There were things about her life that were easier to revisit: the smell of her Anais Anais perfume––gardenia, jasmine, and lily of the valley—that I spritzed on a sachet and kept by my bed in a mahogany box; the feel of her pilled wool sweater; the sound and sight of her giving a congratulatory speech to her graduating students on an old videocassette. I couldn’t, however, taste the food she loved the most, though it seemed quite simple: a scoop of frozen vanilla yogurt in a glass of orange juice.
My mother had a habit of waking up in the middle of night to eat. She claimed that she’d never fully recovered from the midnight feedings of my infanthood, and though she only had one child she couldn’t release herself from the rhythm: when I ate, she ate. Years after my weaning, she still groped her way through the dark into the kitchen where a spread of yogurts awaited her. If she were feeling particularly health-conscious, she’d spoon down a cup of strawberry yogurt and that would be that, but if her cares laid elsewhere she’d core out a carton of vanilla frozen yogurt and slip the scoops into a crystal glass with her finger. She’d pour orange juice on top of the yogurt then eat it with a silver teaspoon.
At night, our home was full-bellied with darkness. After I became brave enough to navigate it alone, I’d tiptoe to the kitchen and share a dreamsickle with my mother, who was never upset by my restlessness (she’d been known to fry bananas at midnight, a time she’d call “the witchin’ hour”). Although she’d been living in Laurel Canyon for almost a decade, my mother never quite grew out of her Alabama drawl, her superstition, or her frying pan. She’d tell me stories of her 1950s childhood, of sharing a Dairy Queen with her blond spaniel, “Honey.” I once asked her if it was OK to feed dogs ice cream.
“Back then it was,” she said.
Dreamsickles became our ritual. We’d tap our spoons through the thin crystal crust that formed on the frozen yogurt and talk about places there and far away. Promises of trips to Disneyland, Idumea, and the lights in the city––all of which she kept. We were Norman Rockwell’s answer to the Hollywood Hills. Eating sweets in the middle of the night was a quiet rebellion, hushed and cherished and worthy of warm hues.
But as I got older, she’d often disappear into the blackness and return with an old globe that she’d set on the kitchen table. Frenzied, she’d recount the voyage of Christopher Columbus to America, tracing her three fingers over the northern hemisphere, each one representing the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. She’d tear up as she recounted their harrowing journey, how far they came to a new world. Then she’d open the freezer and pull out a carton of yogurt, slowly spooning the stuff into her mouth without any juice, her eyes tracing an invisible horizon.
She died when I was 19. I started hoarding little things of hers that I hoped would retrace the contours of her existence: the sachet, the sweater, the videocassette. Irish philosopher George Berkeley preached “immaterialism,” that all we have to determine the existence of things is our sensory perception; if we don’t feel something, it isn’t there. In my desperation, I thought that sensing the things my mother had left behind would help me rebuild her, that every sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste would reanimate the woman who made me, that if I felt her, she would come back.
There were things to look at, things to smell, things to touch, things that picked at the skin on my hands that had chapped in a winter far away. I moved to Iowa for graduate school and lived there for three years. When I returned, my friends helped clean out heaps and boxes of her things. Revisiting her treasures made me realize that they had never left me, that these things were sentimental shrapnel, some of which would resurface and ooze through my skin, others that would wedge their way into my bones. Gardenias. Fools gold. Samples of lace. Yarn. Bottles of sky blue tempera paint encrusted with glitter. A tape recorder. A Twister game. A rotary phone. John Denver’s greatest hits.
But I could never revisit the tastes she loved the most. I feared Proust’s madeleine. I feared Dairy Queen. Most of all, I feared the dreamsickle. I don’t completely understand why I wasn’t able to eat her favorite food, but perhaps it had something to do with the action of sustaining oneself, of letting something become you through absorption. I knew I would never finish building her—bringing her back—if I skipped this vital sense, the first thing that connects an infant to its mother.
* * *
One night, seven years after my mother’s death, I sat in an A-frame cabin at the top of a mountain. I had been able to get orange juice and vanilla frozen yogurt at a store at the foothill. I spooned the yogurt into a cup and poured the orange juice over it. I waited for the crystal shell to form around the yogurt then tapped it open with my spoon as if it were a softboiled egg. It tasted the same as it had years ago and left white veins on the glass.
It burned in my gut all night.