How Long Does It Take To Forget Someone?

Nancy Levy Gunst in her kitchen in 1957. (Courtesy)
Nancy Levy Gunst in her kitchen in 1957. (Courtesy)

One winter day, sometime in the early '60s, my Dad brought home a Polaroid camera. My brothers and I were like hungry puppies wanting to try it out. He gathered the three of us on the blue living room couch, pointed the strange box towards us, and commanded: “Smile!” Instantly a small square of film popped out, all translucent white. My father waved his hand over the film, and like a magic trick, the photograph filled in. First the fuzzy edges of our bodies, followed by the outline of faces, eyes, noses and mouths. Within seconds, clarity.

The opposite is happening with memories of my mother. It’s been 27 years since her death and my images of her are working in reverse: fuzzy, unclear fragments of her delicate mouth, hesitant smile and silky auburn hair. How long does it take to forget someone? To be unable to see them, smell them, recall the intricacies of their being?

The author with her mother. (Courtesy)
The author with her mother. (Courtesy)

After all these years, I still catch a whiff of my mother’s perfume (Clinique’s Elixir, rich with rose, jasmine and ylang ylang) in an oversized red cotton sweater of hers that I put on when it’s cold and rainy. She is there inside the gold beaded purse that I take to special events. The lining, a ripped silvery-gray silk, contains the subtlest hint of her. I inhale it like a junkie sniffing up the last bits of cocaine dust.

And, of course, she is there in my daughters, in ways flattering and not. Her propensity for anxiety permeates us all. Her deep belly laugh is often present in my youngest, her poise in my oldest.

I search through boxes of old photos. Is that her, smoking cigarettes and playing Rummikub with “the ladies” at the club? Is that her in bed, two twins lined up to give the appearance of a king, watching tennis on TV on a Sunday afternoon, while my father snores beside her? Or, is the real Nancy Levy Gunst the one singing along with the soundtrack of the great musicals of her youth?

Every Wednesday, when the bell rang, releasing her from her Upper East Side private high school in Manhattan, she and her best friends, Susie and Gloria, would sneak into the second act of "Kiss Me Kate" at the New Century Theater. The musical, based on Shakespeare’s "Taming of the Shrew," was my mother’s favorite.

The author's mother, Nancy Levy Gunst, as a young woman. (Courtesy)
The author's mother, Nancy Levy Gunst, as a young woman. (Courtesy)

When the performance let out, the girls waited outside the stage door, clutching their leather-bound autograph books. Eventually, they befriended the star, Lisa Kirk, who played Bianca/Lois Lane. (Years later, I would find a hand-written note on thick, creamy white stationary from Kirk congratulating my mother on the birth of her new daughter, Kathy.)


My mother is visiting us in Maine. It is the summer of 1990, and I am pregnant with my second child. The consummate shopper, my mother arrives bearing gifts for my older daughter, almost 3, and the unborn baby. I’ve told her we won’t find out the sex until delivery, so she brings tiny yellow onesies, overalls and hooded towels. We open the boxes of pink dresses, and pink and red striped cotton pajamas. There are matching outfits for an infant. “If it’s boy,” my mother says, handing me the gift receipt, “you’ll exchange it.”

The author's mother, Nancy Levy Gunst, pictured with her granddaughter in 1989. (Courtesy)
The author's mother, Nancy Levy Gunst, pictured with her granddaughter in 1989. (Courtesy)

But this morning, as we drink coffee, she seems groggy. She has been having trouble walking, missing a step here and there, almost tripping over a small rock on the short path from our house to the car. I am making buttermilk-walnut pancakes. I ask her a question and when she doesn’t answer, I look over and see her elbow on the kitchen table, cradling her head inside her open hand. My daughter is walking around the kitchen making up stories, breaking into song. “Silly, Nanny,” she says, kissing her cheek, “you went to sleep at breakfast time!”

Days later, my mother returns home to New York and sees several doctors. She has already survived two bouts of breast cancer, been treated with chemo and had enough radiation to burn her entire body.

A month after her visit to Maine, the doctors discover that the cancer has metastasized — an inoperable brain tumor. They will give her more radiation, but make no promises about her recovery.

My mother will meet my new baby girl, but never again sit in my kitchen. She won’t see the yellow and pink blankets in her crib, the ones she sent via mail-order catalog, which my daughter calls her “twos,” since there were always two of them -- one for the girl she turned out to be and the yellow one in case she was someone else.

I’ve told my daughters stories about their Nanny ... It’s my way of keeping her from fading in their memories, and from mine.

A small shredded piece, worn from years of love and washing, still sits in a drawer in her bedside table in her childhood bedroom. A tiny reminder of her grandmother who she never really knew.

I’ve told my daughters stories about their Nanny — how she loved to read thick novels, how she had panic attacks before every flight and how she loved watching the sunset from a beach. It’s my way of keeping her from fading in their memories, and from mine.

There are moments when I see an expression on one of my daughters faces and, I swear, she is here. But then it’s over and she’s gone, again. Still, I keep searching, hoping for the next moment, or dream, or memory that will bring her back into focus.

This piece is part of a longer, work-in-progress. 

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Headshot of Kathy Gunst

Kathy Gunst Resident Chef, Here & Now
Kathy Gunst is a James Beard Award-winning journalist and the author of 15 cookbooks.



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