As we sat in the tattoo parlor somewhere too far out on the New Jersey Turnpike, 16-year-old me watched as my 76-year-old Nana got a tattoo on her upper arm. On the way there we talked about going to get ice cream afterwards, but I wasn’t sure if I’d make it there. Sweat beads gathered on my forehead and trickled down my spine with excitement and nervousness, because for one, it was the dead of summer, but mostly because I was next. What used to be an innocent joke of getting matching tattoos suddenly became real.
For us this seemed so natural, as pushing the boundaries to give me what I wanted was something she always did. From forcing her eyes to stay open to tell me a story at night or giving me an ice cream cone at an unreasonable time of day, my Nana never disappointed. I loved opening all of her cupboards to find the cookies and cakes she had stashed away. Growing up in the 1930s sweets were a scarcity in her house, as her elderly Armenian father had firm beliefs in what foods were healthy and thus acceptable to feed his three girls. As a single, small-business-owning parent raising three girls alone in a low-income, gang-ridden neighborhood, a strict diet was something he could control.
He often prepared richly flavorful Armenian dishes such as okra stew, pilafs, lamb, and fish. My Nana and her two sisters, Rosie and Sarah, would take turns shopping for the meats at the butcher. She vividly remembers her father, Hagop, making liver and onions with an extensive array of spices; once something she vehemently disliked, she now yearns for, although it is bad for her. Her diet today is much different. After years of standing over the stove to feed her own family, she cannot be bothered with cooking these days. At 84, and widowed two times, she has no desire for structure in her daily diet. She eats what she wants, when she wants—mostly carbs and mostly on an irregular schedule. The family scrutinizes her for her poor diet choices and bizarre combinations of food; but for her, it is not strange to eat a ham sandwich that she brought home wrapped in a napkin in her purse from the casino several days before.
One thing that hasn’t changed from her childhood is her breakfast—toast and butter, then dipped in cocoa, and now dipped in Lipton tea with a splash of milk; her first of many cups a day. The tea drinking is as much a part of her as the red-wine colored lipstick she cannot be seen without in public. It is tradition that I always make her a cup of tea before sitting down to play cards and eating something guiltily sweet.
She was envious of the other kids around her who got to eat junk chocolates and candy regularly growing up; but once a year during the holidays the day would come where her father would make a large baking tray of baklava. She went back for piece after piece, claiming it was the best baklava in the entire world. Her father’s dedication to feeding his girls a balanced diet was admirable, as he closed his tailor shop in the afternoon to prepare them lunch and then returned home in the evening to make dinner. My Nana could not see then the luxury she had of enjoying the meals of her Armenian heritage made by her father. All she could focus on was the desire to eat like the “American kids,” who were really the Irish kids as they lived in an Irish neighborhood. She wanted meat and potatoes, with just a little bit of vegetables covering her plate.
Today she often rips open a plastic bag to eat a pre-mixed salad for dinner, or grabs a muffin to substitute lunch, meanwhile craving her father’s cooking. Her free-wielding spirit has flown away from the restriction she once faced, but nostalgia creeps in. She said always wanted to be a bird so she could fly away. As we admired the birds freshly tattooed on our bodies I had coffee ice cream and she had butter pecan.