Tell us about a smell that transports you. (Daily Post)
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Today’s Daily Post prompt is especially timely for me. This weekend, after a girls’ weekend in Chicago where we will slumber party, shop and talk about boys, I’m going to my nani’s 90th birthday party.
I may have mentioned before that I am a lucky girl: I’m 30, and I still have all four of my grandparents. They are in various stages of health, but none of them are in a nursing home, and all of them still experience happiness (I feel like that is key … things can get really bad, but if there is no happiness in life, you wonder … what’s the point?)
I have always been especially close to one of the four, my mother’s mother, my nani. I have so many Nani stories to tell, but as we’re talking scent …
Nani is Italian, and she used to make the greatest spaghetti sauce on the planet. When our family would go to Nani and Papa’s, there were dinnertime staples: Nani’s sauce and mostaccioli (because I liked it better than spaghetti, and I always won) and braciole (you pronounce that “bruh-JHOL”), which I never liked. As an adult, I would kill to try it again, because I suspect I’d like it now.
But Nani doesn’t cook anymore, and she hasn’t in years. Alzheimer’s is a bitch. Those memories I cherish, the ones that serve as pieces of the mixture in the foundation of me — Nani doesn’t have them anymore. The last time I talked to her on the phone, my parents were visiting her, and when we said our goodbyes, she told me she’d let me talk to my mother now, which was huge — she at least knew who I belonged to.
The last time I talked to Nani, my Nani, the one who knew who I was, was a year and a half ago, at Easter. She was sitting at my parents’ kitchen table in her spot, and I knelt down beside her to talk to her. Her tone of voice became different. It became a tone I hadn’t heard in years. She had a flash of memory. She knew who I was, she called me by name, and I was talking with a woman who had a memory for a few moments, and she grabbed my hand as though she knew what she was grabbing, not just patting the hand of someone she figures she must love because the person is being sweet.
Now where my scent comes in: When I was in college, any time I would visit home, Mom would ask me what I had a taste for (heck, she does that now, too). One day, I told her, “Mom, I want Nani’s sauce.”
Nani hadn’t cooked at that point in years. And my mom is an amazing cook, but she had never made Nani’s sauce before. It’s a complicated recipe: It has lots of steps, and it’s pretty time consuming.
I don’t remember if Mom told me “OK” or “I’ll try” or “I’m not sure I know how to make it.” But I do know she found Nani’s recipe, and she called my aunts to get their versions of it, too.
That Friday night when I got home from school after my seven-hour drive, I walked in the house and immediately burst into tears.
The smell of the spaghetti punched me in the heart. It wound itself up my nostrils and tugged on the hippocampus, the part of your brain that deals with emotional memory. I was 6, I was at Nani and Papa’s kitchen table, Nani was dishing me a second plate of mostaccioli; she was pulling me in her lap, singing to me, “I love you a bushel and a peck. You bet your purdy neck I do”; she and I were making beds after a Friday night sleepover, she fluffed the pillows and called them the bed’s boobs; she was putting on her pantyhose in the most absurd way I’ve ever seen a person do it, like an up-ended turtle with her legs flailing in the air, accidentally assuring that when her granddaughter became a grown woman, she would put tights in exactly the same way, because it looks batty, but dammit if it’s not the easiest way to put on tights.
That night, I tasted my childhood.