Cooking, Cross-stitch, and Covid-19

By Abeni Eliz

I’m sure many other South Asian college students living in the US can relate to the struggle of rarely visiting their families. While my classmates would stay at their grandparent’s house “for the weekend,” I had to wait at least four or five years so that my parents could save up money for a trip to India or for my grandparents to be able to make the long journey from India to America.

The exception to one of those long waits was 2020. It was supposed to be a year full of milestones for my family, and my Ammamachi (my mother’s mom) wanted to be here to see it. I was especially excited because it was my senior year of high school, and she was visiting just in time for graduation. My grandmother arrived in the US in February, and all was going according to plan, until March 13, 2020, when California went on lockdown, and schools went online. Of course, like the general population, we were not worried at the time. I had been assured by my school that lockdown would not last longer than March and that everything was on schedule. 

And then, March passed, and we were still stuck at home. My mother, a healthcare worker, warned me not to expect too much from the next few months, but I was determined to ignore her warnings and hope that the rest of the world would stay-at-home so that Covid-19 would pass quickly. 

Boy, was I wrong. 

As many of you are aware, April passed, then May; prom was canceled, and graduation followed suit–I was furious. 

And I stayed angry, until June. I “graduated” from high school and was free to spend as much time as I wanted with my grandmother, who had been patiently sitting at home while the world fell apart around her. My Ammamachi is one of the strongest human beings I have ever met and has faced every trial with optimism and courage that stems from her faith. She has, like the grandparents and great grandparents of so many South Asian Americans, experienced tremendous loss. She has been through many illnesses that have left her body relatively weak, but she has lived by herself in India for as long as I can remember, occasionally visiting us when she could. Then, in early 2018, my Ammamachi was diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully, she is now in remission, but the toll it took on her health makes her part of the immunocompromised population that is extremely vulnerable to Covid-19. Consequentially, she was stuck at home with nothing to do, a fact that did not cross my mind until I graduated and was left in the same situation. I decided to make a conscious effort to spend quality time with her and learn how on earth she had kept herself busy for the last (at the time) four months of quarantine.I found that she loves to complete cross-stitching patterns, even though they strain her eyes. She loves to cook South Indian food and can do so with no recipes, no measuring cups, and apparent immunity to a hot stove. I asked my Ammamachi to teach me everything she knew, and we began a summer full of thread and spices. Teaching me to cook and sew made her happy, and the time we spent together took both of our minds off of the chaos unfolding around us. The rest of the summer quickly passed, and she taught me to make flavorful South Indian food, to speak a bit of Malayalam (a South Indian language spoken in my family’s home state of Kerala), and even to appreciate Mallu cinema.

My Ammamachi stitching masks!

But I gained so much more than that in the nine months my grandmother was living with my family. When I look back on the months I had been in school, and she had been left to her own devices, that’s when I truly see who my Ammamachi is. In April, while I was concerned about missing out on prom and graduation, my grandmother was running out of important medicines that had to be prescribed and refilled. My parents hurriedly searched for and eventually found a way to refill her medications, and meanwhile, my Ammamachi was calmly sewing masks for our family and friends. In May and June, while I was upset about prom getting canceled and my graduation being “modified”, my grandmother was working on difficult cross-stitch pieces that she wanted to gift us, to decorate our home. While I was complaining about not being able to even eat at a restaurant to celebrate college admission, my grandmother was cooking up a storm in the kitchen of our favorite South Indian dishes. My Ammamchi’s generosity, love, and resilience, I realized, comes from a unique combination of South Asian tradition and her unwavering faith.

In SAP and similar South Asian clubs at UCLA, I have seen the beautiful ways that South Asian youth are breaking down out-dated, traditional ideas that do more harm to our community than good. As South Asians, we are taught to honor our parents and our elders by obeying their every expectation, a tradition that I believe should end with our generation. Instead, let us replace it with a tradition of learning from their experiences. Many of our parents and grandparents have sacrificed so much for the betterment of us and our children. We have a duty, not to fulfill their visions for our lives, but to use what we can learn from their life experiences to make a positive impact on our communities. Spending time with my Ammamachi inspired me to reconnect with my identity as an Indian and a Christian. Learning about my past from my grandmother through the stories she told of God’s faithfulness, the recipes she passed down to me, and the optimistic way she views life, even during a global pandemic, has reminded me why family is such an important aspect of Indian culture and the Christian faith. Family means always thinking of those you love, even during your own difficulties. It means a relationship in which both persons find comfort and solace from their personal problems, through time with each other. For my grandmother and me, it was through cooking and cross-stitch. I don’t know with who or through what you can find this comfort, reader, but I strongly encourage you to branch out to family members and friends. This time of quarantine has physically isolated us from those we love, but putting in the effort to connect with loved ones inevitably reminds us that those people also love us. Know that you are loved, and don’t be afraid to remind yourself of that fact by reaching out. You never quite know what will come back to you.

Me, my Ammamachi, and my younger sister in traditional Indian saris

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