Blood and Index Cards
New York, New York, USA
The Clinton School
“How much sumac should I put in?”
I look up at my father, catching a glimpse of my furrowed eyebrows and dubiety-contorted lips in the stainless steel of the bowl he’s using to mix the ground lamb and beef shank. The tablespoon I’m holding quivers slightly above the open jar of spice, as if unsure whether or not to delve into the contents.
He focuses his gaze on the meat. “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “Just do however much feels right.”
I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, but I guess that’s the problem. Although I’ve many a time heard people profess, often with a self-assured grin, that a certain form of cultural expression “was in their blood”—as if coursing through their veins, streaming out through their fingertips, pumping emphatically from their hearts to permeate each cell—it seemed the only thing that gushed through my bloodstream was inhibition-infused plasma. Maybe that was the reason why, despite being an Armenian-American, making dolma felt so incredibly foreign.
I peer down at the stained index card that, in my father’s grandmother’s sloping red script, bears the recipe we’re using. The ink of the fountain pen is smudged from years of dedicated reference, a rust-colored cloud obscuring the guidance I so desperately need.
Eventually, I just decide to add the same amount of sumac as red pepper flakes.
A few minutes later, we’re assembling the dolmas. I repeat the instructions from the index card in my mind like holy doctrine: place a spoonful of the meat onto a grape leaf. Remove the stem, then roll it up and tuck in the sides.
I fumble with the grape leaf as I attempt to extract it from the glass jar, droplets of the surrounding briny liquid trickling down my wrist in an idle waltz. I lay the leaf flat on a plate, spoon a bit of the spiced meat onto it, and pluck off the stem.
Okay, at least I’ve gotten that done.
I carefully fold the edge of the leaf over the meat, the pale veins of the plant spinning—almost twirling in time with the music playing from speakers on the adjacent table—as I roll it up the rest of the way. I pick the concoction up to place it in the heavy-bottomed saucepot we’re using to cook the grape leaves and then-
The leaf splits at the seams, hurling itself open as the meat plummets to the table and splatters on the index card.
Tuck in the sides, chides the script obscured by parsley sprig.
My father had decided to play Armenian music for this occasion, perhaps to create a “fully-immersive experience”, but I didn’t feel immersed. I just felt like I was drowning, struggling to stay afloat—like the few specks of meat still clinging to the leaf pinched between my forefinger and thumb—amongst the sharp twangs of a string instrument I didn’t know and the fluted wails of a singer in a language I didn’t understand.
It was times like these when I got the unbearable sense, the thought forming a gnarled knot in the center of my stomach, that I was simply a passive visitor of my culture instead of an inhabitant.
I felt very little flowing through my veins right now but inhibition-infused plasma, but it wasn’t necessarily through fault of our own. Instead, it seemed the process had begun centuries ago and thousands of miles away.
My great-grandmother was born in a small Armenian village, in what is now southeastern Turkey, one hundred years before I. The culture ran through their veins then, the blood fueling the spring in their feet and sway of their hips as they danced the folk dances, with the language coursing from their mouths like the currents of the Tigris River they crossed to get to the adjacent city.
And that was the problem.
When the Ottoman Turks launched their genocidal campaign against the Armenian population in the shadows of the Great War, it was that blood they were seeking to spill, drain, eliminate. And blood they did shed.
The blood ran everywhere then, plunging down the banks of the riverside and diluting itself in the Tigris, sinking into the tender Mesopotamian mud and then into obliteration beneath the pounding of the soldiers’ iron-plated boots and the pummeling of the autumn rains.
And when my great-grandmother escaped in a Red Cross sponsored caravan, enroute to Aleppo and eventually to a port in Beirut that would take her to America, it was that blood she left behind, at least in part. She had escaped with her life, but the heart of her community—the giddy folk dances where she skipped arm in arm with her cousins, the earthy scent of za’atar spice emanating from the kitchen next door, the harmonic murmurs of the townsfolk and warmth of her mother’s shoulder as they knelt in the cathedral on Sundays—would be no more.
She settled in New Jersey, on a street lined with other refugees. They were living the American Dream in clusters of brick brownstones, the faded stone crumbling as if crushed by claustrophobia, with wallpaper that sagged like wilted weeds and floorboards that shrieked at the softest footfall. Like the corroded bricks of their homes, they were all yearning for more space—more room for expression—yet were beaten back, relentlessly by the many hypocrisies of an “open-minded” America, until they crumbled under the weight of it all.
The Maybelline-lined eyes of the American housewives at the local market—reflecting the azure skies of a gusty Northeastern day, generations of afternoon picnics by the Passaic River—pierced into the shoulders of her mismatched flour-bag-quilted dress, the gash widening stitch by stitch, narrowed pupil by narrowed pupil. Their voices—the gliding vowels and soft consonants rooted in the certainty of being American-born—gutted the sharp r’s, the harsh curved s’s, of a voice imprinted by thousands of years in Mesopotamia.
A homeland now gone.
The assimilation was different now, forced by the blade of a society that only accepted you as long as you compressed your foreign-ness, your culture, onto the dotted blue lines of a 3 by 5 inch index card.
And so, there on the kitchen table, as the blush red of Armenian taraz dresses grew feeble under the unrelenting suffocation of back-closet dust, the sharp mid-Eastern language all but forgotten for a forced English lilt, the stack of recipe-laden index cards grew ever taller.
In my family’s New York City apartment, the singer is still wailing in a language I don’t understand in harmony with the quivering strums of an instrument I don’t know. The fallen meat is still on the table, the grape leaf juice still dripping solemnly down my wrist.
But this time, the briny liquid doesn’t bring the sting of defeat.
If there’s anything I now realize, it is that culture is not guaranteed. Contrary to what the expression “it’s in my blood” may imply, culture is not solely preserved through genetics. It does not always wind itself firmly around every chromosome, nor does it permeate every cell. And that’s okay.
Culture can be lost, yes, but it can also be found again.
I look down at the frayed index card on the table that bears the recipe: this is what they kept despite everything else. I might be lost now, but through the curves and slopes of their script—if I just follow the ink of their red fountain pen, leap from card to card like stepping stones—I can find my way home again.
I pull out a fresh grape leaf from the jar. It’s time to start again.
“Blood and Index Cards” deftly interlaces the physical with the abstract. Blood is a conduit for history and heritage; index cards a sign of oppressive assimilation. As the narrator makes a traditional Armenian food, each step is rendered in painstaking detail — paralleling the narrator’s laborious steps toward reconnecting with their heritage. With searing candor, this author captures the strange melancholy of feeling alienated within one’s home, one’s culture. They handle gently, conscientiously, the weight of culture lost and found once again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR