The doorbell rings and Ellie runs to unlock and answer it, which reminds me of a conversation we must have soon: STRANGER DANGER. But for now, I know who is behind the door and we all welcome her in with warm greetings.
Well, Hello! I say and can't keep from smiling. Ellie lets out a passionate whinny as she throws her head back in the air and shakes her hair. She's been a unicorn for weeks now, but lately it's just when she has to talk to an adult. There are toys scattered like land mines all across the living room floor and two baskets of laundry waiting to be folded on the couch. For once, I don't care.
I'm learning to let go of my need to be Donna Reed, June Cleaver, and Martha Stewart all rolled neatly into one urban, blonde, coiffed package. Because none of that matters more than building my relationships with people, and that's what I am doing right now. Asha is my upstairs neighbor; we met at the blizzard party and found we share a common loneliness. So I have decided to invite her over frequently and she has agreed to teach me to cook Indian food; tonight it is chicken curry. She is 70 years old.
Another upstairs neighbor has joined us. She is from Korea and I like her very much.* Our children play together in Ellie's room as the baby watches the women in the kitchen while she eats pieces of cut banana from her high chair. I snicker and think to myself, two months ago you wouldn't have let anyone come into this apartment because it isn't spotless, and look how much you have missed out on. Today, I don't care and it's liberating.
"OK", Asha says in her lilting Hindi accent, "let's get started". She peels several cloves of garlic and an onion with one of my knives and then slices the skin off of a segment of ginger. She then turns to me in the way of an experienced teacher and says, "this is called masala", and in that moment, I feel that something magic is about to begin.
I chop the onion in the food processor and Asha asks me to put it into the hot oil in the pan; I lean over the pan and use a wooden spoon to scrape most of the onion out and into the oil, leaving a few pieces behind. She takes the bowl from me and says, "this is how I do it, I come from a starving country", as she says this her head moves slightly from side to side in the animated way I have seen many Indians move, reminding me a little bit of a bobble head doll. She then takes her hand and scoops out every last piece and smiles at me. I am not offended or hurt by her admonishment. I adore it, I welcome it, I want to learn as much as I can from her, and I make a mental note to practice the head bobbling in the mirror later when I am alone.
Growing up, the kitchen always felt like the heart of whichever home we were living in at the time. It was the common gathering place for my family; a place where stories were shared and food was created, both nurturing our bellies and souls. Some of my favorite memories of my father are from the kitchen. We would cook together, each one of us on either side of the huge butcher block he had fashioned from the discarded lane of a bowling alley. As we chopped and sliced, music was always playing, from French accordion to Dean Martin or Latin salsa, even The Ink Spots made a few appearances. My father would put his knife down and start to dance, and I would follow, both of us making it up as we went along, tipsy with the joy of shared company and food, both of them very good.
I look at the two women in my kitchen right now and think of the distances they have traveled to be here, across the world. They are from places I have only dreamed of, and yet here they are in my kitchen, with me, and we are sharing one of the few things that tie all people together no matter what cultural barriers may separate them: food.
Byung-soon* and I are taking notes as Asha explains to us the method in which we are to cook the chicken. "it is called bhuno", she says, "it is the specific name for the specific method. It is not saute, it is bhuno". And then she shows us how to continue turning the chicken as she scrapes the bits of onion and garlic from the bottom of the pan while the chicken slowly cooks. She lets each of us try, correcting our technique as needed. It is during this interaction that somewhere deep in my heart, I feel the seed of love beginning to take root for both of these women.
Asha is divorced and both of her children live in different states. Much like me, Byong's husband is often gone, working on research at NIH. We are alone, some of us with children, but still left feeling isolated and shut off from the world. Standing in my kitchen we laugh as Asha holds Ari; they coo at each other and smile and I feel a bond forming between we three women from different corners of the world. There are so many things that could separate us: culture, language, age and race, but instead we have chosen to be united in the threads that we share in common. We are women, and we are mothers.
We finish cooking and each test the sauce, dipping our spoons gently into the pot and sipping their contents with satisfaction. It is good, just like the company. They gather their things and prepare to head back to their apartments upstairs. We all agree that we should meet like this more frequently, and I know we all mean it. I tell them goodbye and shut the door, turning to look at the mess of legos and train parts scattered everywhere. Now I will tackle them.
As I begin to pick up the pieces of toys, I realize that love and relationships are living things. And just like a plant we must nurture them and feed them, carefully caring for them and tending to their growth. It has taken me 30 years to come to this realization, and as I look back on my life and all the bridges I have left smoldering in my wake, I am thankful for this epiphany now rather than later. I toss a piece of train into a basket across the room, it lands square inside, and I make a promise to myself to tend the little garden of my new relationships with the love and care of a seasoned gardener.
*I have changed the names of these women to protect their privacy and keep them from going, "WHY YOU BE ALL UP IN MY BID-NESS BEYOTCH!" Because then I'd have to give them a love tap to keep them in line and everyone that knows me can testify that a love tap from me is like being plowed over by a rabid elephant...so yeah, I'm just trying to keep the peace, spread the love, and all that JAZZ.