When I learned about a death in the family, I immediately agreed to cook dinner for them that night.
The family wasn’t mine or Pam’s, but someone she knew. Cooking a meal was something I could do to help in a time of need.
“Anything that doesn’t use pork or alcohol,” Pam said.
She suggested a meat dish and a vegetarian dish. I decided on Indian-style chicken curry and vegetable curry. That made more sense to me than lasagna or chicken enchiladas or some casserole, standard comfort food offered at unimaginable times like this.
The Muslim family was Syrian. An aunt in Syria had died. The result of a bombing, I believe. I didn’t know, and didn’t ask for, many details.
The ongoing civil war between Syrian government forces and opposition rebels has resulted in approximately 90,000 fatalities, likely more, depending on what news source and numbers seem credible. That’s the population of Chilliwack, British Columbia, or slightly more than one out of five people living in greater Kansas City.
I spent the afternoon gathering ingredients at the grocery store, returned home and began preparing food that I would deliver by 6 p.m. The family we knew would receive extended family in their home that evening.
After skinning potatoes, I diced them along with carrots and onions. I heated curry powder and vegetable oil in an iron skillet to open up the flavor of the aromatic spices before lightly sauteing the vegetables. Next, I added a bay leaf, coconut milk and more seasoning.
Instead of chicken curry, I opted to prepare chicken tikki masala and used a store-bought brand. I wanted to offer different flavors rather than serving two curry dishes. Plus, I am not skilled in Indian cuisine to make tikki masala sauce from scratch when time was running short. I diced several pounds of chicken breast, minced onion and garlic and sauteed everything before adding the sauce to simmer.
I steamed two batches of rice – one with saffron, the other with cardamom seeds.
I was supposed to bring enough food to feed ten people. Even though the food I made should have been ample, it didn’t feel like enough. I prepared mango chutney, something with sweetness, tartness and spice to complement the combined flavors of mango, raisin, chili and onion. For good measure, I made a batch of fudge brownies. Something for the kids. I had no idea if anyone would like the food I prepared. I didn’t know the family or their tastes.
I packaged the food, loaded the car and headed to the family’s home in south Kansas City.
The husband greeted me at the door. He welcomed me inside. I brought in the first load of food, explained that I had a second load and headed back to retrieve it. My plan was to drop off the food before 6 PM and leave before the guests arrived. When I returned to the door, the husband graciously insisted I come inside and visit. I agreed out of politeness.
His wife, the woman Pam knew, stepped out of the kitchen to greet me. I was introduced to their youngest of six children, a handsome boy who wore eyeglasses and hovered by his father’s side.
I sat in the main room with the husband. We would have coffee, he suggested. We sat and began that semi-formal exchange between two people that had not met before yet still had a mutual connection. With a few words, I had been accepted into this family’s home not as a neighbor or family friend delivering food, but as a guest.
He spoke of his work at Sprint and the house he had purchased in foreclosure and improved with major investment. He gave me a tour of his home and expansive back yard. I saw how he had worked to provide a home for his family. We sat again in the main room, where the youngest son asked about the possibility of going to karate that night. The father patiently explained that guests were coming tonight and that the boy must stay here, despite his eager son’s suggestions on how he could arrange a ride.
The urgency of youth, the will of the father, the generosity of a host, the place of a guest. I watched, listened and waited as this everyday moment between father and son played out against the backdrop of tonight’s agenda.
Guests began to arrive singly and in pairs. Brothers, uncles, cousins, men that uttered words of greeting in low voices I didn’t understand. They glanced my way to acknowledge my presence, not quite understanding who I was or why I was there. I tried to take this moment to depart so that the family could spend time together.
My host insisted I stay longer. I sat once again within a circle of chairs that had been gathered in the room. More men arrived, the host’s father and an uncle. And finally, coffee was served according to Syrian custom. A large, polished pot and a tray of petite cups were placed on a low table along with a tray of dates and a plate of sesame pistachio cookies. A young man poured coffee for me.
Somehow I found myself eating dates and cookies, unable to refuse the generosity bestowed to me. I had come to feed the family and was in turn fed. I sipped the strong, bitter coffee brewed with cardamom. My host explained that it was arabica coffee. It was unlike any roasted, brewed coffee I had ever tasted.
They taught me how to offer up my cup or wave off offers for more coffee. They offered me more dates. As I sat, sipped and nibbled on snacks, I learned that this group of extended Syrian family and friends lived nearby mere minutes from my home. I watched these men – the host’s wife and all children were in another room – as they discussed politics and other topics in a language I didn’t understand. I could only pick out a few words of English mixed in with their native language.
The moment felt familiar. I had grown up listening to my mother speak Thai to friends visiting over a meal or on the phone. I was never taught enough Thai to become fluent, so I learned to glean what I could from words, phrases, tone of voice and expression.
I watched the men and how comfortable they were together. The younger men listening as two elders debated events and circumstances much like my grandfather and uncles once did. I studied their eyes, their skin, their clothes and mannerisms, feeling out of place and privileged at the same time to be present as a guest.
Glancing around this group of men, knowing there were kids in the back room and more people expected to arrive, I wished that I had prepared and brought more food. The next day, I would learn that the kids loved the food and some needed to be held back for the other guests.
I cannot imagine the complex feelings that my hosts dealt with as they absorbed national news and grappled with its human impact on their bloodline.
I thought of my family in Thailand, the conflicts taking place in Bangkok between political parties, the tension between soldiers, police and protesters. I thought of my grandmother, my only remaining living grandparent, who is terribly old and in poor health, and worried that I might never see her again while she was still alive. Even though I am able to connect through short phrases, photos and likes via Facebook with members of my family that live twelve timezones away, I feel so far away and out of touch.
It seemed like I could have stayed in this warm home for the rest of the night. After a few attempts, I finally managed to depart so that this group could spend time together, discuss and grieve, or whatever their custom, in the wake of tragedy taking place on the other side of the world.
Saying goodbye, I thanked my host and left. I had received far more than I had given.
Sometimes life opens a door, a window into the world of others.
Not Syrian or American, just human. We were not so different from each other, I thought, as I drove home to my family.
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