
I can’t stop the laugh that bubbles up in my throat. “You do? I wish I was that certain. I feel like my brain has turned to oatmeal.”
“Then give your brain a rest and try working with your heart.” She empties her cup and stuffs a napkin down inside it. “Ready to go sort through some boxes?”
When we get home, my father’s out on the back deck with a paint brush and an old end table floating like an island on a sea of newspapers. A sweating can of beer sits on the railing. “Watch where you walk,” he warns. “I’ve dripped a fair amount.” To my mother, “You like this color?”
She eyes it critically, then nods her approval. “It’s perfect for that little office upstairs. It’s going to be our library.”
“Oh, no.” My father grins. “I’ve got that earmarked for my TV room.”
“You have a TV room. It’s called the den.”
“Too close to the kitchen. Too much noise. By the way, Annie, Somebody from the magazine called.”
For a second I blank out.
“Philip Coulter, I think he said.”
The sound of his name makes my stomach contract. Why can’t they all just leave me alone?
“My editor. Did he say what he wanted?”
“Just for you to call him. Must be important. He left his home phone number.”
As if I didn’t know it by heart. I don’t dare look at my mother.
“You go ahead and call him, honey,” she says. “Then come on up to the attic.”
When he answers, I close the bedroom door and sit down on the bed. “Phil?”
“How did you get this number?”
“Your HR file. That line that says Notify in Case of Emergency…”
“You’re insane. So what’s the emergency?”
“The emergency is…I miss you. I was just wondering how you were getting along.”
“Oh…okay, I guess.” I kick off my shoes and scoot back to lean against the headboard. “We went to see her this morning.”
“Was it awful?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“When’s the funeral?”
“There’s not going to be one. She didn’t even want a memorial service. They’re going to cremate her Monday.”
“I hate to think of you up there by yourself.”
“I’m not by myself. I’m with my parents.”
“I know. I guess what I mean is, I wish I could be there with you.”
“That would be a disaster.”
“I know. I just mean—”
“Phil, I’m sorry. I know you’re trying to help. I’m just so—we’re getting ready to go through her things.”
“When are you coming back?”
“Probably Tuesday morning. I’ll be in the office as soon as I can.”
“Okay. Well. I miss you.”
“Miss you too,” I lie.
My parents call it the attic, but really, it’s a room on the third floor with steeply sloping ceilings and dormer windows. Janet and I loved to play up here among the boxes and trunks and old furniture. Nonnie’s stuff is in one corner. There’s not all that much left, since we cleaned out her house several years ago and got rid of a lot then. It occurs to me for the first time that my mother really didn’t need my help with these few boxes.
She’s already sitting cross legged on my seventies vinyl beanbag chair, waiting for me.
“Look what I found,” she says, holding up an age-yellowed shoebox.
Nonnie had no use for photos and scrapbooks. “No sense living in the past,” was her standard reply to questions about her family. Those pictures she did have were simply tossed into a shoebox that lived on the top shelf of her closet. The pictures, brown and brittle, are mostly unlabeled. No names, no dates, no places. Solemn family portraits from the early nineteen hundreds, a couple of farmers with ancient flatbed trucks and scraggly dogs. One dashing young man wearing a suit and a smile of obvious delight stands on the running board of a black car.
“Why are the cars always black?” I ask.
My mother laughs. “That was the only color they came in.”
She identifies three young women in cloche hats and midcalf dresses as Nonnie and her sisters, Rachel and Sarah. It’s easy to pick out Nonnie, one hand on her hip, chin high, staring straight into the lens, while the other two stand sideways to the camera, eyes lowered modestly.
A heartbreakingly handsome soldier in WWI uniform makes my mother pause. She turns it over. It’s signed in the elegant penmanship no longer practiced—
To Evelyn with abiding affection. Yours, Stephen.
“Nonnie’s true love,” she says.
“What about Grampa Jack?”
“He was her husband and my father, but Stephen was her true love.”
I look at her, curious. “So what happened?”
“Well, Nonnie never talked about him, of course, but Aunt Sarah told me the story one time after she tippled a few too many sherries on Sunday afternoon. Stephen lived in their neighborhood. He was older than Nonnie, and he went to France during WWI. He came home and they were engaged, but he was killed.” She sighs. “He survived the war only to be hit by a runaway trolley car.”
“Oh, poor Nonnie.”
“The story is that she never got over him. Of course, the day after she told me, Sarah had an attack of conscience. She made me swear I’d never mention it to Nonnie.”
“It was probably more like she was afraid Nonnie would go after her with a rolling pin.”
We laugh in tandem. “She was certainly capable of it. So I never did ask, and now it’s too late.”
We spend the balance of the afternoon sifting through what’s left of my grandmother as the sun moves across the front of the house, throwing slanted wedges of light on the wood floor. Some tattered Life Magazines, a file folder full of 1940’s highway maps and tourist brochures, a few sweaters that the moths have turned into Swiss cheese, a toy slot machine bank, her collection of cheap porcelain ballerinas, old costume jewelry, and a worn deck of Tarot cards, which I decide to take.
“I didn’t know you were into fortune telling,” my mother teases.
“The illustrations are so beautiful on these old decks. I did a story about carnival fortune tellers a couple of years ago. Most of them have these new age-y kind of decks now, but one woman had some really gorgeous Renaissance style cards…” My voice trails off. “She was so mysterious and interesting. I sort of wanted to believe that she really could see the future.”
Ice cubes rattle in my mother’s glass as she drinks the last of her tea. “Why on earth would you want to know what’s going to happen?”
I shrug. “So you’d know what to do, I guess. I feel like I’m never quite sure.”
“No one is,” she says.
“Nonnie was. She seemed to have all the information in her head.”
My mother smiles. “You think that because you only saw her when you were a little girl and she was old and wise. She made her share of mistakes. That’s how she got old and wise.”
She pulls the last box over between us and slits the tape with my father’s pocket knife. A smell like old library books wafts up to my nose as we unfold the flaps. I peer in. Newspaper clippings and scraps of notebook paper. I pull out a stack and set it on my lap and for a moment I freeze in stunned disbelief.
Recipes. There must be hundreds of recipes. Cheesecake and meatloaf. Snickerdoodles and puff pastry, coq au vin. My mother and I stare at each other. “Did you know about these?”
She shakes her head, just like Nonnie used to. I grab another stack. Herb soufflés, Bolognese sauce, coconut macaroons, stuffed cabbage, peanut butter fudge. I’m flipping through them at a furious pace.
“Careful,” my mother cautions. “They look pretty fragile.”
I ignore her, digging deeper into the box. “I don’t believe this! I just don’t—” In the bottom of the box my hand finds a book. I pull it out, dislodging more yellowed clippings and sending them to the floor. The Settlement Cookbook by Mrs. Simon Kander. Probably at one time it was white, now stained and brown. The end papers are grease spotted and some of the page corners appear to have been nibbled by mice. There’s no title page, no date, but there are ads in the back that look like the 1930’s.
And as I flip through it—carefully, because the binding is disintegrating in places—a sheet of tissue-thin paper falls out with a recipe in spidery, old fashioned script. Poppyseed kolaches. It’s stupid, I know, but my hand is shaking as I hold the paper. The air conditioning blows cold on the back of my neck, and I realize the sun has gone down. I look at my mother. “Why didn’t she tell me?” Suddenly my hands feel grimy and I have a headache. “She knew how much I wanted this. Why didn’t she tell me?”
“I have no idea, honey. My guess would be she forgot.”
“Forgot? How could she forget when I asked her a million times?”
“Not that you wanted it. I think she forgot she had it. That she had all these. She never really used them. You remember how she cooked.”
I can’t take my eyes off the onionskin paper. “I know what I think I remember…”
“You know Nonnie would have given you anything she had the power to give. You were always her favorite.”
I look up slowly into that clear gaze. “I was?”
“Of course you were. She all but ignored poor little Janet.”
I start to protest, but instead I stick the recipe back in the book. “Can I keep this?”
“Of course. She’d want you to.”
The L.A. skyline pokes out of a thin brown haze. Farther off I can see the bulky profile of Palos Verdes rising out of the blue-green Pacific. We’re circling LAX, planes stacked up like pancakes, waiting to land. I decided to come home Monday, a day earlier than I’d planned. I didn’t want to stand there with my parents while some technician loaded Nonnie’s pine box into a sealed chamber and turned on the flames. Maybe it’s the two glasses of wine I’ve had, but I can’t help smiling at the thought of Nonnie in the oven. Sort of a fitting end for a baker. I bet she thought so, too.
I feel better and I don’t know why I should. I didn’t sleep much last night. There’s a lot of unpleasantness waiting for me on the ground—the consequences of my own stupidity. And I still haven’t quite figured out why Nonnie would never give me the recipe I wanted so much—the only thing I ever really asked her for.
The Settlement Cookbook rests on my lap on top of the in-flight magazine. I slip out the onionskin paper, unfold it and read Nonnie’s poppyseed kolache recipe for about the twentieth time. Cardamom. Her secret ingredient. That’s why mine were never right. I was using cinnamon.
I close my eyes, picturing the spice shelf in her kitchen, the green tinted glass jars with their fragrant mysteries. How were you supposed to know which one to choose? How did you figure out the right combination that would make the difference between fabulous and pretty good, or pretty good and flat-out failure?
I follow the crowd through the long, gleaming concourse down to baggage claim and stand shifting my weight from one foot to the other. Now I wish I’d carried my little bag on the plane, but I have my purse and a shopping bag full of cakes and cookies my mother insisted on sending with me and those few things of Nonnie’s that I wanted. Finally the buzzer sounds and the yellow light flashes and hundreds of black soft sided suitcases that all look alike come tumbling down onto the carousel. I spot mine, distinguishable by the purple bungee cord my father gave me to wrap around it. I pull it off, pop the handle and turn around.
A movement near the door grabs my attention. A tall man with shirt sleeves rolled up, tie loosened. Every time the automatic doors part to let someone through, the wind tousles his light brown hair. He’s scanning the crowd methodically until he sees me and his face breaks into a smile that vanishes into uncertainty.
I hesitate, then smile back—a small, tentative smile. My fingers tighten on The Settlement Cookbook, imprinting the texture of its dirty woven cover. I press the reassuring bulk of it against my chest, and I step out of the crowd to meet him.