"People ask me why I always write about parents and their children. And my response is, 'What else is there?'"
- Anna Quindlen.
Night, night my little blades... As promised, here is a juicy blog. It's a chapter from my memoir. And I dedicate tonight's blog to my Mom, whom I love and miss as if it were just yesterday when we were packed into the VW Microbus, playing the rhyming games and vacationing in Vermont.
I Dream the Old Country
Little Bird and Johnny were nine and eleven, and Afaf already thirteen, when their father called their mother, telling her it was time for them to come to The States. He was ready for them. Of course, they did not know what this meant, only that the little house would no longer be theirs; it now belonged solely to their cousins. They had to leave Lebanon to meet their father, a foreign word to them. It must have been like a dream, and later a nightmare. Their mother, Emelia, was their home.
I imagine my mother packing up her dresses, putting them in a hard suitcase, and craving, begging for another hour in the fig tree. Her mother insisting she pack; she knew what had to be done. She had to gather her small family and leave everyone else behind. She had to trust the man who had been gone for nine years. She had to believe in him, in what he had prepared for them in the New World. She had no time for Lila’s wilfulness. She knew her Little Bird, and her chief desire in life was to be alive – climbing up the banyan trees, dancing on the rocky beach, pulling on the fruits of the fig trees, sucking on the olives in her backyard. No, Emelia had no time for Lila’s wilfulness. She had bigger things to do. She had to reunite her children with their father. Or in Lila’s case, she had to introduce her youngest child to her father – the man who left when she was in the womb.
She must have known she had to see beyond the tiny playground at her children’s school, far beyond the perfect blue of the Mediterranean Sea. She needed desperately to make things work, to keep this family together. The past nine years had been rough without her husband and she’d acquired a tougher veneer than she thought she’d ever have. But inside of this toughness was a juicy, juicy core of love. And aliveness and play. She’d gotten used to being husband-less, she’d leaned on her cousins just as the olive trees leaned upon each other, steadying their roots in the fertile grounds of the land. The children slept together in this wide, white open space with a lovely little window that opened up the room towards the rocky, rocky mountain and straight down towards the great wide sea. Its white blue waves crashing madly against the shore, against the stones, forming little ponds among the rocks, where the children dipped their toes and eventually their whole bodies, playing with pails, bringing water to their families on the beach. Saving their imaginary families back home.
Emelia had to say goodbye. No longer could she bring her children to the waterfront to play with their cousins all day long. Their Sunday dinners, with their cousins clumped together, laughing and treasuring the letters they’d received from America. Playing dominoes, drinking wine out of tiny painted glasses, watching the Lebanese moon hang lazily in the warm sky. America. Just the word, the way it sounded, Uhh-Mare-Ihh-kuhh. It rolled off their tongues like tiny gold coins, clean and sparkling and making their mouths mean something. Yes, Emelia would be going. Though she’d begun to feel that this land, this America, wasn’t real. The places he described, the grocery stores abounding with packaged foods, the colored people, the small, flat homes and dried grasses of the front yards, the contents of his letters. Her marriage had become a black stamp on an envelope. And whenever she received these letters, she’d run down to the water and pull off her shoes, let the ocean trickle through her toes, she’d bend over and splash the water all over her face, let the waves rustle up over her knees and the tiny drops fall off her chin, her body shivering. And into the ocean. While her children spun and spun in circles above her head, up the mountains, and past the trees, in their backyard. Below the grape vines hanging lackadaisically atop the wooden fences. And she’d scream.
Her children screamed the day they left. Uncles Fouzi and Fadi stood at the door of their house, holding Ryad and Hibba, waving goodbye as the taxi drove off. The family became smaller and smaller. Emelia could see Uncle Fouzi’s white handkerchief waving above his head. Lila sat in the backseat, turned round, and moved her head to the right so she could see beyond her mother’s headscarf, her cousins had become a mass of face-less people, wearing long dresses and suits. She could hardly distinguish one from the other. The driver knew where to take them. He had a slick mustache and chubby cheeks with a scar under his left eye. He had taken this trip many times before. He knew the waving goodbye family, the screaming children, the tight-lipped oldest child and the “big man” son who didn’t take his eyes off of his mother. He tried not to look back at them in his rear view mirror. He tried not to look at Afaf in the front seat next to him. He never got used to their faces. Though he would never see them again, he felt as if he knew them all.
One day they were King and Queen of the village. The next, they were ripped off the tree, no more figs. Soon, they would be in their father’s grocery store, eating Fig Newtons out of plastic. They had stomachaches, didn’t have an appetite for anything on the boat once they walked aboard. They were tired and unsettled for the first few days.
“Johnny, where are we going?” Do you know anything about where he is?” Who is father?”
Lila pushed her foot through the hole in the float that was tacked up along the boat’s railing. Her white socks were turned over her black shoes.
“We’re going to America. Father wants us to be with him. We’ll have a big house and he has a store with lots of food. And Americans. There are lots of businesses there. Our father has a business.”
“What does that – " Lila pressed her hand to her forehead.
“A business is where you own a store and work there too.”
He saw that she was still confused. “Father owns a grocery store, remember Uncle Fouzi told us about it? It is huge and has everything. Maybe we can visit him when we’re not in school.” Johnny saw that Lila saw through his excitement.
“Johnny, I’m scared.” She sidled up to him, put her arms around his neck, and rested her head in the crook of his shoulder. They sat on a bench in the middle of hundreds of families huddled together, on a ship that was packed with oversized dreams.
“It’s going to be okay. What have we always said? We have each –- "
“I know,” Lila finished. And then, she smiled.