My grandmother had a magic touch. Everything her hands rested upon, she transformed into something supernaturally perfect. From the way she could coax ink from a pen to create the closely-knit words of “I love you” on a greeting card or “eggs” on a shopping list, to the way she delicately play-acted (and vocally narrated) a game of charades, everything she did seemed truly special.
Her toast was no exception.
I recently found a type of bread that resembled Nonie Toast. I stumbled on it by accident, having run out of my whole wheat that I typically consume. The new loaf was white and fluffy, a light dusting of flour on the top, clearly the enemy of health(ier) conscious millenials, but it was there and I was in need of breakfast.
I popped two slices in the toaster, pulled out the butter, and waited for the machine to do its job. I sipped my tea, paced around the kitchen, and complained about the colder weather. Once the toast was revealed in its typically startling manner, I spread the butter evenly over the golden tan surface and hastily, thoughtlessly bit into a corner. Immediately, the flood of memories coursed over my tongue in a wave of buttery sweetness.
The bread was not the same, the butter was not the kind Nonie bought, the toaster was not Nonie’s toaster, but somehow, together, this combination sent my mind reeling with childhood memories and bittersweet sentimentality.
I had tried to recreate it before, these slices of bliss that Nonie persuaded into every piece of Nonie Toast. I bought the bread she used (Holsum), I purchased the same butter (yellow tub, green and red line through the center). I even called her when I was college shopping for the brand name on her toaster, I was that determined to have Nonie Toast wherever I went. All of these attempts at recreation were in vain; only Nonie held the secrets, the confidential butter:bread ratio that made her toast so unique, so special. No matter how hard I tried to copy it, I came to the conclusion that the toast was only Nonie Toast when Nonie made it. It was the act of being with her, being fed by her, sharing in the food and drink she so lovingly made that turned plain old, white bread into a fond memory.
When she passed away, I hungered for this special feeling again, this feeling of love and communion. I greedily grabbed at whatever I could find in her home to keep these feelings close to me: a blanket shoved in a closet, scarves tucked away in a dresser drawer… They didn’t have any particular meaning or memory attached to them. I never saw the blanket before and I don’t recall my grandmother ever wearing a silk scarf. I didn’t seem to care, they were hers and now they were mine. For the time being, I could place my nose in the folds of the scarf and smell her smell or wrap my shoulders in the loose knit of the blanket and imagine myself back on my grandmother’s couch. I wanted the things that her hands had touched, the contents of her home, the items that still contained a small amount of the magic that she so willingly gave to me. Her white magic that could transform a puzzle box into a cash register, a sofa into the Magic Bed, and a piece of Holsum bread into Nonie Toast.
If I am being honest, I wanted these things so badly because I wanted her. I clung to the possessions in hopes that my desperation might make her stay on this earth just a little longer. What I learned is that memories are like baby animals, the more you cling to them, the harder and more desperately you want to keep them close, the more quickly they seem to fade away. And, true to animals and children alike, when you give memories the space to breathe, they often choose to come back on their own free will.
Two-and-a-half years after my grandmother’s death, I no longer collapse on the carpet every evening in tears. I don’t cry every time I see a photo of her. Although I still have my moments of desperation, those instances where my body folds in on itself and my hands reach out to the Heavens begging to be held and comforted, they have become fewer and farther in between. I have loosened my grasp on her memory, her spirit, and allowed it to roam freely.
And so, when I least expected it, I was given the gift of memory, a present of presence. There I was, standing in my kitchen at 5 am on a Tuesday morning, complaining about the cold when suddenly I felt as though I was transported back into the tiny eating nook in my grandparents’ kitchen, with my little green glass of milk, my Paddington Bear plate, and my slice of freshly made Nonie Toast. It was as though she had stretched her magical hands towards me, a warm piece of toast in hand, and seemed to say, “I have never left, nor will I ever leave. Trust this.”
And maybe, just maybe, she also said, “I still love you.”