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May 10, 2009

Where is she? (A Mother's Day Special)

May 10. Day 314.

This smell of cilantro on my fingertips... I used to hate it, many years ago, along with the avocado. Now, cilantro drives me crazy, in a good way. I can think of only one vaguely similar scent -- cucumber, I think, and no similar taste. And I can't come up with a single adjective to describe this flavor, this scent. That simple purity, that pure simplicity, places cilantro in the pantheon of herbs I use sparingly, strategically, because it's too distinctive and too intoxicating to trifle with.



Mr. A is coming home tonight, so I made a dinner. Not just dinner, but a dinner. For my man, coming back from a long and tiring trip. I roasted a chicken, stuffed with a home grown lemon from my aunt's garden. I sprinkled it with kosher salt and herbs and threw in an quartered onion for good measure. Tossed a salad with greens, snow peas and the cilantro. For an appetizer, vermouth and some mini bell peppers, and two cherries because they look pretty next to the bright peppers. For dessert, a cake my mom baked, and chunks of watermelon. We'll drink red wine, I think.

He is coming home in an hour, and I'll be so happy when I see him.

Overall, it's been a great day:

I went to a farmer's market with my mom. My mom, who baked me a cake for Mother's Day. That's the kind of mom she is. "What I want for Mother's Day," she said, handing me the foil wrapped package, "is to give you a cake."

Then we went to my aunt's house, of the lemony trees, whose garden is quickly transforming into its own ecosystem.

Later we went to my grandma's house, my mom's mom, who looked wonderful. Her hair was a sweet puff of curls, she's just the right amount of plump, after trying for some time to add any merciful pound. Last night she partied until almost midnight.

You'd never guess she's turning 88 in two months. Especially with her packed schedule (bingo! exercise class! card game! party here! party there!) and her sharp sharp wit and smooth smooth skin. When I was a kid she was over at our house every day, feeding my sister and I when our parents were at work, helping us with homework, taking us to karate lessons and Winchell's Donuts for the occasional treat, pulling us apart when we fought, doing everything a parent would, but with the kindness and wisdom of a grandma. She opened my first bank account, taught me to save, to look to the future, to be practical, but to never stop dreaming or examining how far I can reach. Even at almost 88, she lives alone and is an awe inspiring example of self-sufficiency and courage.

Between these visits today, I made a detour to spend time with another mother who was instrumental in my life: My other grandma, my dad's dad, who won't get a pseudonym because she is dead now. Her name is Vanna, but I called her Wanna, since I couldn't pronounce the V sound as a baby. The name stuck. Wanna.

Wanna taught me French, and she had a rare combination of grace and strength of character that guide me at the hardest moments. She was frail and tiny, but with an expansive personality that drew people to her side from all corners of the globe. She had friends in Poland, Martinique, Canada, Romania, New York, Texas, Hawaii. Long before Facebook, they traded letters, and learned of one another's deaths when the letters stopped coming. She grew up through two world wars, saw her life ravaged by a political system that persecutes people for thinking freely, and escaped to the U.S. in her sixties. And when she finally made it to San Diego, the land of her happy future, she taught my sister and I to remember. She told us stories, cooked old recipes, showed us pictures, gave us traditions, helped me assemble a family tree. Her most essential legacy to me, a child of divorce, was adoring my grandfather until the day she died. Their marriage, and knowing how lucky I am to have met Mr. A, give me hope today that a lifelong love is possible.

So I went to the cemetery. It had never occurred to me to go on Mother's day. Usually my visits are random, a few times a year, when I have an extra hour, or when someone else is in town and suggests we go.

I parked and headed for her stone: to the right of a large tree. But strangely, there were too many trees. I wandered from tree to tree, trying to find her. All around, I saw entire familes having picnics with their ancestors, laughing, praying, crying. Somehow all the people disoriented me. I was lost.

I felt ashamed, for a moment. What kind of granddaughter was I, to forget? I must look very neglectful to these strangers.

And then, I felt scared. What others thought was unimportant. But what did it mean for me, as a human being, that I couldn't find my own grandmother's grave?

After about 20 minutes of walking, I gave up and went to the office.

I asked for help.

The girl at the counter -- laid off six months ago from her old job, new to the cemetery business -- was very reassuring. A natural.

"A ton of people get lost on Mother's Day," she said.

A woman with a name tag and sober suit appeared, with a printout and her business card.

"I can accompany you."

I declined and I drove back. Parked my car were it had been before. Walked 20 feet. I'd stepped right past it.

I sat down. For a while, I did nothing. Cleared my mind. Waited. And then, I asked my grandmother, Wanna, how she's doing, and what she thinks of it all.

And then I chopped the cilantro.

Gained: A reconnection.
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