so last week was the big family reunion of my mom's people -- held at my uncle ara's palatial home in rochester, NY. (pictured above is the view of the pool and hot tub from the deck of the house ... the yard beyond is huge, and the house behind dwarfs all others in this nice suburb.) synchronistically enough, the weekend celebration incorporated not only my big brother's birthday -- we busted out the two cakes (one chocolate, one lemon, both delicious) after midnight on friday, when all the little kids were asleep, ahaha! -- but also the tenth anniversary of my mother's death. in fact, the last time i saw most of the family was at her funeral and wake.
this was a much happier occasion, of course. our part of the clan converged on the estate on friday afternoon; my younger sister and i drove from erie in a borrowed '96 mustang convertible (sweet!), following my dad in his honda minivan to the rochester airport to pick up my eldest sister, affectionately known as the squirrel. the airport is reached via a sharp, short ramp off the highway ... the place is so small that i almost didn't see it at first, ahaha. which made collecting our human package quite a lot easier than picking up someone at LAX. when we arrived at the house, my niece was already there, and my bro and his wife soon turned up.
this is the armenian side of the family, so the theme of the weekend was "would you like something else to eat?" shortly after arriving, i was introduced to buffalo chicken wing dip -- an alarmingly delicious concoction of all-melted-together chicken, buffalo wing sauce, cheese, and maybe some other stuff, which we scooped up with those fritos that are shaped like spoon bowls. omg, get it away from me! wait, maybe just a little more.
the first night was a casual feast of burgers and hot dogs, macaroni salad, green salad, fruit, and other sides i've now forgotten. my uncle and wife cheryl had stocked many coolers with beer, soda, and tons of varieties of mike's hard lemonade, a not-very-alcoholic drink that's pretty pleasant when consumed sparingly. (pomegranate lemonade, ftw!) i started drinking kind of early and felt pretty tapped out by around 10:30 -- lame, but oh well. i had to catch up on the new torchwood anyway.
bedrooms were handed out according to age, so my dad, who was the oldest one there, got a room, which he shared with my bro. but i got to camp out in my uncle's huge RV in the driveway with my two sisters, sister-in-law, and niece, which meant we all got a slice of bed -- a rare privilege when many attendees were sleeping on the floor, some of them in the giant closets. (the advantage of closet-sleeping became apparent on saturday, when those who were thus situated slept in a lot more, isolated from the hubbub, than those who were not.)
mornings brought coffee, danish, croissants, cereal, and baked egg 'n' meat dishes galore. the whole weekend seemed like one big long meal, but technically the main armenian family dinner was on saturday. my brother and niece cooked a giant vat of delicious rice pilaf, shown here in progress:
my bro brought along his own pan and other tools, plus something like 6,000 pounds of butter for this dish. my niece did a stellar job ... we're all so proud of her for carrying on this family tradition. and my sis-in-law made TDF stuffed cabbages and green peppers, which went FAST when the feast was finally laid out.
another tradition, trickier to reproduce, was my grandmother's version of kata, an armenian flatbread. not like a cracker, but a round, low loaf ... i've heard it called other things, but that's what they always called it, so hey. grandma's kata was legendary and fiercely prized. whenever she showed up for holiday dinners or family get-togethers, we always looked for the greasy brown paper grocery bags containing the magical stuff. (and when i was in college, she would make it for me to take back to the dorms, oh yeah!) but of course she didn't have a written recipe, so reproducing hers has been a challenge, to say the least. one big joke is always that the secret ingredient is cigarette ashes -- i don't think anybody actually added them, although several family members took up the kata gauntlet.
here are the bags with the golden booty, awaiting unveiling:
the greasy spots mean they've done something right. here's the treasure on the plate:
note the generous supply of butter alongside, just in case you need some more on top of what's already in there. btw, not everyone in the family likes this stuff. some say it "tastes like cardboard." that's ok, heretics -- more for us!
earlier, we had some lovely homemade hummus and baba ghanoush with pita, and a nice healthy veggie platter:
the main course included kebobs grilled to perfection by my cousin kara's husband, who also made blender drinks all weekend. he was the mixmaster and the grillmaster.
also we had the aforementioned stuffed cabbage and green peppers, plus baked beans, another family fave:
on the lighter side were tasty bean salad and fruit:
the dining room table was also covered with plates of cookies and other sweets, including loads of different baklava from an armenian bakery ... but kara made some of her own. i shared a piece with cousin sandy while we were making our nearly triumphant comeback at trivial pursuit (or maybe it was when i was helping her win at scrabble?) ... omg, soooo good. almost as good as grandma's, and i mean really, almost as good. as in, totally awesomely delicious.
in spite of the endless amounts of fantastic food and the gorgeous surroundings -- plus a bonus thunderstorm that was pretty thrilling to behold and didn't dampen our saturday all that much, as it eventually moved on -- the best part of the weekend was being with the family. as a child and even a teenager, i loved gatherings on my mom's side, b/c there was always so much boisterous fun and delicious food. this was a return to that sort of thing, except now i was one of the older people, along with the aunts and uncles and first-gen cousins, surrounded by teeming hordes of young second cousins ... some of whom are all grown up and have kids of their own, others of whom are teens, preteens, and younger.
the logistics required to pull this off must have been very complicated -- kudos to ara and cheryl, cousin sallie, and everyone else who planned this thing. (how many store runs did ara make in just one day? i dunno, but i think wegman's loves him now.) we even all got gift bags with family reunion t-shirts. i don't know how they did it, but i definitely enjoyed being part of it. my own contribution was burning many copies of an interview i did with grandma 25 years ago while a student at penn state, with her talking about escaping the turkish massacre in armenia and coming to the states as a child.
i spent a fair amount of time with my immediate family, whom i don't get to see very often. part of that was passed being soundly trounced at backgammon (tradition!) by the squirrel, who was clearly channeling mom when she rolled double fours, double fives, and double sixes all in a row. but also, i discussed the merits of majoring in photojournalism with my cousin jenna, who's going to penn state (another big fam trad ... the reunion t-shirts were penn state blue and white). and two of the teenagers of kara and sandy entertained me well into the night on saturday (after the fiercely fought scrabble and trivial pursuit games were done), spinning 'round the menus on their ipods and asking if knew this artist, and this one and this one, and check out this AWESOME drum part, and aren't that guy's vocals just the best? diana and TJ, you rule.
we reminisced, caught up, teased, laughed, played games, snapped photos, jumped into the pool, relaxed in the hot tub, watched auto racing, snagged free diagnoses from the family's doctor, took walks, napped, drank, snacked, noshed, nibbled, scarfed, and dined in a huge, ever-changing swirl of relative bliss. at any given moment, lots of people were doing stuff -- eating, cooking, drink-making, gaming, hacky-sacking -- while lots of other people looked on. it was like being at a golf tournament, except with a lot more noise and talking. and no clubs.
my younger sister's husband drove up on sunday morning, so i had the mustang to myself when i took off for erie later that afternoon -- stomach full of delicious pulled pork sandwich, grilled steak, leftover pilaf and kata, bean salad, etc., etc., and head full of family. being plunged into the middle of all those people and automatically belonging felt kind of great -- a sensation i've never really thought i missed, but it was surprisingly comforting. along with simply loving the kids and being happy just watching them conduct their own party-within-a-party, i was especially glad to have spent time talking to my mom's sister, aunt rosebud, on saturday. plus sandy and i, who are the same age and hung out a lot in certain summers of our youth, totally rebonded, and i was sad to have to leave her. especially since we would've totally kicked ass on the '90s version of trivial pursuit.
i got gas and headed for the thruway (what we californians call the freeway), as i had to make a dinner date (hahaha) back in erie that night. i was thinking about how much mom would've loved the weekend -- she used to hold big family parties sometimes, back when we were kids -- and just how long it has been since she's been gone. some snow patrol song came on the car stereo i had hooked up to my ipod, and i got kinda sniffly for a while. good thing nobody saw that.