Nina

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.

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9 Comments

  1. Emily

    Oh Kristin! So sad . . . perhaps she isn’t embarrassed by you and your family, but rather prefer to have her life remain private from your family friend or “gossip” as she said. Maybe she had a bad experience with said “gossip” . . . Retirement homes are probably a lot like high school. I can’t imagine they would have invited you over to join them in conversation if there was any embarrassment. I think you hold on to your memories. Continue to remember the love you had for her.

    It was real . . . on both of your parts.

  2. That’s kind of bittersweet, but moments like this are important in the course of a life, and reassessing it, I think, anyway ;)

  3. Aww, Kristan, sorry you had that experience. But like Emily, when I read your account of the exchange, I didn’t have the impression that she was embarrassed by you or didn’t want to be associated with you — to me, it sounded like she specifically wanted that other woman to know as little about her as possible, and since the main thing that you knew about her was that she was your nanny, that was what she could think of to tell you not to tell that woman. Is there any possibility you may have misjudged the intention behind her words?

    But it’s true, many times the people constructed by our memories is not entirely accurate. Still, mainly I second what Emily says — hold on to your happy memories, and maybe consider giving Nina the benefit of the doubt. :)

  4. Jon

    “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.”

    I love that last paragraph. I feel like this is the way most people affect my life.

  5. This is an interesting post in relation to your previous post. Our relationships–and our understandings of relationships and the people we are in them with–constantly evolve, particularly when the relationship goes from childhood to adulthood. With our parents, we go through all those little (and not so little) painful realizations that they are not the idealized people we would like them to be. But you didn’t get that opportunity with Nina so she remained idealized.

    I had a similar experience with a much older (about 10 years older) cousin of mine that I worshipped. (I used to want to change my name to her name!) I stopped seeing her from around the age of 8 or so until I looked her up when I was around 19. She was still a nice person but far, far from perfect (and, um, a little racist). It wasn’t easy for me either.

  6. First – I love that last paragraph. So eloquently and beautifully put.

    Second – what a bittersweet experience. I know it’s probably impossible at this point to retain the same vision of Nina and the relationship you shared, but I agree with the others. Hold on to the memories, because even if things aren’t the same now, they meant something – meant a lot – years ago, and for that, they will always be special.

  7. Thanks, everyone. I hope it’s clear that I’m not mad at her or anything, I just felt a bit hurt. And even though “it’s not personal,” well, it’s kind of impossible for it not to feel personal to me, you know?

    Really, I understand more of what’s going on than I let on in this piece. Nina’s desire for privacy in this regard has to do with her cultural upbringing, personal history, and the idea of “saving face.” I may write about that at some point, but in this I wanted to focus on my own emotions and reactions.

    Emily-
    “Retirement homes are probably a lot like high school.” Lol oh god, no wonder people don’t want to go to them then. I mean, I liked high school, but I don’t want to do it again when I’m 80…

    Sonje-
    Yes, I hadn’t meant to juxtapose them, but I had the same thought as you, that these 2 posts are interesting when considered together.

    Funny enough, I think I idolized a few of my cousins as well. And definitely my views of my parents have evolved as I’ve matured, but sometimes I think they go in cycles lol.

  8. This is so interesting, Kristan. There could be so many reasons that her attitude seemed to change. Perhaps she just doesn’t like the other woman you mentioned and doesn’t want her to know because she doesn’t want the other woman knowing her business, period. (I work with someone like that and don’t want her to know anything personal about me because I don’t like her.)

    I can see how you might compare it to “The Help.” That’s one of my favoriate books. Maybe you can stick with their initial reaction of being surprised and happy to see you and calling you over. :)

  9. Born27

    Reading this post, made me realized how fortunate I am to have a wonderful and motherly like nanny when I me and my siblings are growing up. My parents are both busy that time, and we are being left with our nanny, Aunt Fely. She took good care of us while our parents are away. She stood as our second mom.
    Oooh! I missed her!

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