Sitti’s Kitchen on Arago Street
No matter what time of day we dropped by, my grandmother, Sitti, would take everything out of the refrigerator, whatever she had, put it on the table, and say “Eat!” A saucer of olives, a last piece of rhubarb pie, a jar of pickled turnips, a plate of kibbee, warm Lebanese bread, spinach pies. Her kitchen had a distinct blend of scents: cinnamon, coffee, tobacco, whiskey.
I’d sit at the table in Sitti’s kitchen and let the adult gossip murmur into the background while I attended to the windows. In dark evenings, if the lights were off in the house next door, the windows bounced reflections at us like mirrors, like magic, and I’d watch my grandpa, doubled in the window’s reflection, scoop his customary three heaping sugar spoonfuls into his cup of black coffee and stir. When the neighbor’s lights were on, I could see directly into their kitchen. The two kitchens were so near each other that if I tried, I could reach through Sitti’s window and touch their window. I was fascinated with the casual, effortless ability of all the dwellers of both kitchens to never look at each other through the windows, to never wave and say hi, to never steal glances. I, on the other hand, quietly spied. I secretly wanted them to see me so I could wave. But they never looked over. It was as though they all shared an unspoken promise of privacy, an honorable, “You may eat in our kitchen any time, but when we’re each in our own, let us be in our own.”
I loved it when the neighbor’s lights were on, for it meant warmth, it meant sharing. When I was in Sitti’s kitchen, I ate Lebanese food as I watched the neighbors pass deep Vietnamese bowls of noodles and foods I couldn’t identify but wanted to taste. I used the flatbread as my utensil to scoop rice from stuffed tripe and catch the juices of cinnamon, black pepper, garlic, mint and lemon. I watched the neighbors’ chopsticks click soundlessly behind the silence of the windows. I imagined my body laying across the sills to bridge the short space between the houses, my body’s short length bridging our two families, our two homes, our two meals, our two Asias. My body spanning the wide continent, connecting my family’s Southwest Asia to their family’s Southeast Asia in that short reach between our two sills.
After dinner in the summertime when the days were long and light, I’d go outside and linger on the front steps with Grandpa and Dad. I’d skip on the sidewalk, I’d jump on the cracks, until finally, Trang would come running out her front door, followed by her sisters Ha and Linh, Thuy and Hăng. Sometimes their parents would stand on the steps, and by then, Mom and Sitti were outside too and everybody would wave, “Hello!” “Hi!” “Hello!” free now to acknowledge one another, no windows between us, and move toward each other to stand coalesced in that small yard space that bridged the two homes. Meanwhile, Trang and her sisters and I would play clapping games until dark, and we skipped and hopped and raced up and down the sidewalk. Sometimes my cousins were there too, and we all made up games to play on the sidewalk spanning the two homes. Reflecting back I think, what a beautiful sight we must have been in our pure innocence and joy. Standing together in a circle on the sidewalk, our hands articulated the intricate conversation of clapping games, and each of us relied evenly upon each other to sustain the clapping dialogue and chanting rhymes. There we stood in our clapping circle, our dancing hands pairing unpaired palms in a synchronized frenzy: my cousin Angie and I laughing with our Lebanese eyes framed by our dark brown and very thick, nappy, curly, rough, unruly hair; Trang and her sisters laughing with their Vietnamese eyes framed by their shiny black, sleek, straight, smooth, long, fine hair. We never marveled at the differences because we recognized each other in our laughter and in the touch of our hands.
One time, after dark, we all went inside and piled around Sitti’s kitchen table where the adult women were talking. My two aunts and my mother were all sisters-in-law, each having married Unes brothers. My mom’s parents were Lebanese. Aunt Sue’s were Mexican. Aunt Carol’s were Italian. Trang’s mother was telling her story. She was looking deep into her mind and mixing her mother tongue with English, speaking fast, sometimes haltingly, with tears. I heard her story as fragments. I heard “boat,” I heard “flee.” And I saw her eyes. When she wasn’t looking far away, her eyes were present, her eyes were wet. The brown mole on the eyelash line of her right eye punctuated her solemn intensity. Her large round cheekbones were wide-set and high, with skin stretched thin and tight, mapping the terrain of her journey. She fled to America with her husband, clutching five daughters and a fierce fistful of hope.
Mom’s and my aunts’ eyes were locked on her eyes and their brows were creased. Their heads wagged slow and nodded deep. They clicked their tongues in empathy, leaned in from their hearts murmuring, “How hard,” affirming “How strong,” whispering exhales of identifying fatigue, grief, desperation, faith. Their hands reached for her hands, and she unclenched her fists. Geographies of extended arms and open palms bridged skin tones; clasped, embraced, entwined ancestries. I saw them, doubled in the window’s reflection. I see them now, in reflection, how they recognized each other in their power, in solidarity and survival, in the touch of their hands. A web of kinship spanning continents circled and centered on the kitchen table where food and stories and generations, embodied and transmitted through tongues and palms and fingertips, nourished interconnection and created feelings of belonging in Sitti’s kitchen on Arago Street.
About the writer:
Diana Tigerlily teaches personal narrative, spoken word poetry and performance at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She also founded and created a seven-acre creative retreat space, Mandala Gardens, which is home to Blue Heron Yoga and Mother Oak Sanctuary, in Marion, Illinois.
Image: “Frestas” (“Cracks”) by João Gabriel Lehmann. Mixed media, including manipulated photographs, sketches, and watercolor. No size specified. No completion date specified. By permission. João Gabriel Lehmann is a visual artist and singer/songwriter from Porto Alegre, Brazil. Lehman has a degree in Visual Arts from the University Feevale. He has participated in some collective exhibitions and fairs, especially the exhibition of photographs “Across the other side” along with the visual artist Carmem Salazar, in Ateliê O Bestiário.