by Karen Topakian
“I promised Nana I wouldn’t tell anyone,” I replied to my sister. Gail. “You know it’s a state secret.”
“Just tell me. I won’t tell anyone,” begged Gail. “Where did you go grape leaf picking?”
This conversation occurred after every grape leaf-picking trip I went on with my grandparents. Just like every other Armenian who picked their own grape leaves to make their own stuffed grape leaves, Nana kept her location a secret, to guarantee that the leaves were there when she was ready to pick them.
Picking grape leaves took place in late spring before the end of the school year and well before July 4. The process required coordination, logistics and military precision.
“Charlie, why aren’t you wearing a long sleeved shirt?” quizzed my grandmother as my grandfather walked through the kitchen. “You know there’s poison ivy.”
“Eh,” muttered my grandfather waving his hand at her.
“Then wear a jacket,” exclaimed my grandmother as he walked past her into the garage.
“It’s too hot,” he mumbled in response. “I told you I didn’t want to go today.”
“You know we have to pick them while they’re still tender,” explained my grandmother wiping her damp brow.
She returned to packing our lunch – sliced lamb sandwiches tucked into wax paper bags, cut up carrots and a few carefully selected apples. After filling a small jug with tap water, she put the food and a few paper cups into a soft-sided cooler.
A pile of flattened brown paper supermarket bags lay on the kitchen counter by the door. Bags we would use to harvest the picked leaves.
“Charlie, put this food in the car.”
My grandfather walked back into the kitchen picked up the cooler and asked in Armenian, “How many people are you feeding?” She waved him off.
She grabbed her handbag and followed him into the garage to fish out her conical straw hat that tied under her chin with a brightly colored scarf. I took the paper bags and closed the kitchen door.
With hat in hand, she climbed into the front passenger seat of my grandfather’s Buick Special while I occupied the backseat. My grandfather backed the car out of the garage and down the steep driveway. At the foot of the driveway, he turned to her and asked in Armenian, “Where are we going?”
“The same place we always go,” answered my Nana.
He drove in silence while my grandmother speculated out loud about the quality of the grape leaves.
“If they are too small, we won’t stay. We’ll find someplace else,” she mused aloud. “I don’t want them too big either. Nobody likes them when they’re big and tough. No one will eat them, right Charlie?”
My grandfather didn’t respond.
“We may need to find another place. Maybe we can try the spot we saw in April on the way back from my cousin’s house. Remember I saw grape leaves growing on the side of the road and said we could try there if this place isn’t right?”
Again my grandfather said nothing.
“Charlie, are you listening to me?”
“I’m not driving all over the state for grape leaves. It’s too hot.”
“Of course, you will. You like them as much as I do.”
“Where does Sophie pick hers?” asked my grandfather referring to his sister-in-law. “Everybody likes hers.”
“She hasn’t told me. Do you like hers better than mine?”
He sighed in response.
“When I ask them, everyone likes my stuffed grape leaves. Karen, you like my grape leaves, don’t you?”
“Sure Nana, yours are great,” I answered while I knew that Sophie’s were so much better.
My grandfather kept his eyes on the road
“Turn here or you’ll miss it. It’s down this road on the right,” directed my grandmother.
He turned off the main highway down a secondary road and parked the car by a long low stonewall flanked by a wild array of grape vines.
“Pull over so no one will see our plates,” instructed my grandmother. “I don’t want anyone to know this is our spot.”
“I can’t pull over, there’s a ditch.”
“Don’t be silly. Of course you can, there’s plenty of room”
After slightly adjusting the car, we got out each carrying a paper bag, which we carefully unfolded. Nana being shorter, selected lower vines. I stood near her to pick the taller ones.
“These look good, Charlie. We came right on time,” she announced aloud proudly.
He had chosen a spot farther away and out of earshot.
We all hunted for the right sized leaves, pinching them at their base, careful not too damage them and placing them carefully in their paper bags.
“Only pick medium-sized leaves,” once again she instructed me to hold out my hand and pointed to the size on my hand.
“You showed me last year and the year before”
“But your hand grows every year.”
“I hope not. I’m in my 20s.”
After picking a bag full, he walked back toward the car and us. “That’s enough, I’m getting hungry,” he declared.
She peered into his bag. “You could fit in a few more.”
“I’m getting too hot”
“Why don’t you get your hat from the car?”
“I don’t need it.”
She examined a few leaves from his bag.
“Some of those are too big. That one’s too small. I won’t be able to roll them.”
“They seem to fine to me. What’s wrong with them?” he asked.
He picked a few more and filled the bag.
“I’m not waiting any longer. I want to eat my lunch now,” he declared while he slapped flies on his exposed arms.
“I can fit more in my bag.”
He walked away.
“We’ll pick some more after lunch,” ordered my grandmother.
He took the cooler from the back seat, sat behind the wheel and started eating.
“I don’t think anybody else has been here. Because the best leaves are still here,” she said to me smugly. “Karen, don’t forget, don’t tell anyone.”