The things I will never know about Nanny break my heart. What were her parents’ names? Did she live with them until she got married? Did she have brothers or sisters? She was poor, I know; she told me a story once, standing at the kitchen sink, of how she had to pin a burlap sack to her bra straps as a dress. “Que vergüenza,” she said. How shameful. They could all see my bra. What did she do for work, then, early on? When did she first start cleaning houses, caring for other people’s children? How did she meet her husband? When did she fall in love?
My mind starts to make up answers. She begins to materialize on a farm or a ranch, a small, lithe, dust-covered girl who is surprisingly strong. Then I stop myself. I don’t want to remember an imagined woman. I want to remember the woman I knew, however incompletely.
* * *
In the earliest memory I can pull from dreamlike depths, we are sitting together at a child-sized table. I look at the two of us—me, tiny and dark-haired, and Nanny, gray waves and a housedress—and we are coloring, maybe, or molding play dough. There’s a sense of waiting, of anticipation. Then the front door opens, and I see the figures of my parents, silhouetted against a blazing spring sky. My mom holds a wrapped bundle in her arms—my sister, it must be, though in my memory it’s my brother, only eighteen months younger than I. Gleeful, I gasp and look at Nanny, and she laughs and tells me in Spanish, “Go!” And I run to meet this brand new human who is now a part of us.
Her real name was Josefina Arellano. Everyone called her Fina, but I called her Ñaña. My parents followed suit, the way they referred to each other as Mom and Dad in our presence, and so of course, my brother and sister, too, called her Ñaña.
Once I reached my full height of five feet four inches, I could stand behind her and rest my chin on her fine, baby-soft gray hair; that’s how small she was. As she got older, I hugged her more gingerly, but I can remember being a child and hurling myself at her the way I would my parents, seeing no difference between their able thirty-something bodies and hers, which had carried her for seventy-one years by the time I was born. She was as solid to me, as vital and eternal, as they were.
Nanny (a nickname upon a nickname one of us later gave her) was born in Durango, Mexico. She moved, at some point, to Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican sister city of my hometown. She and her husband had a tiny house there, my mother has told us. Back when a handful of children, hair windblown and wild, could walk across the bridge without fear, my mother and her siblings went to visit Nanny. The house was two rooms, maybe one; immaculately clean. Nanny procured glass-bottled Mexican Coke, the kind with real cane sugar, and gave it to the kids to help them cool off in the brutal heat. I imagine them, my mom and her siblings, rambunctious and sweaty, looking around Nanny’s space and realizing how much bigger their home was than hers.
Nanny had come to work for my grandparents when my mother was only a year old. She would stay at their house during the week, cooking and cleaning while my grandparents worked, and return home on weekends. She gave baths and spankings, made now-legendary tortillas, chased quick-footed, loud-mouthed boys around the house, rounded up all the kids for meals when they were playing barefoot on the unpaved streets outside, met girlfriends, boyfriends. She met my father when he and my mother were fourteen. His own family lived just across the street, and he and my mother became best friends. They played baseball together in the empty lot that is now my aunt’s house, ran to pizza joints where they’d each order a large and devour it, then run back home. I wonder if, in all the years Nanny lived with us and saw my dad in his crisp suits and ties, he was still that chaparrito, bright-eyed boy in her mind, the only one my mother has ever loved.
My mother was always the good one, the rule-follower, and she clung to Nanny when she was picked on or, for some reason, punished. She remembers sneaking into Nanny’s room at night, climbing into bed with her and staying there until Nanny rose at five to prepare for the day. Thirty-five years later, my younger sister would do the same, tracing a serpentine path toward Nanny’s room, pulling the comforter and sheets from the foot of the bed and crawling on knees and palms toward Nanny. We laugh, now, at what must have been a startling, absurd interruption from sleep: an invisible rustle, followed by a wild-haired child sneaking from toes to face. But I doubt if Nanny ever showed surprise. She probably just made sure Amanda was warm and comfortable before smoothing the covers over them both.
* * *
Our best friends always knew who Nanny was to us, but classmates who came over for school projects sometimes referred to her as our housekeeper. “Your housekeeper is so cute!” they might say, or “Does your housekeeper live here?” Even now, the complete misidentification creates a squirming feeling in my chest, more so because there were times I didn’t correct them. “I know,” I might say, or “Yeah, ever since I was born.” I didn’t know how to explain her. As a good friend would say to me years later, “To say she was like your mother does a disservice to your mother. But to say she was like your grandmother does a disservice to her.” I nearly fell over with recognition. Because indeed, only my mother is my mother. But my grandmother, as much as I love her, is someone I saw once a week in my youth and far less now. Nanny was a fixture in my life from the day I was born, wet black hair standing up like a troll doll’s, nearly giving my father a heart attack because I was not, in fact, the son he was expecting.
My dad was an entrepreneur, and at the time, my mom was an English professor at the community college. Nanny’s husband had passed away by then, so they asked if she would like to move in with us and help care for me while they worked. They would pay her, they added, knowing she would never accept if she felt like a charity case. And so, growing up, her face was as familiar to me as my own.
Ñaña: top layer of gray hair covering stubborn black beneath it. Eyes of a mysterious shade, mostly slate gray, like a newborn’s, but sometimes seeming closer to toffee. Once, in the kitchen doorway of our childhood home, I asked her what color they were. “Déjame ver,” I said, opening my own eyes wide so that she would imitate the gesture. I told her that hers were gray and beautiful, and she smiled. It was a pleased, embarrassed, girlish smile. She asked, “Sí?” as though she wanted reassurance but secretly agreed. There was a mole between her eyebrows, also grayish, and a few black hairs sprouted above the corners of her lips and at the bottom of her chin. Her hands were soft and agelessly smooth, the fingertips a deep plummy color, as though already prepared for being touched to scalding pots, steaming water, my own warm scalp. I was always struck by the shape of her nail beds: elegant and oval, the kind of shape women envy but that she probably never noticed. Her shoulders: right one raised, twisted, several inches above the left in her faded floral housedresses. She wore either sandals or Velcro high-top Reeboks over her painful white-socked feet, and she walked carefully, deliberately, working the muscles in her wiry calves, calves the color of the coffee with milk she loved to drink in the morning. The right calf gave way to the ankle she broke when I was five or six, when she slipped on the wet bathroom floor after bathing my little sister. I remember the strangeness of seeing her crumpled on the floor; it was like seeing a totaled car on the highway. The mind shudders for a moment, trying to compute seeing a familiar thing in an unfamiliar way. Calmly, Nanny told me to call my mom at work, and I ran with purpose and adrenaline down the hallway to the kitchen. Meanwhile, Amanda, still a toddler, was saying, “Yo cah-wee, Ñaña”—I’ll carry you. A line we’ve all repeated to each other over the years, at various occasions: Yo cah-wee. She had several surgeries on that ankle, with metal bolts implanted to help strengthen the bone, but despite the pain, she refused to succumb to a wheelchair. Once, at the house my parents built when I was in college, I saw her labor through a twenty-minute trek from her bedroom to the kitchen, ten or twelve yards away. In the kitchen, breathing a little heavily, she pulled a plastic spoon and a jar of peanut butter from the bread cubby. She opened the jar, pressed the spoon inside, and lifted a little glistening hill of peanut butter. From the table where I was writing, I asked her in Spanish, “Do you want to sit down? Can I help you?” and she smiled and stuck the peanut butter filled spoon into a groove in her walker. With no little amount of pride, she said, “No. Yo tengo mis maneras, mamí.” I have my ways, baby.
* * *
Why didn’t she ever have kids of her own? As a child, what did she dream for her life? Was she curious about all the books I read? Did she ever wish one of us had taken the time to teach her? Did she still miss her husband? What did she do in those two weeks a year she returned to Mexico? When she sewed cash into her bra cups, wore an actual buttoned blouse and pants, and we took her to the Greyhound station downtown, crying in the gasoline-soaked air because two weeks seemed like a lifetime without her? Who was the Fina people knew before and apart from us?
* * *
Fifteen is a special birthday for girls in Mexican culture. Traditionally, it’s celebrated with a quinceañera, which in older times signified that the girl had transitioned into a woman; she was an active adult, ready to assume her share of responsibilities in the community, and she was of a marriageable age and status. Not so anymore, of course, but the milestone still made Nanny cry with joy.
“Gracias a Dios,” she said. She continued in Spanish, “This was all I wanted, to see this day. Now I can go in peace.”
I couldn’t understand her happiness at my turning this very ordinary, awkward age. I was more excited about the white TV/VCR combo my parents had set up on my bedroom dresser—a first for us three kids—and about signing up for my driver’s education class. I laughed and put my arms around her in the red-walled kitchen, but I was unnerved: Nanny was not a crier, not ever.
Her “I can go in peace” remark also jarred me, for while she was eighty-seven, she was in perfect health, besides the arthritis and osteoporosis that were slowly transforming her body; she was like origami paper, assuming new ridges and angles with the years.
“You’re not going anywhere,” I told her in Spanish. “Where do you think you’re going?”
I rested my chin on her hair and she squeezed me tightly, her face pressed against my collarbone. I could feel her tears against my skin, and the shaking of her shoulders no longer felt exuberant. It felt sad.
“Hey,” I told her, gently drawing her away. “You’re going to help me take care of my kids. Okay?”
She laughed, wiping her nose. Her eyes brightened at the thought of me, some day, with children. “Ay, mami,” she said. “Never will you all let me stop working.”
I laughed, too, but it was forced. I was shaken. I hadn’t known that she thought about death, about leaving us. And I knew that unless I had children very young, which I didn’t intend to do, she would likely never see them. That thought was as absurd as a hundred-and-five year old woman changing a newborn’s diapers. “Nope,” I said. “Never.”
* * *
What was the place that felt most like home to her? What was she thinking when she sat at the glass top kitchen table, drinking coffee or sorting through beans to cook for dinner later? Which memories returned to her in quiet moments? Which did she reach for, reciting them in her mind, determined not to forget? Which did she wish to leave behind?
* * *
In 2008, I was twenty-three years old and living in Austin. I made as many trips home as possible because Nanny had recently been diagnosed with emphysema. Apparently she’d been a smoker, in the years before us. She weakened quickly, as the illness made breathing and eating difficult. Indeed, the only food she expressed interest in was ice cream. Miniature bowls of vanilla Bluebell, which she ate with her plastic spoon. She also still loved her coffee, so when I went down to visit, I often made us both a cup in the afternoon, and she gazed at me proudly, as though I’d made a gourmet meal.
Because of the weakness, she spent most of the day in bed. To her immense frustration and embarrassment, she was forced to wear Depends (what an awful name—the last thing people want to do is depend on anyone, anything) and finally inhabit that wheelchair anytime she left the room. She got bedsores, and the bedsores got infected. My mom, always strong and stoic, sounded terrible on the phone. Her voice was fissured, potholed. One day she told me that Ñaña was in the hospital. She wasn’t even talking anymore.
On Friday, September 5, 2008, I opened my eyes with none of the slowness that typically accompanies the shift from sleep to wakefulness. It was as though I had just closed them. I felt weary, heavy. I had class that day, a three-hour graduate literature session, and I covered my swollen eyes with my bangs as I heard nothing, trying not to cry.
A trail of relatives was walking out the kitchen door when I arrived, right as the brazen blue of the sky was beginning to soften. Their eyes were wet, and I gasped, instinctively turning to Nanny’s window as though it could tell me whether I was too late. But I wasn’t. Nanny was still stubbornly alive.
In the hospital, she’d reserved her words for the phrases that mattered. The day before, she had rasped to my dad, “Adolfo. Traéme mis chanclas. Llévame a la casa.” Adolfo. Bring me my sandals. Take me home. We’d all laughed when my parents relayed the story. I imagined her as some forties heroine, hoarsely demanding her Chanel handbag so she could get the hell off the island. But the laughter faded, because we all knew what she meant: If she was going to die, it was going to be on her terms. Like the boy he used to be, my dad obeyed.
In her room, Nanny’s twin bed with the lovely, dusky pink comforter had been pushed aside to make space for the ugly hospital bed with its raised plastic guardrails. A shiny green package of Depends rested on the small bench by the door. The room smelled like a hospital. No forties starlet, Nanny was tiny in bed. She weighed somewhere around seventy pounds, but her hands and feet were bulbous, fat with fluids. A mark covered her nose and mouth, and a machine helped to regulate her breaths. Most unnerving were those mysterious-colored eyes: wide open and staring unblinkingly at the ceiling. No hint of the humor and fierceness I’d always known in them.
“She hasn’t looked at anyone,” someone, my mom or dad, told me. “We don’t know if she’s really seeing anything.”
I sat with her for as long as the crushing tightness in my chest would allow. The hours passed. Then my dad was asking, soft and kind, “Have you said your goodbyes?”
“No!” I said. I was horrified, absurdly so. I felt as though saying goodbye was the equivalent of saying, “It’s been fun, but this shit’s getting old—you’re done, lady.”
“You’re the only one left who hasn’t.” My dad touched my shoulder. “I think you should tell her it’s okay if she goes.”
How often have we heard that line in movies, read it in mediocre death-stories? It’s become a bumbling cliché, humorous in its ineptitude, a symbol of the writer’s staggering lack of originality. But right then, coming from my dad, those were the only words left in the world, the only words language hadn’t abandoned. I knew that he was right, and I nodded as he gently closed the door.
The room was dim when I took my seat again on her left side. I reached for her swollen hand and massaged it gently between mine, which seemed suddenly too thin, too pale, too young. I did this for a few seconds and then stopped to clumsily decide what to say. “Can you hear me?” I asked her in Spanish. I could hardly speak through my own heartbeat. Then her hand wrapped around mine and put pressure, a heartbreaking rendition of what I had just done for her. After hours of no movement, no response, no sign she could hear anyone, she was telling me she was still there. I gave a choked laugh. “I knew it,” I said in Spanish, an attempt to be teasing. “I knew you could hear this whole time, you big liar.” Her eyes roved the ceiling, not coming any closer to the direction of my voice. Then I told her that I knew how much she hated all this— being helpless, taken care of. It was what she’d fought against her whole life with us, telling my mom at age eighty—fifteen years earlier!—to send her back to Mexico, that she’d die there and not be a burden to us. I told her I understood that she didn’t want this. I leaned over and kissed her sharp, dignified cheekbone above the mask, then her forehead. I paused over her ear and, after a hesitation, whispered, “Te veo in mis sueños.”
Her eyes closed.
Her eyes closed—they hadn’t closed in twelve hours. My breath came in short, terrified gasps and blackness invaded my vision. Was she telling me she’d heard me or—
She exhaled, a breath that seemed to last a very long time. It was as though she were pulling oxygen from every part of her body, every milliliter of her bloodstream, and then expelling it back out into the room, into the world. I thought I saw her spirit leaving her, thought I heard it in the rhythmic, long hiss of that breath, and I was terrified, otherworldly terrified, thinking, oh shit, what have I done, I killed her. When the breath was over, it was several eternal seconds before she breathed in again, seconds in which I leaned over her, shaking, about to vomit. When she took that breath, reclaimed life for a little longer, I ran out of the room.
My dad was just crossing the hall, and I crashed into his arms. I couldn’t stop shaking. I’d never shaken that violently before, nor have I since; my teeth were chattering. I could hardly speak.
“She heard me,” I rambled to my dad. “I know she heard me.”
He smiled. “Ay, baby,” he said sadly, and kissed me on the head.
I kept repeating, almost incoherently, “She heard me, I know she heard me.”
I finally fell asleep, but when I did, I was right back in that room. Not a detail was different. I was telling her how I knew she hated this, every part of it, how I understood. I was whispering that I’d see her in my dreams. She was exhaling that impossibly long breath, that spirit-breath, vapor-white in my mind, and I was leaning over her, heart screaming, only this time, she didn’t breathe back in.
My mom was touching my shoulder, and I opened my eyes in the same way I had that morning—less than twenty-four hours ago?—effortlessly, no trace of sleep. Exhausted.
My mom pulled back and sat at my feet. Her face was pale, clean of makeup, dry of tears. “She’s gone,” she told me. I knew by the gentleness in her voice that she was holding back her own grief to be present for me. “Ñaña’s gone.”
“I know,” I said, sitting. “I just dreamed it.”
“She came to you.” My mom’s voice lifted, then broke, a question and statement at once. “I knew she’d come to you.”
* * *
I remember driving drunk on the very curving, hilly road by my old house in Austin. My grip on the steering wheel was tight, but I can’t believe, now, that I had good control over the road. Radio off, I wailed and shrieked. I heard my own voice. It came from a great distance and was hysterical, humiliatingly wild. I hated the sound of it, and yet my car—that tiny, private space—was one of the few places I could let myself go, let myself admit the extent of my grief.
Each time I did this (for, shamefully, there were many), pulling into the garage was like walking into a church. The silence surrounded me and I shuddered my last sobs, wiped my face, and regained my composure. I made myself into the version of me others believed I was: healthy, moving on. Then I grabbed my book bag and walked inside.
It was late when I’d get home, usually around one a.m. My twice-weekly night classes ended at nine, and I usually went to a dive bar with classmates, where I drank gin and soda and left when I knew I could no longer hold back my tears. The house was dark and quiet, and my bulldog would jump from his slumber on the couch to greet me. Sometimes I sat with him on the floor, arms wrapped tightly around his sturdy form, until I started to fall asleep. Other times I went upstairs and pulled out the exquisitely soft baby blue shawl I had given Nanny the previous Christmas. She had worn it several times—more than anything else I’d ever given her!—until one of its corners had dangled into the pan she was cooking in and my mom had scolded her, saying she was going to light herself on fire. But it still smelled like Nanny, powdery and sweet, clean and safe. I curled up on my closet floor and buried my face in the shawl and wept until my nose was so full that I couldn’t smell anymore. Then I recoiled, terrified that my tears had somehow tainted the shawl, removed its scent. I folded it back in my closet and curled up again, bereft.
* * *
On this sixth anniversary of her death, Nanny has been gone for twenty percent of my life. How is that possible?
Two nights ago, I found myself in tears because I couldn’t remember what her teeth looked like. She was proud of the ones she still had, but I can’t for the life of me call their shape or color to mind. I can hear her laugh but not the way she said my mother’s name. A new kind of grief seized me, the kind that accompanies the realization of time passing.
I stayed up for hours, making myself remember everything I could about her: how in my acne-prone teenage years, she would say innocently, “Come here, let me see your cheek. Did mosquitos bite you at night?” How when I got bangs, she took one look at me and said, “What is that ugly hairstyle?” How she stuffed peanuts into the pockets of her housedresses and unwittingly trailed shells all over the house. How cool her palm felt against my cheek when I had a fever. How she was convinced that I got ojo as a child and rolled an egg over my face and body, setting it under my bed that night, and how the next morning, the yolk was hard and gray. How she said my brother AJ’s name: “Eh-Sheh.” How she taught us the way to roll masa for tortillas and how when we were younger, she’d give us each a raw ball of dough to play with, and we’d squeeze them and throw them, leaving greasy little marks on the walls, and then we’d eat them, even if they were covered with lint. I remembered how she had breakfast at the table for us every morning—pancakes or chorizo con huevo or tortillas con baloney, the latter of which we often took to school wrapped in foil, and once we were sick of them, we’d give or throw them away, which still makes me feel guilty. I remembered how she cut my chili-dog so that I could eat it with a fork, all the way into adulthood. “This is how she likes it,” she’d say to my mother. I don’t remember ever stating that preference, but she was right: I liked it, because she did it just for me. I remembered how she made fresh tortillas and chorizo con frijoles on Sunday mornings, with one gigantic tortilla just for my dad, and he’d say to her, “Yeah! This one’s mine!” every time. How I asked her, once, if she could understand English; I suspected she could, more than she let on, and was probably privy to more of our personal lives than we knew. We were standing by the front door, and she said, “Nadamas poquito, mami. ‘Yes.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘Potato.’” I burst out laughing at the last word, and she giggled, too, walking away. I remembered the slow pad of her tennis-shoed footsteps down the hallway and how I would throw open my door and try to meet her halfway to save her the trip; sometimes she held laundry. Others, she wanted to know if I wanted a snack, sliced cucumber with chile powder, maybe. I would tell her I was fine, to go sit down, to relax, and she would laugh and shake her head as if such a thing were so inconceivable as to be funny. I remembered how she told me, often and seriously, “La familia es todo”—family is everything—and how, shortly before she got sick, she gave me relationship advice: “Be good to each other.” I thought: this is the only advice the world needs to be at peace.
I wrote all of this, almost, in my mind two nights ago, crying so helplessly at the deluge of memories that I’m dry-eyed and smiling now, typing them.
* * *
I wanted to spend the first anniversary of her death alone, with as much wine as I could drink. But I knew she would grunt at me disappointedly. Instead, I decided to cook what she would cook: rice, beans, picadillo, tortillas. I knew it wouldn’t taste like hers. I would most likely burn the bottom of the rice, my first attempt at beans would probably be plain, and the tortillas, I had no doubt, would be lumpy and misshapen, tasting like globs of wet flour. But she would approve of my effort. I invited friends over and spent hours in the kitchen, where I discovered something for which I will always be grateful: through food, I could resurrect her.
I could almost feel her beside me, watching as I chopped onions, wanting to tell me a more efficient way of doing it but keeping silent. And when all the pots were going and I perched on the counter to wait, I felt like a little girl again, being told to sit still, and I could see the ghost of her at the stove, preparing to make the smells and tastes of my childhood. My life.
Tomorrow morning, I will sit at the dining table sorting through a bag of pinto beans. I will throw away the ones that are too small or too dark, too ridged or misshapen, not caring if half the bag disappears into the trashcan. I will hunt for little black rocks. When the pads of my fingers darken with dirt, I’ll know I’m doing it right. Then I’ll drop the good beans into a pot of boiling water, adding strips of bacon, tomato, and salt. Slowly, the house will fill with her spirit.
I think cooking the foods she used to cook, trying to get them as right as possible, is the closest I’ll ever get to bringing her back. When I see an orange glow through the condensation-rich glass lid of the frying pan, she could be sitting at the kitchen table with that vast stare she had, as though there was no need for a television or book or magazine or newspaper. As though all the world she needed, all the world there was, her mind could behold. Or she could be around the corner, tucked into the clanging warmth of the laundry room, surrounded by piles of like-colored clothing. “La maleta de Konfu,” she always said brightly, playfully, when she saw me clutching an armful of jeans and tops and underwear. It was a reference to some show she used to watch. The character was a young boy, a wanderer, who carried a satchel with him throughout his travels. Our dirty laundry, sometimes wrapped up tightly and tidily in a sheet or towel, sometimes not, reminded her of Konfu and his satchel. His connection to whatever life he’d left behind.
Tomorrow, when these smells and sounds and memories rise, my past home will inhabit my present. The steam curling from the rice pan will carry with it the woman who was neither my mother nor grandmother but someone all her own, someone who chose us as her family for almost fifty years, whose picture I look at every day, whose name will be my daughter’s name, who will be remembered with fervor and gratitude and the sharpest kind of missing, the fiercest kind of love, always.