February 3, 2009
“I do. I remember,” she says.
As I listen, I feel two eyes burrow into the wrinkle on my forehead. Her stare pierces through me. Her words seem to emerge on the other side.
Her mouth is full as she opens it, bits of sour cream cake crumbling onto her lap. She pauses, takes another bite and peels her eyes away.
“But, really, it isn’t anything to make a fuss about. I mean, really, it was nothing.”
“What is it?” I urge my grandmother to go on, not wanting to lose the memories that each day seem to leave her ninety-one-year-old body. Odds and ends to piece together: Sunday mornings walking to the Cathedral of Oviedo, stained glass shimmering onto the pews; spring afternoons walking home from school through fields, rays of sun ricocheting into blades of grass; winter evenings imagining in bed while eggs crackled from the kitchen, olive oil diffusing through the kitchen tiles.
“What do you remember?” I prod.
“Really.” A nervous sip of hot chocolate. She pulls the mug away, as if too hot. “It was nothing. I was just a little girl, and it was nothing.” Looking at me again, she breathes audibly, her voice settling into one of her familiar refrains. “You know what I always say, if he doesn’t treat you right, you just look at him, wave your little hand and tell him, ‘Bye bye little yellow bird. I hate to see you go, but bye bye.’”
Once she goes into the yellow bird, I know that she will not come back. I place my hand gently on top of hers, her skin a soft-boiled egg, and let my fingers move into the circular pattern that used to lull me back asleep as a child. Recognizing the rhythmic motion, she breathes again and again closes her eyes.
“Yes,” I say. I pause, letting the circles settle more deeply into her palm. “But what else? What else do you remember?”
With her other hand, she reaches over for another bite of cake. She opens her mouth and more crumbles fall onto her lap than into her mouth. Her voice comes out, barely perceptible.
“Gee,” she whispers. “I mean, it was nothing.”
I know it is something.
“Aba, it’s ok.” I draw more circles into her palm.
“Well, I mean… I was just a little girl. In grade school, you know. And I would walk to school every day. It was new, you know, for little girls to go to school with little boys, but ever since the Republic began...”
I looked into her eyes, encouraging her to go on.
“My grandfather, you remember your tartarabuelo José, he would take me on most days. Over there, because it was better to walk together. We went through the fields and, oh, there was this frog…”
She pauses to chew.
“Honey, don’t you want some of this cake?” She reaches over and breaks off a large chunk. “Here, take this half.” Her tone insists. She shoves it towards me. “It’s just delicious, really, here, take it.”
“No, Aba, I’m good, still stuffed from dinner. You eat it and I’ll have some later.”
“Oh, but it’s delicious.” Her voice intensifies, eyes wider, and I know that she will not stop insisting until I take the cake. “We’ll split it. Don’t make me… Here. Have half.”
She pushes the cake towards me, leaving behind whatever it was that she had almost remembered. She always had been a great cook, and though she hadn’t done much of it since she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year, she still offered food to anyone who came to see her in the nursing home. It didn’t matter whether or not you were hungry, whether it was a mealtime or not. If you declined, she would insist, “But you’ve got to eat,” and move whatever it was that she had in her hand towards your mouth. Only now, instead of a ham and Manchego sandwich or a bite of potato and egg tortilla, what she had on hand were usually leftovers from her lunch tray. Runny apple sauce, a half-eaten pork chop. On occasion, there was a treat from a visitor. Like today. The sour cream cake was still so moist that I knew Lee or Carmella had been there that morning.
“Ok, Aba, thanks,” I take the cake from her and quickly place it on the napkin next to me. There is no use in telling her again that I’m not hungry. If I take the cake, she might go on. I watch her face soften as she relaxes back into her arm chair, eyes glazed with sweetness. I see that she is now far away. I try again.
“Aba, what happened that day, after your abuelo brought you to school?” Her eyes remain distant, fixed on the snow falling outside. Her jaw continues to chew. I know she won’t take me with her wherever she is. I pick up her hand.
“I’ve got to get going, Aba, but I’ll come back tomorrow.”
She nods, “Ok, sweetheart,” and rocks her head back. As I bend down to hug her, I lift her shawl around her shoulders.
“I love you,” I whisper.
“Love you too,” she says, eyes still fixed on the window, in the distance.
I reach for my coat and push play on the cd player. As if on cue, her rocker begins to move right as Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” emerges from the speakers. Looking into her eyes one last time, I wonder where she is and why she has left.