Some grandmother’s houses smell like medicine and Bengay, that stale smell that is sometimes attributed to the elderly. Other grandmother’s houses smell like cookies, soft and freshly baked, wafting out the door and down the street. My grandmother’s house smelled of cinnamon, which she imparted through loaves of banana, pumpkin, and zucchini bread. Her breads were oily, yet crumbly and spongy, shaped into rough rectangles with sloping, ridged tops. She baked the edges brown, crisp but not impenetrable. Breaking off a piece – never profaning the pointillist masterpiece with such precise implements as knives – presented a gift to the recipient, who found inside an explosion of elements and colors: orange, yellow, brown, green. What clever inventor had ever thought to mix zucchini with nutmeg and cinnamon!
Because I liked her bread so much, my grandmother made extra loaves for me to take back to college – loaves and loaves, stuffed into my knapsack, wedged into the legs of snow boots, buried under sweaters. When I returned home and unpacked, I often discovered that my bounty had multiplied. I found curious items rolled into pairs of socks and underwear: old picture frames, candelabras, envelope openers. Or, conversely, I found vases and pitchers stuffed full with underthings. My grandmother hadn’t put these items into my suitcase, of course. I had.
There is little pride in stealing and petty thievery, and even less so in stealing from trusting elderly relatives. My grandmother often encouraged me to indicate which of her possessions I liked, so that she could bequeath certain treasured objects to those who most admired them. In college, the scales of need and want tipped, and I pilfered objects from my grandmother’s home because I felt I had more use for the items than she did. I cared for them, clearing away the dust and polishing the metal; I touched them and felt the electricity of other worlds. I attributed these trinkets with immense value, not because they were worth any money, but simply because they belonged to my grandmother. These objects held the power of an entire lifetime: they accompanied her to Africa where she managed and taught at a boarding school near Kiomboy. She gripped the ebony letter opener with her sculpted hands, slicing into letters that had crossed an ocean to meet her. She once displayed a picture of a friend from her native Nebraska in a certain bronze picture frame that was now covered in dust, buried deep at the far end of a box in the attic. These items no longer held importance for her; she tucked them away, pushed them to the corners of her shelves, and stopped using them. When I no longer derived pleasure or power from these items, I returned them to the boxes whence they originally came. My spirit had been strengthened by the totem power of the objects of her life: I gained, if only fleetingly, a power that no money could by at a time when I felt particularly vulnerable and powerless.
A friend of mine used to steal books from the university bookstore in an appallingly simple, nonchalant manner. He stacked up a pile of books that he needed, then walked right through a crowded checkstand – not stopping to pay – and then out the door. No alarms rang, and he never once got caught. I used to tell him, fighting a sly smile, that he would go to hell for stealing, but never thought myself that I might.
One Sunday, many years ago, my mother and I walked home from church, as was our habit on most Sundays after service. It was a fine spring day, with soft sun and a gentle breeze blowing off the Atlantic Ocean. On that particular day, my mother also carried our passports and a large sum of cash, which she had withdrawn the day before and forgotten to remove from her purse. It was her entire year’s worth of savings for a trip abroad – her hard-earned annual pilgrimage back to eastern Europe, her homeland.
We lived in Coney Island, an impoverished neighborhood by any standard. As we walked, we grew aware of a group of teenage boys behind us. If my mother was scared, she didn’t say. We walked slowly, thinking they might pass us. But they didn’t, just talked and laughed boisterously, keeping time with their boombox. About two blocks from our apartment, the boys scattered in a flash, and then there was only one boy, heaving the purse from my mother’s clutching hands. She had wound her purse strap around her hand, and she fell to the sidewalk when he yanked at it, dragging her along the cement for a few feet before she let go. I stood by, completely dumbfounded, until my mother started screaming, at which point I sprinted after the boy, yelling like it was the end of the world. I suppose, in my ten-year-old mind, it was.
My memory made me believe that, in the course of chasing him, I’d gotten him to drop the purse. My mother’s journals confirm that he did not. When I got back to my mom, she sat on the sidewalk, staring at her lap. She had wet herself. I helped her up, alarmed by the patches of gravel and blood on her knees. A police car drove by and, seeing us, slowed to ask if we needed help. They gave us a ride to the station, where we stared at books full of snapshots, recognizing no one. My mother filed a report, useless as it was, and I noticed a box of cinnamon rolls on a desk across the room. When we finally returned home, my mother lit a candle in the dining room and prayed for three hours, smelling of cinnamon as she wept.