I grew up thinking that holiday traditions were for other people. All of ours were ripped away when we realized it wasn’t actually a “New Year’s Tree.” That part happened about eight months after stepping off the plane.
In Russia, we really had no idea about Christmas. Our identity had been stripped away from us by the time I was old enough to enjoy carefully unpacking the glass red and gold family heirlooms that decorated our tree every year.
I think I always broke at least one and what I cherished most is the grace and patience of my grandmother the one year that it didn’t matter. I expected full-blown anger. So did my mother. She and her mother-in-law were never on the best of terms. Instead, there was love and a quick clean-up.
She was just glad to have us there. I think we were already leaving and two years passed since my grandfather’s failed attempt at my birthday toast, before raising his eyes to the heavens and leaving them in that position.
Soon, she’d be alone. But, I never heard anybody talking about it. Any of it.
Looking back, as I write this, I am shocked to realize that I never gave any thought to leaving her behind. I never connected her patience at that moment with any idea that she’d miss me.
The truth is, though, that enough time has passed now: fourteen years since she died and over ten more since the last time I saw her.
Enough time has gone by that I can see things differently.
When I got married, I was more concerned with my future than with carrying on traditions. My husband had reservations. What would we tell the children? We came from different backgrounds and he was worried.
For over fifteen years I let those worries in. That’s what happens when people are still getting used to the idea of a son who marries a different way than his parents had planned for him.
Getting older does funny things to your in-laws. They start to get distracted and become a bit wiser. They get fresh problems and all of a sudden they start to appreciate that their son isn’t alone; that he has people who’ll keep him safe and warm even when he can’t do it for himself for a little while… or a long while.
Something else happens with age. You stop caring. You get too busy to bother worrying and you earn the right to say ‘no’ to things you didn’t realize you needed to say ‘no’ to. Then you earn breathing space.
That’s when traditions rise up. They don’t always get passed down from generation to generation. In our transplanted, blended and chaotic way, they arise out of habit, turmoil and strive.
My husband and his brother were never on the best of terms, and our first decade together was marred by the jealousies and old scars born out of sibling rivalry. Their parents kept trying to bring them together until the Christmas Eve that ended only slightly less violent than a Western Saloon-style brawl.
After that, we all peacefully agreed to take Christmas Day while his brother took Christmas Eve. So, the next Christmas we took the kids to one of the only places that were open that night and it sucked. But, it was nice to have an unusually peaceful and calm evening together.
The next year, we didn’t bother going out. But, my parents decided since there was nothing better to do they’d come hang with us. Since you’re supposed to do seafood on Christmas Eve, I set about putting on a spread worthy of the best Italian banquet hall.
That was the year I discovered B & T Food Centre, too. It’s a Vietnamese grocery store where the hot counter serves things I’m scared of eating covered on top and bottom with a thick layer of lard. But, the seafood is cheap and the aisles are full of things I can’t even begin to guess at. The veggies are fresh and fragrant, expertly organized by complementary scents so that you can walk through a full course meal by the time you get to the checkout counter.
The stuff white people know is translated. The rest of the veggies and herbs are classified as ‘vegetable’ and list a price. Take it or leave it.
As usual, I took it. I actually had a good reason for being curious. For something so nondescript, it sure was expensive.
Then, I did the most touristy thing you can do in an ethnic grocery store. I turned around to the first Asian person I could find and asked them what it is. Let me describe what that reaction looks like. Imagine looking like a suburban middle-class white kid pulling into a dodgy strip mall in Rexdale, walking into a jerk place full of regulars just before the lunch rush.
There’s a look you get that can only be appeased by not backing down. If you have the spine for it, you get the best roti you’ve ever had the pleasure of putting in your mouth and they don’t look at you funny the next time, because you look like you know why you’re there.
So, I did that. I asked the first guy I saw and I learned this: (now don’t get offended, it’s just life) never ask a Spanish woman for directions to something that is nearby, and never ask an Asian man in a grocery store anything other than if you can have his cart when he’s done… maybe not even that much.
I once asked where the turmeric was and was told they didn’t sell it. When I found it, the lot looked like everybody else had trouble getting directions to it, as well.
So, anyway, the first guy said he had no idea what it was. He just didn’t want to tell me and I could see that. But, I was on a mission. I tried the next guy. That one pretended to be deaf.
Then I tapped on the shoulder of the lady standing with her back to me and she was trapped.
More to the point, she was confused.
At first, there was silence. Then, I became sure she was about to tell me that she had no idea what it was, just like the myriad of men that I had the misfortune of asking. Then, she started to slowly reveal what it was and later, found me at the checkout and offered one of her favourite recipes for what to do with it.
Turns out, I chanced on malunggay. “What’s it good for? Do you use a lot of it?” I asked. “Everything! Even cancer! If you’re like us you use a lot of it,” she responded.
I didn’t want to pry so I only asked Helen what her first name was. But, now, I’ve chanced onto a world I can’t wait to explore. Turns out this ancient superfood is believed to help with weight loss, balance hormones, fight cancer, aid with arthritis, you name it. It’s good for lactation, shrinking your uterus, I could go on. The only side effect I could find is that pregnant women should probably stay away from it… the whole shrinking the uterus thing and all.
There are warnings, too. Most people don’t trust the powders. They like to buy the fresh stuff, wash and dry it and then put it in everything!
But, back to my traditions: I’ve got a fresh fridge full of seafood ready for another feast for the Gods (or at least the heaven-sent souls of my world) and this year, thanks to Helen, I’m adding malunggay.