Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jordan Almonds

"A psychoanalysis bent on understanding people is going to be very limited. It's not about redescribing somebody such that they become like a character in a novel. It's really showing you how much your wish to know is an anxiety state—and how it might be to live as yourself not knowing much about what's going on...That's what's happening anyway actually, but it's fantasies of knowing who we are." Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst, interviewed in The Paris Review, Spring 2014

My grandparents, Pailadzou and Haroutoun
I want to tell you about the Jordan almonds at my Aunt Lucy's house. At Middle Eastern weddings, every guest is sent home with a little parcel of Jordan almonds wrapped in white tulle and tied with a satin ribbon. Because almonds are bittersweet, like life, they are sugared in hopes that life will be more sweet than bitter for the newlyweds. The almonds are always dispensed in odd numbers, so that the couple, as well as the almonds, remain indivisible.

          Why do I want to tell you? It doesn't matter, what matters is that I want to tell you. 

          She was really my Great Aunt Lucy, my grandmother's younger sister, who was a spinster. In Armenian the name Lucine means Of the Light. She was the homeliest sister, the runt, with sallow skin and bulging, pale blue eyes, so pale they appeared amber in the light. Her nose was too bulky for her slight frame and she had ulcers. 

          Lucy was shuttled from one sister's family to another, always a source of disharmony. She talked about the men behind their backs to the wives. The men merely sensed her contempt, they suspected its hidden depth, beneath her pathos. But the married couples fought, and they knew she was the cause.

          Her mother's last words to my grandmother were: Always take care of Lucy, promise me. 
A plaster cast of my Aunt Lottie's left hand
          Where are the almonds? It doesn't really matter about the almonds, but the more I want to tell you, the more elusive they are. Why is that? While I think about Lucy, I see her smiling at me. Raised eyebrows and a smile full of, I don't know, mischief. We were collaborators, she and I. My feelings for her were unmarked by my mother's distaste or my grandmother's pity. Lucy had a small slate and taught me the English alphabet with a piece of yellow chalk. I read my very first word with her, four letters, one syllable, sounding it out aloud. I was startled by my own utterance. Hand. I suppose I felt like a conjurer. There was power, and I possessed it.

          I speak Armenian with an Adabazartzi accent, although I've never set foot in Turkey. I'm not fluent, except sometimes just as I fall asleep. It's as if I'm overhearing my mother and grandmother conversing. Almost always about something boring and complicated, instructions of some kind. They speak softly so as not to disturb me, but if I become fully conscious of their voices, I startle and wake up.

          When my mother was dying I spoke Armenian to her sometimes. Just short phrases, like, "How are you?" or "How does this taste?" Armenian was her first language. But she didn't understand; she told me she'd forgotten. Maybe I'll forget English when I get old, revert to Armenian.

          Lucy was the only one who spoke both languages fluently, and she was the only one who never married. She wore a pen on a ribbon around her neck, the way the others wore their wedding bands. 

          That sounds a bit contrived. Am I trying too hard? Lucy wore a pen on a ribbon around her neck, period. And my mother called her a showoff. What do you think? Is it all part of the digression, and the digression is really the subject? But there's no subject because we can't ever know ourselves. Somewhere else in that interview, Adam said, "What psychoanalysis at its best does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in a coherent, narrative way...It's only worth knowing about the thing that makes one's life worth living."

          What if it's not pleasure that makes life worth living? What if it's just the search for meaning—not finding it—just the sense of purpose we find in exploration. What if happiness doesn't make us happy?

          I don't like Jordan almonds, but I do love sushi. 

          Lucy displayed her almonds on a commemorative dish from Niagara falls, beside the radio and a vase of plastic flowers. Jordan almonds, it turns out, are inedible, hard as a pebbles, and they taste like chalk. I know because I stole one of Lucy's frothy little wedding sachets and locked myself in her bathroom so I could try one. When she found the candies and tulle at the bottom of the waste basket, she was angry with me. She may have called me a thief. With her accent, the word came out, "Teef." I may have laughed and cried at the same time.

          I made her a valentine at school, a big, red heart I'd cut out myself. It was perfectly symmetrical and I had glued it onto a paper doily. When she taped it to her wardrobe, I was so proud that I asked her if I could have it back. She was mad, just like she was with the almonds. She called me an Indian giver and said I couldn't have it back. Shame and greed made me blush, but I didn't cry. But this isn't about valentines, right?
A mess

          Lucy died a virgin. The Armenian who owned the factory where she had worked proposed to her. She was old, but he was even older. He gave her an engagement ring and she even wore it for awhile. It was her last chance to stop being a burden and she knew it. But she gave back the ring anyway. 

          I love hamachi sushi with spring onions; I guess I prefer savory to sweet. Does that make life worth living? I don't know. I know I'm supposed to be cleaning the house right now but I keep coming back to the almonds instead. The almonds are a digression, right? Aunt Lucy's a digression. Only follow digression, digress long enough to track the hidden meaning. Maybe I've stumbled on why psychoanalysts are so humorless. There's no end to digression. All I know is my house still needs cleaning. 

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