Once when I was visiting my parents in Houston, we went to our favorite noodle shop in Chinatown for lunch. As we stood in line to order, someone called out to me, using my childhood nickname. I turned to find a well-dressed man sitting at a table with an older woman. Both of them waved.
“It’s us!” the man said. I smiled politely, struggling to recognize them.
I gasped when I finally remembered. The older woman was Nina, my nanny from age 6 months to about 3 years. The man was her son John, now grown from the teenager he had been back then.
They invited my parents and I to sit with them, and we quickly caught up on each other’s lives. The whole time, Nina and John kept staring at me in amazement.
My own surprise quickly gave way to joy. After all, this was the woman I had loved most when I was a baby. (Well, third after my parents, of course.) But that joy was interrupted by an odd moment in our conversation.
We learned that Nina was living in the same retirement complex as another woman we knew. When we mentioned that, Nina frowned and said, “That woman is such a gossip. Don’t tell her about me. Don’t tell her I worked for you.”
Her words stung. Was Nina embarrassed by us? Did she not want people to know that she had been my nanny? But why? We had always thought of her as part of the family.
Pushing these questions aside, we finished our lunch and parted ways with many hugs. I tried to shrug off my injured feelings, but they rose again when I emailed John and received no reply.
The following week, by coincidence, I started reading the bestselling novel THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett. Set in 1960s Mississippi, the book revolves around a group of black women and the white families they work for. One character in particular really tugged at my heartstrings: Aibileen, an older black maid with a tendency to mother the white babies of the homes she worked in. Unfortunately, as those babies grew older, they often adopted the same racist attitudes as their parents, and Aibileen found herself heartbroken and alone, scorned by the children she once loved like her own.
As I was reading, I couldn’t help comparing Aibileen and Nina. In this case, however, I was the one who felt scorned.
Though I longed for Nina to love me the way Aibileen had loved the children in her care, what I ultimately realized is that Aibileen is fictional, and in some ways, my Nina might as well be too. I was barely 3 years old when she stopped working for our family. What I “know” about her is based on old stories, vague memories, and my own imagination. That doesn’t make her any less important to me, but it does mean that the Nina I’ve constructed in my mind isn’t necessarily the same as the real Nina. What she means to me and what I mean to her may not be equal.
It’s like a footprint in the sand. The impression will fade over time, no longer retaining the exact shape of the toes, arch, or heel that made it. But the foot was real, and so was its impact. And they will each continue to be real, independent of one another.