Gifts of the Medzmamas

The pakhlava my medzmama (grandmother in Armenian) made at Christmas time were diamond-shaped, spun from burnished gold, all the riches of a kingdom lost then polished to a high sheen by generations of medzmamas dating back to Noah’s Ark and its arrival on Mt. Ararat.

The medzmamas all don aprons worn thin. They are bent at the waist, heads in the oven inside the kitchens of their Craftsmans in Hollywood, California. They grip the plastic handle of the sauce pan and pour the hot liquid sugar onto the flat tray of pastry while we granddaughters watch from the doorway. Measuring tape is tucked into the pockets of their aprons just in case something needs to be counted, cut, repaired, remade in a hurry. You never know when you might need to sew your life savings into the lining of your jacket. The Americans may be just like the French or the English and, at any moment, leave them to fend for themselves against a Post-Empire enemy nation occupying their ancestral lands.

Pins stick out of the medzmamas’ mouths between their clenched teeth like they are a species of prehistoric sea creature with an effective way to fend off predators. The medzmamas sew, are seamstresses who have shrewdly turned their skills in the domestic arts into currency in the new world.

The medzmamas smell of Jean Naté and Jergens, which they apply post-shower. (Anoush pagnik, we say to them — Sweet bath, because that’s what the medzmamas say to us when we emerge towel-wrapped, hair dripping.) A note of Chanel No 5 lingers, too, from the bottle that sits on the mirrored tray atop the medzmamas’ dresser. But mostly they smell of onion. 

The dolma my medzmama made were miniature mountains made of fragrantly-spiced beef inside skin-cracked tomatoes, or lolig, and in hollowed-out zucchini, or tu-toom.

The dolma are monuments presented in pristine Pyrex-es placed on ornate metal trivets on amethyst-colored tablecloths decorated with elaborate gold stitching draped over thick plastic coverings which protect table-length woven doily-thingies. Somewhere under there is a table. The medzmamas stand on it to polish the 54 individual crystal pieces that make up the chandelier, part of the medzmamas’ regular rotation: the silver, the china, the wood furniture, the lamps, the counters, the stove, the refrigerator, the stairs that lead to the tenant’s apartment in the back, the walkway in between, the laundry room, and then back to the start. 

We eat the dolma on the good china with glistening globs of madzoun (yoghurt), descendent of bacterial medzmamas that have been living inside a reused store-bought yoghurt container in the medzmamas’ avocado-green Frigidaires. Sears delivered them the same year our mothers delivered us: 1971. The medzmamas stir the mother madzoun with milk on the stove to ensure continuation of the line.

The manti my medzmama made, little meat dumplings baked in a tray, were as intricately crafted as the mosaic tiles lining the foyer of the sultan’s palace.

On special occasions, the medzmamas carry it straight from the oven to the dining room, serving it on metal TV trays to grand applause. They dole it out to their eldest sons first. On the mantel above the dining room table the eyes of the medzbabas — in their soft-focus, three-quarter, black and white portraits — stare down, daring their dining descendants to disappoint them. 

The medzmamas are widowed, had husbands who were sweet-eyed and mild-mannered, with a temper. The medzmamas’ husbands all die of lung cancer. The source: a mutation caused by exile, humiliation, the sacrifice of an idyllic life — by the sea or on a tobacco farm that was in the family for generations — for safety, the wild proliferation of cells forced into overproduction by a country that follows no natural laws, only money. 

The granddaughters overhear stories about the husbands’ sisters and their exacting standards though we know them now as foreign little old ladies from the old country. Those sisters bully the medzmamas when they are young and newly-wed, away from home for the first time. The Pretty Sister, with the light-colored hair and eyes, bullies them with a smile. The Mean Sister with the chin-mole bullies with a scowl. The Sisters both cluck their tongues at how the medzmamas make the bed, fold the tablecloth, sweep the floor. The medzmamas with their pinned-up hair and creamy skin think they’re so special, think the Sisters, who are bitter because of childhoods spent begging in the streets.

The imam-bayildi — (Turkish for “The King Burst”) — my medzmama made was stuffed eggplant concocted in the kitchen of the Imam, a reminder that we all survive at the behest of the king.  

The medzmamas have the power to make him explode with pleasure or poison. They learn Turkish, the language of the Empire, from their own medzmamas who also teach them how to live among those who want them dead.  

The medzmamas carried these gifts in their fingers and noses. They carried them for us. 

And for the virgins, their bloated bodies forever floating on rivers, rivers of bodies and for the medz-medzmamas with the tattooed crosses on their wrists, sitting on the Barcaloungers in the Hollywood Craftsmans in their modest thick wool dresses — which they wear even on hot days giving them pungent body odor — their fingers worrying the string of beads that have the crosses on the ends, their voices keen-like even when happy, especially then.  

The gifts are for the girls who are gone, the ones with the braids who bake the bread and keep the madzoun going on the stove for their young husbands, mustached, fez’d. They do this for the babas and medzbabas lined up in rows, blindfolded, shot, their heads nestled onto pikes as a warning for the others, and for the ones with no names piled high and then swallowed by the Earth, and for the mamas who die in the desert, after giving their last milk to limp infant-skeletons. 

These gifts are for the children of the children of the children with their pudgy modern-day cheeks, red with screaming, streaked with tears after being dipped in baptismal tubs, now calm in the living rooms of their Northridge and Glendale houses, reaching for objects placed within reach on cream-colored rugs, an ominous game. What will it be? A book? A calculator? A dollar? Who will they be? Scholars? Accountants? Bankers? Babies with destinies decided.

The medzmamas give with ferocity, with love like a grip that leaves fingermarks on the wrists of the next generation, and to shut those Sisters’ fat mouths once and for all.  




Image: photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Lori Yeghiayan Friedman
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