December 23, 2011

Walking With Asthig

This afternoon there are chopped onions gently sautéing in hot olive oil. Their pungent aroma wafts throughout the house, mixing with the unmistakable tang of the hot oil. I take a deep breath and savor the smell. Nothing else can compare. Today I am preparing a special treat, Sarma, to serve to my special guests on Christmas Day.

Cooking the onions is the first step in the making of Sarma, one of my favorite Armenian dishes. Derevi Sarma, to be specific, is an appetizer made from onion, olive oil, rice, and spices, cooked together and then rolled into delicate grape leaves, creating cigar-shaped yumminess.

Back and forth in the kitchen, preparing all the ingredients, gathering the pan, spoons, plates for rolling.

I am half Armenian. "My better half!", I used to joke. I have always felt such a strong connection to my Armenian ancestors.

 My Polish-Russian mother had deferred to my Armenian father in her children's upbringing. We attended an Armenian Apostolic church, had Armenian friends, ate Armenian food on special occasions, learned traditional Armenian dances, listened to traditional Armenian folk music. When asked about my heritage, I always answered without any hesitation "Yes Hye em!!! Eench bessess?" to show off my rather limited skills with the Armenian language.

Proper Armenian daughters must know how to prepare so many tasty Armenian dishes. So my dad taught my sister and me how to prepare some Armenian foods. His own mother had taught him as a child. He passed that knowledge on to us, his three children. Shish-kabob was his specialty. (I try, but cannot make it as tasty as he could!!)

I find that I am crying and missing my father today. 

Then I am thinking very strongly of my Armenian grandmother, Asthig Telelian (who became Varjebedian, then Hagopian, then Kavorkian with her successive marriages. Grandmother outlived the first two.) Forced to leave the only home she had ever known, to say good-bye to people she loved, she walked and walked.

I never had the opportunity to meet her.

As I walk back and forth in my kitchen today, I am imagining her walking through the Syrian desert for day after day, weeks on end, watching all of her family members die one by one on this death march from the region of Van in what today is eastern Turkey, to the border of Syria. Asthig survived, one out of a large extended family who had lived together in their small village. She told my father how she hated having to walk away from her own grandmother when she was too weak to go on, had to walk away and leave her grandmother sitting beneath a tree, knowing she was seeing her for the last time, her grandmother was going to die. Asthig never knew if she died peacefully or was shot or stabbed to death by one of the Turkish or Kurdish guards. 

Can you imagine such a horror? I cannot.

Yet against all odds, Asthig survived the death march. A miracle she wasn't raped and murdered, or just murdered, or died of starvation. She was discovered in one of the orphanages by her father who had been in France when the massacres began. What are the chances? Only God can orchestrate that kind of circumstance, thank you very much.

Asthig was brought to the United States by her father, who sought out and found acquaintances from their village, and found her a husband. She was very young, maybe 14 or 15 when deported from her ancestral home. And was 16 or 17 when married for the first time. 

And the miracle lives on as I roll my Sarma today, thinking of how Asthig must have learned the proper rolling technique from her mother and grandmother. I couldn't learn from Asthig directly, as she had gone to God many years before I was born. However, because of my father's hands and instruction, my own hands are rolling Sarma this day.

And I am thinking of her, my grandmother Asthig, and wondering what kind of faith helps a person take the next step in the journey through trials many of us will never, ever have to face.

On Christmas Day I will serve this wonderful food, made with love with my hands, connected over the decades to my father's hands, also connected over many more decades to Asthig's hands, and to her mother's hands, and her grandmother's hands, and so on. And so on.

Asthig and I walk in my kitchen together.


  1. Thank you Linda – What a wonderful thing you have done honoring your Grandmother, my Mother. I can remember her rolling sarma and cooking other wonderful dishes that would be a feast today. My favorite was paklava whose thin sheets of dough she would roll out with a large dowel rod. I remember watching her sprinkle walnuts and honey on top, then waiting by the oven while it baked. When I misbehaved (which was too often) she would call my father to tell him what I had done, but through some miracle he was never mad at me when he came home from work. I later discovered she would hold down the receiver button while making the fake phone calls. THANKS MOM! I was ten when she was called home so my memories have begun to fade. I also remember my father reliving his death march experience. After losing his family he was part of a group that was forced from Van, through the Syrian desert where many marchers fell from exhaustion and died, he was saved by some missionaries and sent to France then eventually ended up in Detroit and met Asthig.

    Again thanks for helping an old man remember what our ancestors endured in order for us to have a better life!

    Uncle George (Kavorkian)

  2. My Mom taught me how to make Sarma recently. I think I'll pick up the ingredients and join you and Grandma Asthig in your walk.

  3. Thank you Linda that was beautiful what you did in your blog I dont know anything about bloging or any of that fancy stuff but I keep on trying, I try to make sarma during the Holidays but this year I did,nt. Some day I will walk the same path and when i do I will remember what she Asthig my beautiful mother went through and did for her family Aunt Virginia Wilson.

  4. What a wonderful memory that you chose to share. I so enjoyed reading it...........and following in the great tradition of one of her recipes. Right now I would lvoe to taste that Sarma, you make it sound so delicious. Thank you for posting your Blog.


As always, feedback for any post is greatly appreciated.