Words || Deana Stepanian
As COVID-19 swept our world, I found myself voluntarily confined to my bedroom. I was experiencing a form of disconnection that I had never felt before. For the first time in a long time, I was yearning for something familiar whilst everything around me felt tragically foreign. Like a small, annoying child, I ended up on my Auntie Kathy’s doorstep eager for any kind of entertainment. Surely this was an essential outing, right?
As a queer and ethnic woman, I spent years rebelling against any form of tradition. It seemed as though my Armenian culture held no space for me. I felt like an oddly-shaped puzzle piece searching for somewhere I could insert myself into with ease, as a result, my relationships with family members grew distant. I wasn’t sure how to navigate my place within our culture, so I simply disengaged from it. Except now, the streets I once walked with my friends were eerily empty and communicating with those I loved via technology overwhelmed me to my core. The busiest place on earth was the grocery store and even there, I struggled to feel connected to the world I was living in. I didn’t feel human anymore. And oh how I desperately wanted to…
Upon arriving, Auntie Kathy resisted the urge to squeeze me.
“Jigared oodem” she sang from afar, which translated to “I’ll eat your liver” in Armenian. This was one of the strangest terms of endearment that we used and funnily enough, the most common too. I understood every word she spoke although my Armenian was horrible. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, only one person could visit another person’s home at a time. So I showed up alone. This was something that I had never done before.
My Auntie Kathy was the queen of crafts. Whether she was hand-making Christmas ornaments or beading sequins into pillow covers, she thrived off of creating. So after weeks of feeling dreary and alone, it only made sense that I visited her. I was hoping she would keep me busy with something like a hot glue gun, but instead, I would be helping her cook my late grandmother’s famous borscht.
“Surch?” she asked, motioning towards the bag of Turkish coffee.
I didn’t decline her offer, even though my basic-ass only drinks soy lattes. In fact, I felt privileged to have a seat at the table with an adult drink. As the pot of thick coffee boiled on the stove, we couldn’t help but discuss the state of the world. I was hesitant to share with her that the disconnection that I had been feeling all these years had now been amplified.
I watched as Auntie Kathy swirled her cup, made a prayer, and then placed it upside down on the saucer. I replicated her movements but they were nowhere near as swift. The muddy residue of the coffee grounds would now create a masterpiece in which we would attempt to read. When I was little, I watched as my elders gathered around the kitchen table, peeking into one another’s cups. At that time, my grandmother was the matriarch of our family and this meant that her interpretations were both superior and wiser. It was a sacred ritual in which they would discuss their fate or future depending upon the symbols and signs which grew hard on the inside of their cups. I was never old enough to participate, and when I did finally acquire the taste for it – I didn’t allow myself the opportunity to join in. Today, however, I trusted Auntie Kathy’s eyes to gaze into my own cup. The importance of the symbols we discovered depended on the size, thickness, and placement. As my head rested on the palms of my hands, we interpreted the darkness I had been experiencing together.
“There is a clearing right here” she announced, squinting into my cup with one eye.
Now it was time to prepare and cook the borscht. This was a special recipe of my grandmother’s and Auntie Kathy was the only one who knew how to cook it.
“If I don’t then who will?” she said half-serious.
A wooden board was placed in front of me, along with a mixture of vegetables I had to peel. As she sautéed the oil and garlic, I struggled to position my hands correctly. Truthfully, I had never been taught any of these things, and I hated to cook.
“Here,” she moved my left hand to cradle the back of the potato. I recall the way in which my grandmother did this so quickly, with no hesitation that she would be hurt. And so using my right hand, my thumb rested on the bottom of the potato as my index finger used the device to peel. The satisfaction I felt was immeasurable. I then mastered how to use a large knife to chop everything I had peeled. Auntie Kathy did the rest as I watched with wide eyes.
“Nanet would be so happy that you’re helping me today,” she announced after moments of silence.
“Yeah, I bet she’s watching over us smiling,” I replied. And perhaps she wasn’t there physically, but the essence of her was. She was found in all the spices, lingering beside me as I had tediously perfected each vegetable I cut. As our day had come to an end, I left with one large pot of borscht to share with my family of five.
When I arrived back home, my family and I sat around the table for dinner. I gloated about my newfound cooking skills as each ingredient greeted my tongue with warmth before sliding down my throat. Usually, I would gobble my food down then retreat back to my room, now every one of my senses was evoked with the memory of my beautiful grandmother Nanet.
“It tastes just like hers,” my mother whispered as she gave me a wink. As I looked around the table, I knew we were all remembering her.
There was no profound revelation that occurred in Auntie Kathy’s kitchen. It was rather a quiet merging of the past and present. I finally understood the importance of tradition. Although the world feels scary, love and connection can be found anywhere if we just open ourselves up to it. It turns out that there had always been room for me here – I’d just shut the door.