Saturday, February 21, 2009

Aunt Jean's Basement Parties


Detroit in the 1970s. My aunt (my mother's sister, the eldest child out of six in the family) had a finished basement in her house, and she would host large family parties there—often I think, although pretty soon after my birth, we left the Detroit area and so were too far away to participate in many of these celebrations. I think I attended two of the parties, but even to me, it felt like a ritual occurrence, such was the welcoming atmosphere, the instant acceptance of family. Jean and Louis (my aunt and uncle), plus their grown kids and my cousins once removed (who were closer in age to me than my first cousins), opened their home and their hearts, their basement and their kitchen to us all. I was very young, so I don't remember much, nor do I trust the memories I do have; they may just be associations. Mostly I remember two things, and the first is culinary. When we came through the front door of the house (or maybe it was a side door? I have an image of a set of two doors, actually, one spring-hinged and white with large glass panes for letting in light if you kept the second, solid door open . . . Is this memory paired with the right house?) the kitchen was to the right, and if you stood in the open entry to the kitchen, then the stairs leading to the basement were on your left. I remember walking into the kitchen and seeing a tray of pasteli, the traditional Greek sesame-honey candy that was sometimes store-bought, but I think on party occasions was homemade. Anyway, I have firmly linked my love of pasteli with my Aunt Jean for some reason, and knowing she is the one in the family who learned the traditional recipes, I assume she made this sticky sweet. (Don't tell me the Greeks didn't invent the original health-food bar!) Toasted seeds, golden brown, with thick and gooey honey set hard when cool, naturally perfumed with whatever flower nectar the bees had worked their transformation on. Other than the pasteli, I remember sitting at long tables in the basement, getting up at every provocation to play with the cousins. The tables were always to one side, which left a wide open space for my only other, deeply engraved memory: my grandfather, in those few years that our lives overlapped, rising from his patriarchal place of honor to lead a traditional Greek line dance. The bouzouki strings would tear at me, captivate me through the stereo speakers, and my grandfather became magical to me then. A mostly serious man, he was also serious when he danced, but that did not preclude an outpouring of joy, which was obvious. He became a proud god on the mountainside, yet never lost who he was, who he had always been—an illiterate shepherd whose flocks in the New World were the automobiles pouring off the Big Three assembly lines. My grandfather waved a white napkin or handkerchief high in the air, and where he stepped you saw rocks and wildflowers sprouting, rather than the (earth-toned?) carpeting that I think might have been in the basement. I wish I remembered more. But a final word, in case any of my relatives read this: if I've misremembered anything, please—don't tell me! Let me keep my visions of Greek honey, sesame, and soulful dance; I want to keep my memories of Aunt Jean's basement parties, just as they are.

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