It was a normal session of canning in the kitchen between my mother and I. My mother-in-law was out of town, so it was just the two of us that day. She was feeding the tomatoes into the boiling water and as she brought them to the cold bath waiting in the sink, I reached in, peeled them, sliced them, and placed them into the stock pot. Canning tomatoes is something that we do together all the time, but something was different that day.
“I talked to grandma yesterday,” my mom said cautiously, referring to her mother as "grandma" for my sake, “and she asked me something really funny.” I slowed my tomato processing to listen. “She asked me if she ever made lasagna before.” This gripped my attention because, of course, lasagna had been something my grandma has always made. And she didn’t remember.
Not only did she not remember, but she had to ask. I knew in that moment that something with my grandma had changed and gone in a direction that she wouldn’t be able to recover. We had been suspecting this for a while now; she had been forgetting things for years and though they were small at first, they were beginning to grow in significance. I can only describe what I felt in that moment of realization as heartbreak.
It wasn’t as though I didn’t already know. There had been signs. When I visited her in the spring of 2012, I mentioned writing her and she asked what I meant. I explained to her that we exchanged letters at least once a month, sometimes more. She replied, “We do? I didn’t know that.” We had been pen pals for a number of years. As 2012 melted into 2013, the letters became more scarce. I would send two letters and not hear back. And in January they stopped completely.
My grandmother is a proud woman and she always has been. Her lasagna was one of her claims to fame in our family history of food. My grandmother, for so much of her life was synonymous with cooking, and the fact that she was forgetting left me with a sense of urgency. I wanted to make lasagna.
I had been pondering the thought for weeks when I was awoken by my phone ringing. It was my mom. It was eight o’clock and I knew if she was calling that early, it couldn’t be good. My grandmother was in pain and refusing to go to the hospital. I called her immediately and learned that she had finally caved and called 911. Tests determined that she had tumors on her lungs and kidneys.
When my mother and I arrived in Buffalo a week later, grandma was still in the hospital and we were no closer to a diagnosis. She was in good spirits and happy to see us, and we did the small things that we could to keep her happy; we painted her nails, brushed her hair, and sat and talked about small, everyday things. She lamented about all the things she no longer remembered: the memories she knew she wanted to keep with her but couldn’t grasp.
In a lot of ways, I felt nervous about all of it. Because she was sick, yes, but also because I wondered if this was what was in store for me in the future. Would I forget the things, experiences and other details that make me who I am?
The second day we were there, I brought my grandmother some chai panna cotta I had made. As she ate, she asked me what it was, and I told her. I had to explain to her what chai was and what panna cotta was and when she was finished she said, “That was really good. You know Billie, you are a great cook.” I told her thank you casually -- because what she said meant so much to me that had I taken the time to tell her that then, I would have burst into tears. My grandmother isn’t the sort of woman who doles out such compliments lightly, and I knew that.
I had spent years pining for her angel hair pasta with homemade sauce, or recalling fondly the smell of her cooking. My grandmother’s cooking is really something to live up to. She may not remember that she made the best lasagna ever, but in those moments, I realized it doesn’t matter anymore because I have the recipe. More importantly than that, I have her seal of approval that I am a great cook.
When the people we love and the things we cherish about them start to slip into the abyss of time, the most important thing we can do is carry their memories with us. I will do it for my grandmother, becoming the keeper of her memories, and hope that someday someone will be there to do it for me. In the moments where my future, fragile memory fails me, I hope someone will be there to keep it for me, and carry it forward. That is the nature of tradition, and the opposite of being forgotten.
How do you want to be remembered? Do you have a special moment where a family member gave you a gift that you didn't know you needed desperately? Share your memories with me in the comments section below.
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