Taste of a Memory, Tart and Sweet

By Kayt Sukel
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 10, 2007

"Do you remember, honey?"

After she turned 95, every conversation I had with my great-grandmother, Babcia, seemed to both begin and end with that same question. Do you remember? It was as if she wanted reassurance that her memory, by then failing her far too often, still retained some value.

Every visit, each phone conversation was filled with talk of past family trips, the funny things that my father did as a little boy and reminiscences of days gone by. Unfortunately, the events and people in question came together in unexpected ways when she spoke, transposing and transforming each tale into something almost unrecognizable.

In the last few months of her life, Babcia seemed fixated on one particular story.

"Do you remember the time I came to your apartment in Shadyside, honey? And it was snowing to beat the band. Remember? I came down to bring you those apricot cookies that you loved so and, oh, was it cold!"

The trouble was, I didn't remember.

I lived in that apartment when I was a sophomore in college, sharing the partitioned first floor of an old house with two other girls. My Babcia was already well into her 80s by then, living alone in a small house 45 minutes away, and she did not drive. As far as I knew, she had never visited me there, let alone during a winter storm.

And those apricot cookies? It was my father who loved them. I remember Babcia teaching me, when I was younger, how to make them for my daddy, presenting me with my own child-size rolling pin for the purpose.

"Roll it out nice and thin, honey," she told me as she placed a mound of dough on the counter. "Put some muscle into it." And she put her arms around me, pressing her strong hands down on mine to show me the proper force and pressure required. After rolling out the dough, I eyed the large Mason jar of homemade apricot preserves she retrieved from the cellar to use for the filling. As I spooned out dollops of the jam onto the dough, the color and consistency of the mixture reminded me of sweet, tangy marmalade. But when I greedily scooped some into my mouth, I was thrown by the sour flavor, expecting something so much different. Once the cookies were baked, I wouldn't taste a single one, the bitter taste still too fresh.

And so each time I heard about these cookies and a storm, the story didn't seem possible, let alone plausible. Given that every conversation with Babcia seemed less grounded in reality than the last, I chalked her perseveration to the dementia that clouded so many of the later moments of her life.

Yet still, she asked me, "Do you remember?" And I would halfheartedly reply that I did, saddened that my great-grandmother's memory was fading so rapidly that I now felt obliged to lie.

Soon after she passed away, I found a copy of the recipe for the apricot cookies among old snapshots and letters. She had prided herself on never needing a recipe for anything she baked, and so the sight of it written out in an unsteady hand only further convinced me of her extreme confusion in those last days.

But then not long ago, I received an e-mail from one of my college roommates. She asked after my family, in particular about Babcia. After I shared the sad news, she offered her condolences and wrote, "I still remember how cute she was that day she visited us, wrapped up like a hobo against the cold and snow. I couldn't believe she came all that way by bus just to bring you cookies. Now if that isn't love, I don't know what is."

As I read it, fragments of the visit came back to me. My astonishment at her unexpected arrival. The harsh cold of the snow that blew in the room as she crossed the threshold. My roommates encouraging me to eat at least one cookie after they had had their fill. The surprisingly pleasant tartness of the apricot, balanced by the vanilla sweetness of the dough. My great-grandmother's look of happiness as we finished every single cookie as we chatted into the night.

How could I have forgotten? I have no good answer to the question. I suppose memory is a tricky thing at any age.

But I do remember how to properly roll out dough.

So, I mixed the flour and ice cream to make those apricot cookies and thought of my Babcia and all she had taught me, all she meant to me. And as I rolled out the dough, I could almost feel her hands guiding me, giving me the strength to do the job properly.

And I thought to myself, "Yes, Babcia. I do remember."

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