Trees in Rhode Island stand tall and thin, reaching toward the deep-blue sky with their spindly branches. From the window of a train speeding from Providence to Boston, I watch them stretch, toward the clouds, toward each other, standing proud and bare in the icy earth. On the CalTrain from my hometown up to the city, there are rows of flat houses, strip malls, and mountains in the distance. It’s all so familiar I barely notice it as it flies by. Yet New England is different: Each time I step on the train, I’m reminded of the new place I’m in—and how much time has passed. One day the sun peers through the green patchwork quilt of trees obscuring the sky, then flecks of gold and amber fall from above, then snow lines the edges of rooftops.
Or maybe it’s just the way you get to the view: planning transportation, buying train tickets, walking to the station, no one to yell at you for getting home too late. It’s the tiny, completely unimportant tasks that make me realize that I am no longer a kid. The sense of being in my twenties—whatever that means—flows over me as the train rumbles over the tracks, through the dark tunnel. It stumbles through the artificial glow of overhead lights.
My father learned his recipe for an apple sharlotka—a fluffy sponge cake stuffed to the brim with green apples, and a crunchy crust on top (if it turns out correctly)—from his grandmother. In their cramped apartment in Russia, she lorded over the kitchen as the most demanding of supreme rulers. There, she taught him the right way to beat the sugar into the eggs to create the perfect airy texture, how to slice the apples, how to line the tin with butter and semolina to ensure that the cake slips out of its frame in one piece.
For as long as I can remember, this cake has been a staple in my family’s history. My mother jokes that she fell in love with my father after, on a third or fourth date, he made her this cake. It was the best sharlotka she’d ever tasted. The night before my birthday, I’d always fall asleep to the scent of vanilla and baked apples swirling around the kitchen. In the morning, I’d be allowed to have a slice for breakfast, and another when I came home from school—the true birthday luxury. In recent years, my father would ask me if I wanted to bake with him, so that I could learn the recipe, but I was always busy. Another time, another time I’d learn.
Walking alone off campus, the flowers just beginning to emerge from under the frozen earth, shaking their blue and yellow heads off from their long winter doze, I find myself confronted with my own existence. Usually, I don’t have much time to really consider the stage of life I’m currently in. In small ways I feel it—planning my own day, choosing what time I get up each morning, getting bi-weekly paychecks and trying my best to figure out how to pay taxes. But most of the time, buried under endless to-do lists, I forget the ways in which time has passed.
Yet walking alone, not having told anyone where I was going, I feel it. I find myself faced with the vastness of the world, no one to control which turns I take. Struck with the sense of how hard it is to weave life into what I want it to be, when I’ve spent so long shaping it to the liking of adults in my life. Yet here I am, the adult in my life. Trying to find out what it is that matters to me—more than just stumbling through an academic existence, finding a way to stumble through a life, wide and terrifying and overwhelming.
A few weeks ago, I found myself dipping my feet in a sudden whirlpool of homesickness. Homesickness is a strange concept for me—I rarely, if ever, miss my family, and my life in college often feels more like home than the place I grew up. In college, home is a place I can come back to, can feel safe in, full of people I love and care for and can trust to treat me with care. Home was never really like that for me before coming here. But once in a while, a strange wave of deep love for something miniscule in the place I grew up will wash over me, threatening to pull me under. The Sunday farmers’ market with its vegetable stands and flowers wrapped in newspaper. The coffee shop with a mural on the wall and tables spread out across a creaky deck. The street that is always decorated for the winter holidays, lights lining roofs appearing like gingerbread houses. The certain way the light falls at around 5 p.m. in the summer. My father’s apple cake. Just being a child—feeling like I knew every corner of my town, and I could get anywhere I wanted on my rusty navy bike. When the world felt smaller, more clear. Not more manageable, necessarily, but more straightforward. Like a street I could walk down with my eyes half-closed and know exactly where I’d end up.
It’s strange to say, but I really enjoy the mundane tasks of everyday life. Doing laundry, going grocery shopping, tidying up, washing dishes. Of course, those are the things that fall through the cracks when I get busy, but they’re also the things that make me feel more corporeal, more like a person. Taking care of my life feels different when there’s no one reminding me to do it. It’s embarrassing to admit, but as a high schooler thinking about my future, I never considered existing as a person. I thought about college, about having a job (although what that job would be was nebulous in my mind). Never about what I would be doing these things for. Now, with every moment I take to make my space comfortable, I feel like I’m reteaching myself how to be a person. Trying to learn, with no rule book or professor, what it means to be alive.
On one of those days when I was playing on the beach of homesickness, I called my father and asked him for his sharlotka recipe. It now sits in my notes app, a confusing mishmash of words in Russian and English. The recipe is a little sparse on some fronts, almost too specific on others. My father couldn’t remember how much baking powder went into the recipe, but sugar and flour were measured by a specific glass we had at home.
Armed with a fork, I beat eggs together with sugar until my weak arms felt sore. My father had suggested an electric mixer, but since I didn’t have one, I resorted to the way he used to make the cake in Russia, when he didn’t have one either. I mixed in flour, added vanilla and baking powder (two teaspoons was my guess). Lined a pan with vegan butter—the only type I had—and breadcrumbs. Sliced green apples, filled the pan, poured the dough over them. Put the whole thing in the oven for an hour and hoped for the best. The air softly spiced with vanilla, I stumbled once again upon the fact that somehow, almost without noticing, I’d gotten older. It seems just yesterday that I was a little kid bouncing around the kitchen waiting for their father to pull a perfectly baked creation out of the oven, begging to eat it before it had time to cool. Suddenly, I’m a college student standing in a different kitchen several thousand miles away, pulling the same cake out of the oven, telling a friend to wait until it cooled.
I struggle, sometimes, to figure out how I really feel about where my family traditions fit into my adult growth. On the one hand, they tie me, like a tangled net of red string, to the shadow who goes by my name when with my parents. I often dread going home, having to slip into that shadow again. And yet, maybe there is something in taking those traditions, those little bits of thread I’ve stretched across the country, and sharing them with the people I now see as family. It feels like making them my own, slightly warping their meaning. Perhaps that’s sacrilegious; I don’t know. But in this way, I’m finding them again. Or rather, pulling them with me to a new type of love that feels just a little less complicated, more sure-footed. Sharing them with people I care about and can be honest with. Bringing them with me into a world in which I’m slowly learning how to live as my own person. Whatever that means.
Huddled around the dining room table, my friends and I eat the cake and drink tea, laugh at stupid jokes and bounce between topics of conversation. It feels right. The cake turns out surprisingly well. I’m able to get it out of the tin. I have homework to do, but for a moment, I let myself forget about it, washed over by an overwhelming sense that, right now, I’m exactly where I want to be.