She was warm and smelled like cooking. Flavorful and deep, the way she preferred food to be. In the picture on my desk she is beautiful, regal even, though that’s not how I remember her looking. Her long curly dark hair had mostly fallen out or thinned, her eyes drooped a little, and she was much heavier. Still, she was my Nana and I loved her all the same. In the last year, Mami cried for her mother. On the way to the burial, I fell asleep in her lap in the back of the limo while she continued to sob. I want to say that I cried at some point for either of them, but the hard truth is that I didn’t.
Nana had a little house, three floors, that tucked itself into the corner of the woods outside of Atlanta. I liked our visits. It wasn’t often I got to see that side of my family since we all lived so far away from each other. On the mornings after we arrived, Nana placed fresh cinnamon buns on the table with breakfast. There was peppermint tea, and sometimes cookies, for later. Dinner was a miraculous feast. Arroz con pollo, collards, paella and handmade peach cobbler on special holidays, fried chicken wings, and more. Once Uncle John bought home catfish he caught, and we watched him get scales all over the ceiling and counters as he cleaned it. Everything was sweet and bewitching, and what wasn’t sweet was thick, juicy, and hearty. No wonder she had died from diabetes.
“You guys look a lot like her, you know. We all do,” Mami said.
“Especially Megan, with the hair and the nose ring on the same side,” I said.
“Her birthday’s coming up,” she said.
“Can you even have a birthday when you’re dead?”
“Sorry. I meant to ask that in my head,” I said, slinking back behind the counter to watch her cook. It’d been about seven years since my last full memory of my Nana, I was about six years old then, and Mami still cried on her birthday. She took out everything in preparation for dinner in our half-lit kitchen. Every movement slow and deliberate, just like Nana. The same sway to the stove, the same clink of bracelets as she stirred, same little frame slightly hovering over her work.
Nana had had Bone and Red, both gigantic pit-bulls with bad attitudes. They tended to rip up and pee on anything they could, leaving the kitchen with a constant torn and ratty look. Come to think of it, her whole house usually looked like that. Whenever we went down to visit we would spend hours cleaning the rest of the house, mostly because the kitchen was the cleanest room already.
Mami shuddered a little as she lit the stove and started heating the oil for the chicken. With her back turned to me, it was pretty hard to tell if she was still crying or just cold. My comment had thrown her into her own memories I guessed. I cracked my mouth to speak, but then decided against it, nestling back into my solitude, listening to the simmer of grease as it filled our space.
Upstairs in Nana’s house looked like a painting with rooms going every which way, or at least that’s how it seemed because I was much shorter back then. At the end of the narrow hallway on the third floor was her room. There wasn’t any real furniture except the mattress, which was always spilling over with clothes. Bunches of scarfs, long flowing tops, silk and chiffon skirts, and countless other articles that appeared to never have fit her. As kids, my cousin, Megan, and I, jumped on them for hours, tossing about in the sea of clothing and pretending to drown or playing pirates. No one yelled at us to stop since all the clothes needed washing and eventual folding anyway. But that wasn’t the best part.
In the corner of her room, towards the balcony with the slide door, there was a rectangular box with dark flowers etched into it and six drawers; though to look at it now on my desk next to her picture it really isn’t anything special. In the bottom drawer was a cassette tape case where Nana’s butterfly lived. An exotic pattern sprawled across its wings, it was the biggest butterfly I had ever seen. I never figured out how she had caught it. Megan used to tell me that Nana was a gypsy in Puerto Rico before she had to flee the island and move to America. That’s when the butterfly followed her.
“That don’t make sense,” I said.
“Yup. It’s true.”
“Nuhuh. But—Butterflies don’t even live that long,” I said.
“I swear,” Megan said, “Look at how she dresses. All that jewelry and anklets and stuff. My ma said when she was younger she always had on dark lipstick and black eye-liner. With her hair wrapped up in scarfs. Look, like this.” She motioned her small hands through her own thick curls into a flowy bun. Then posed. The same pose as the one in the picture. Jaw elevated, off to the side, as if she were a third-generation reincarnation of Nefertiti.
The butterfly fluttered a little, or at least I believed it did. Sometimes I wondered if she really was a gypsy, when we went through her things and found oddities like this. A spell-book one time. An old jar of honey. Ancient lace gloves, another time. My favorite to see was the butterfly though. I marveled at a piece of nature, supposedly wild, so tame in its enclosure. I didn’t even really like butterflies, I wasn’t that girly at all. Megan was the one that loved glitter and bright coloring and pink and outside. I mostly hung around the kitchen listening and watching, while she ran around in the front yard with the dogs. In seven years, it seemed very little had changed about me.
“Ari,” Mami said, expertly throwing seasoning into the pan. “Pass me the adobo from the cabinet and another onion, please.” Nana hadn’t lived long enough to teach me how to cook, but she did teach Mami, who in turn, taught me. Usually I would be next to her helping, but considering her mood I didn’t think she wanted me there. I hopped up from my perch and grabbed the things she had requested. I wanted to linger a second, just to glimpse her face and see if she was okay.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Mom?” I asked.
“Hmm,” she said, as if she hadn’t expected me to speak.
“What do you remember most about Nana?”
“Mm,” she said, relaxing her hands but keeping them at attention in case the food needed turning. “Well, she wasn’t there, in our lives, for a long time. I lived with grandma for a long time in Florida. Then in high school I moved up here, to Brooklyn, to be with her, but she was pretty much absent there too. And for awhile after that we didn’t really talk…then she moved back down south, to that house she used to have in Atlanta. Remember?”
“Umm, then she started getting sick and its funny but we were really close in those last years.”
“But if you guys weren’t close like that before, then why do you get so sad when her birthday comes around.”
“She was still my mom, Ari,” she said. With that she returned to cooking and I silently floated back to my place.
I remember in the weeks after her burial we had to go through all the stuff in her house and decide what was junk, what we would keep, and what we would throw out. The house was vacant and the walls felt enormously white. There was so much to sort through. I went straight to the butterfly because I didn’t want anyone to claim it first. I held it up to the light, noticing how still it was.
It’s nice to feel like her spirit left with the butterfly’s, that she was mystical. So much of her life was a mystery, even to her own children, that part of me prefers to think of her that way. Not as a terrible mother to my mother, who married an abusive husband then took off. Not as a refugee. Not as a dying, closet hoarder, who neglected her health. No. She was a butterfly.
“Mom,” I said
“You’re a good mom. I’ll probably cry uncontrollably on your birthday if something happened and you weren’t around anymore.”
“That so. What makes you say that?” she asked.
“Because if you can live life without one and still cry, then I have no right to have you here…and then not, and not even shed a tear,” I said.
She smiled. Even with her back turned, I could feel her smiling. After dinner, as tribute, we tried our hand at making handmade peach cobbler the way Nana used to. Since it was spur of the moment and we didn’t have any peaches ready and used apples instead. Some brown sugar, cinnamon, lots of cream, chopped apples, a crap load of butter, set to medium flame, and viola—caramelized apple cobbler filling. We nodded our heads in approval after tasting it.
“What are we going to do about the crust,” I said.
“The dough, you mean,” she said.
“Yeah. Do you remember how she made it?”
“Not really. I don’t know. Maybe we could look it up.”
“Mami, I don’t think that counts.”
All smiles, she said, “Let’s wing it then, and see what happens.”
It was awful. The dough crusted and ran in some places, while the filling thinned a bit. It was ugly to be perfectly honest, lacking the right shape and color to suit our memories. Mami stepped back from the counter once we took it out to cool. Staring at it, I don’t remember who burst into laughter first, but I like to think we did it at the same time like some movie scene. It was magical.
No one would be able to make it the way Nana did, and that was fine.