Proust had his madeleines, the taste of which brought back multiple volumes of memories of his youth. Mamina, my grandmother-in-law, has Mother Soniat's fudge. And she didn't even need to taste it; just holding the recipe in her hand called up the sweet taste of her high school years, when she and her sister left their home in Nicaragua and lived as boarders at Sacred Heart in New Orleans.
When Mamina attended Sacred Heart, the 20 boarders lived on the third floor, their beds separated from each other by snowy white curtains. I saw a picture of the set-up and it looked like an illustration from the Madeline books. Other photographic evidence supports that assumption; several girls in navy pleated skirts being directed hither and thither by nuns. Today the teachers at Sacred Heart are secular, but back in Mamina's time, the late 40s and early 50s, they were all bona fide nuns, wearing the habit.
Mamina has always cherished the memories of her years at Sacred Heart as some of the best in her life. So for her 80th birthday earlier this month, we decided to take her on a sentimental journey back to New Orleans. We were a fairly motley crew: Mamina, who is always dressed as if she might be summoned for an audience with the Queen; Amalia, who, at 14 months, is always covered in banana or yogurt or both; myself, collateral damage in the battle with bananas; my mother-in-law; my uncle-in-law; and his 13-year-old daughter, who gave me an excuse to walk past Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's house in the French Quarter--I had to show her a good time, after all! My husband, detained by work, joined us halfway through. As six adults, one with limited mobility, and one way-too-mobile toddler, we took huge van taxis everywhere, from the Roosevelt Hotel (where the movie star Robert Taylor once complimented Mamina on her legs) to lunch at Antoine's (where her father would take her when he was in town). And on Friday morning we took one to Sacred Heart for a tour of Mamina's old home.
She was excited to see the chapel, which hadn't changed at all, and amused by the ribbons of commendation that said Tres Bien if your grades were great, Bien if they were good, or Assez Bien if they were just fair to middling. But when we stopped in front of a photo of Mother Soniat, Mamina burst into tears. Mother Soniat had always treated her--and the other students--with kindness and respect, backing Mamina up when the nurse thought she was lying about being allergic to a particular medication. And on Christmas Eve, when Mamina and three other boarders who lived too far away to return home for the holidays sat in the chapel crying, Mother Soniat brought them some of her famous fudge, and the lament turned into a celebration.
The wonderful woman who led our tour gave Mamina a book celebrating 100 years of Sacred Heart which told the following anecdote about Mother Soniat: while other nuns were busy confiscating books that the church had banned, including Gone With the Wind, she told a student caught with the novel, "Oh, you can go ahead and read that; that girl just gets what was coming to her!"
Mamina has returned to Nicaragua, along with the rest of our relatives, while Amalia and I are visiting my parents in Massachusetts. But I can't stop thinking about the moment when Mamina spotted the photo of Mother Soniat and tears filled her eyes at the sight of a woman who had offered her fudge and friendship when she felt alone. So as Thanksgiving approaches tomorrow I'm feeling grateful for all the teachers out there whose kindness and respect changed their students' lives; Miss Hurd who first suggested to my father, then a pre-teen refugee, that he write about his life in war-torn Greece; the teacher who fostered Oprah Winfrey's love of reading, and made her feel she could be whatever she wanted when she grew up. And Mother Soniat who inspired generations of Sacred Heart girls, including Mamina and the alum who endowed the school with a new library not in her own family's name but in honor of Mother Soniat.
The Sacred Heart representative who led us on our tour also gave Mamina a copy of Mother Soniat's fudge recipe. Which is how I find myself packing a tub full of marshmallow fluff in my suitcase in anticipation of our return to Granada; Nicaraguan supermarkets don't stock the fudge-making staple. Sitting in the corner of my empty suitcase, the plastic vat is starting to take on magical powers in my mind; it's a time machine that is able to leap across the decades and bring back the sweet taste of childhood with a single bite.
Follow Eleni Gage on Twitter: www.twitter.com/elenigage