Nanny was a surprise baby, born when her older sisters, Hilda and Elia, were teenagers. I never knew Elia; she died in her 50s after a fast and furious bout with ovarian cancer. Hilda was my mother’s favorite aunt. She called her Aunt Da, and so, my sister and I did too.
Aunt Da lived on a corner lot near the train tracks. I don’t remember if she was on the good side or the bad side or even if there was such a thing. I didn’t know and didn’t care. She just lived in the old part of town, and my sister, Elia (named after Aunt Da’s sister, of course) and I loved to visit.
Her house was old and creaky. It was the house she’d grown up in. I don’t know for sure, but it appeared to be raised on those flat-topped concrete cones. Was that what held it up so that rainwater could run underneath? Three concrete steps led from the sidewalk to Aunt Da’s front door, and to the right was as screened-in front porch –was it screened, actually? The memories are both vivid and faint.- on which sat four metal chairs, each painted in a different hue. They were colorful and comfortable, and for a decade now, I’ve wished I could find some like them.
Aunt Da let Elia and me take pennies over to the railroad tracks and lay them on the rails. Those rails baked in the hot Louisiana sun all day and glistened with the exertion of doing so. Gingerly, we set our coppers down and then scurried back to the safe, cool, dark confines of Aunt Da’s house.
Her kitchen was at the rear of her home, abutting the back yard. The yard where Nanny broke her back when she was little, falling off the swing and landing spine-down on the edge of the sandbox. If you looked out of the back door, you’d see a magical garden: ancient Amaryllis shooting thick and strong from the earth; a whole fence covered in Dr. van Fleets, the most beautiful, delicate climbing rose I’ve ever seen.
When Aunt Da died, Mom took some bulbs and clippings, and now most everyone has the descendants in their own yards. I love the idea of the bulbs reproducing underground, generously sharing of themselves in the ways Aunt Da always did.
She was a tremendous cook. An old-school Louisiana woman who knew what to do with flour, sugar, butter, beans and drippings. God, I can still taste her butter beans, each one big as a thumb and so tender I couldn’t understand how it hadn’t fallen apart. How did it retain its oval shape, still with the tiny embryo clinging to one side? They were soft, velvety, utterly and unabashedly beany. They tasted faintly of onions and bacon but mostly of the earth. I imagine that’s exactly what a butter bean is supposed to taste like.
After the train roared by, my sister and I would run to the tracks to fetch our pennies-now-pancakes, copper disks smooth and shiny as a water’s reflection on a sunny day. They were oval-shaped, like those butter beans, and still warm from all they’d endured. Treasures. Each one.
When we got sweaty, from too much play or from the simple fact of living in Louisiana and being in a home without central air, Aunt Da would clear off her sink and surrounding counter and tell me to jump up. I’d lay down and tip my head into the deep basin of her sink, just as the cool water began to run.
Aunt Da believed in Prell shampoo rinsed clean with cold water and white vinegar. Even though her hands were gnarled with arthritis, they were strong and the skin unbelievably smooth. She’d massage the fluorescent green Prell into my hair and scalp, and I’d close my eyes and take it all in.
Suds, vinegar, bacon, beans, her tea cakes or maybe a French Silk pie.
My dad and I loved that pie. Like the fudge his patient always made him at Christmastime, the French silk pie is not for the faint of heart. It is rich and creamy, and it is sublime. Eggs, melted Ghirardelli, Cool Whip and our family pie crust. It’ll bring you to your knees.
Years ago, so long after I was a child, the taste memory of that pie coursed over me suddenly, like the train over the pennies, like the cold water through my hair. I called Nanan, which is what I call Aunt Da’s daughter, and said, “Nanan, do you have Aunt Da’s French Silk recipe?”
She found Aunt Da’s old cookbooks which are really just journals with recipes written out in Aunt Da’s scratchy hand and sent me the prize. That very day, I made the pie and with the first bite was transported back to that old house near the tracks from which good smells always emanated, where flowers always seemed to bloom, and where a wonderful old woman waited to hug us tight, wash our hair and feed us well.