Every year on September 6, I make tortillas. And every year, they're wrong in a slightly different way.
The first year, they were as hard as tostadas and twice as thick as they should be. They tasted like burned flour. Another year, they were so salty the tongue curled upon touching them. Still another, they tasted like nothing, like air--as if I'd produced the physical form of something that did not exist.
Every year, I try tweaking the recipe to fix the remembered problems: a little more water, maybe. What if I sifted the flour? (This, I thought, could be a breakthrough, but it wasn't.) Was I letting them breathe long enough? How would I know if I was using too much or too little baking powder? What did baking powder even do?
The problem was, I never made notes on my recipes, so I never knew what, exactly, to change. On top of that, I never had an exact recipe to begin with. It was always an approximation. An attempt to grasp the disappeared past.
Nanny didn't need a recipe. She made tortillas for us once or twice a week. Her palm knew the shape to curve into to catch the right amount of salt. Her skin knew the right temperature of the water. Her fingertips knew the texture of the masa. Her nose knew the smell. She knew how to roll them without creases, how to flatten them into perfect, semi-translucent circles that would rise like beautiful magic on the sartén.
At some point in her final years, I think it was my mom who tried to pin down a recipe. She watched Nanny in all her perfect unmeasured guesses, trying to put numbers to instinct. It's this recipe that my sister and I use every year, only somehow Amanda's tortillas are always very close to Nanny's, and mine . . . well, they're wrong in a slightly different way, every year.
There are times I've cried, staring at tortillas that never sprout air bubbles on the heat, knowing already that they'll all be thrown out. There are times I've wondered why I do it when in the end I only feel like a failure--like I failed her, by not paying enough attention when I had the chance. There are times I think this is the last attempt, and times I promise myself that I will practice every weekend until I get them right. I don't do any of that, though. I don't stop, and I don't practice. Somehow, the year just flows seamlessly into the next one, and there I am again.
The truth is, making tortillas on the anniversary of her death isn't about the tortillas, exactly. It's an act of defiance: against time, against loss. It's an act of hope: hope that maybe this year I will lift one from the sartén and simply know, by its weight, by its softness, that I got closer. But most of all, it's an act of communing. Of resurrection.
Because when make tortillas, I see her at the counter. I see her so clearly, as if I'm approaching from behind. I see her dressed in one of her floral batas, her gray curls relaxed on her neck because she hasn't been back to Mexico in awhile, where she re-perms it. I see her shoulders, one twisted higher than the other. I see her wiry calves, her white socks, her black Reebok high-tops. Then I'm standing beside her, a whole head and shoulders taller. I'm wrapping my arm around her delicate shoulders, leaning in to kiss her high, sharp cheekbone. I'm lifting myself onto the counter, watching the muscles in her slim brown forearms strain as she kneads the masa. I'm looking at her hands, flour dusting their surface, sinking into the grooves of her knuckles and nailbeds. I'm watching her scoop out a small hole in the middle of the flour, now textured like cornmeal. She glances up at me sideways, smiles. "Ves?" she asks, as she pours a small stream of warm water into the hole before setting the cup down. I nod, tell her I see. I watch those hands go back to work, briskly working the masa onto the water, mixing it, then digging another little hole. She sweeps the masa alongs the sides of the bowl, collecting loose flour, brings it back down to the water. These simple loose ingredients are coming together, becoming something new. I can smell it, and that smell dizzies me, hurtling me back to childhood--a time even before this, when she would give us each a ball of masa to play with and we would roll it warm between our palms, the smell seeping into our skin for hours.
I'm writing this as I let the masa breathe, twenty little balls tucked against each other, pressed against the side of the bowl. (I see her set the last one on top, that pleased, decisive motion, like laying the last brick. She smiles at me again.) I'm hopeful this year because Amanda sent me the recipe she uses, and sure enough, it differs from the one I have written down. She uses one cup less flour; lets the masa rest for two hours, not one. Maybe this will be the year.
But if it's not, it's okay. Las tortillitas, as Nanny called them, have already done their job. My hands have that childhood smell, the smell of her skin. And if they're not right, I still have the beans simmering on the stove. I'll still fry the rice and watch it glow orange beneath the lid of the pan, and I'll remember all the times I got home from school to find it ready for us. I'll remember all the Sundays we took that pan to my grandpa's house for lunch. I'll cook the picadillo and I'll remember that time we all ate it with seven or eight fresh tortillas in an ill-planned effort to make ourselves sick so we could skip karate. In all of this, I'll see her. I'll feel her: her slight weight at the edge of my bed, her plum-colored fingertips stroking my hair, her dry, feather-light kiss.
This day. This day, every year, I feel it hard. I feel the weight of her loss, and yet, it's also taken on the strange tone of a celebration, as if on this day each year, I see someone I haven't seen in a very long time. And I do--thanks to las tortillitas, no matter how slightly wrong they will always be.