I am standing over a pot on the stove, stirring the syrup. Are you supposed to stir syrup? Or are you supposed to let it sit and boil undisturbed? Does it even matter?
Cooking inspires an uncharacteristic resignation in me. I succumb to the bubbling honey. It will either congeal, or it will not, and I can live with the worst outcome. I shrug, stare at the mix, and keep stirring noncommittally.
“How much is 180 degrees Celsius in Fahrenheit?,” I call out to Elijah in another room.
“You’ve lived here all these years! Come on!,” he sighs exasperated. “You can’t at least look it up?”
I have stubbornly resisted translating some pieces of my immigrant life to the language of its new home. I think in meters and kilometers, rendering my instructions for parking useless and my sense of distance impractical. I measure heat in Celsius — but cold in Fahrenheit, because it was only here in Boston that I learned this kind of cold.
These dilemmas are all arising in the context of my determination to make melomakarona, my favorite Greek Christmas dessert. The Greek word meli, at the root of melomakarona, means honey and the whole word, to me, means home.
The ‘Christmas spirit’ is a curious notion, particularly for someone whose attachment to the holidays is born out of nostalgia, not religion. My family took pride in how we celebrated the holidays, from Christmas to Greek Easter, and there was a predictable script to our exclamations every year. My father would unfailingly pronounce that “this is the best tree we’ve ever had!” every single Christmas. My aunt Mina would fill our fridge with butter in preparation for baking and our neighbor, Mrs. Iro, would count the sticks. 41 was the record in the Christmas of 1995, and it is, in retrospect, amazing that some of us have survived it. There would be at least one fight over cleaning and whether the house was ‘fit enough’ to receive guests — even though it always was, and even though we were related to all said guests (“whose houses were not as clean as ours,” my mother felt compelled to point out.) Only after every last corner had been cleaned twice would we be allowed to decorate. No space in the house could beg for mercy from decoration. When my uncle Stavros emerged from the bathroom holding his head one Christmas Eve, the following exchange took place:
My father: “Poinsettia to the head? From the windowsill?”
Uncle Stavros: “Yes… How did you know?”
My father: “Was it the one with the gold wrapping paper?”
Uncle Stavros: “No, mine was the silver.”
Mum, from the distance: “Stavros!!! You’d best not have ruined my bathroom decorations!”
My parents anchored those holidays, and the rest of us were supporting characters, eating the desserts, ruining the decor, counting the sticks of butter.
As the cast has changed over the years, courtesy of grief and migration alike, the transition to hosting the holidays produces an unanticipated nostalgia. I keep telling Elijah that these are our first real holidays. There is a mythology to my counting, given that more than a half-decade of love later, we have had the chance to celebrate everything from the Ramadan on the first day of which we met to Hanukkah to Christmas to Thanksgiving to a few Greek holidays thrown in for good measure. Yet, as I told my friend Niki in an email yesterday, the holiday spirit is something whose presence you may not quite be able to articulate, but whose absence you notice. Without wanting to rob all those other holidays of their magic, I always noticed at their conclusion that they lacked a gravity-tempted, silver-wrapped poinsettia to the head.
In many ways, 2014 has been a year of anchors. Boston has become home — home enough to receive our guests from far away, to own six different devices to make coffee and not worry about how we will transport them across the world on a moment’s notice, to buy used books with reckless abandon, to fill the shelves, unpack the boxes, stow the suitcases. Boston has been where we have found and grown community, where we exhale with recognition when the plane lands and the pilot says “welcome home.” My sense of home is promiscuous and my heart is stretchy when it comes to place, so I have been reluctant to admit that we live here now, in one place, and that all those other places are homes we had, made, and left in the past — as though that admission would cheapen the other places’ claim to home-ness in our hearts.
But, here we are. There are little lights nested in the wine glasses the ‘tavern girls’ gifted me with their names inscribed on each. There is a garland on the window, and every time it sheds, I feel compelled to bring out the vacuum cleaner. We are hosting a holiday party — our first, perhaps in quiet acknowledgment that we live and celebrate here now. My ghosts of Christmases past are present in their own ways, and they are pushing me to make melomakarona, a dessert none of my friends have had and nobody can pronounce.
This is how I found myself shrugging over a pot of boiling syrup.
I am hopelessly bad at this.
I start by blaming the instructions, measured in a completely subjective Greek unit called “me to mati.” It means “measure with your eye” and it reads something like this:
“Keep pouring flour until you don’t need any more.”
“The honey syrup will make a sound when it’s ready.”
These are instructions written by hand, in cursive, in the pre-food blog era of cooking when you could not “just look it up.” These are instructions written with a presumption of intuition, an intuition that comes after years of observation and training your eye — an intuition I lack.
On the day of the party, my melomakarona are sitting on a platter. If the honey syrup made its characteristic sound, I did not hear it. They taste roughly like home, but they look nothing like my mother’s. My mother’s melomakarona were perfectly shaped, perfectly measured “with the eye.” Mine look like obese gingerbread men taking a nap. There are no poinsettias in the bathroom and I’m sure that if my mother were here, she’d find a stray hair on the shower wall and express her indignation that I can receive guests “like this.” When I raised this with Elijah, he said, with a resignation of his own: “Honey, I don’t think anyone will be showering at our party.”
I wrote earlier that in years prior, I noticed the Christmas spirit by its absence. There is another noticeable absence from our festivities this year: the absence of grief — the punctual, uninvited holiday guest year after year. I am in no pain. Nothing aches. This is the first holiday season when the possibility has emerged to remember and recreate and stir boiling syrup without interminable sadness. Those I have lost, those far away, are invisible guests at our table tonight. I hear their commentary about the melomakarona batter on our floorboards, I see their ambivalence about candy canes match my own.
I have traveled a long way, and somewhere along the journey, I failed to inherit or fully embody the talent of seamlessly recreating the childhood memories I hold so dear. My decor will never rival my mother’s, my fridge will not hold that much butter, my syrup doesn’t make that sound. Yet, in the scheme of all the other losses, in the scheme of the world into which my parents launched me even when they cannot bear witness to it themselves, these losses are livable. These may just be the holidays marked by presence, not absence.