BY MARIA TITIZIAN
The story of our lives and the stories of our parents and grandparents are the sum of all that we are and continue to be. While many of those stories are laced with pain both personal and collective and enough adversity and heartache to fill volumes, there is also a heritage, a veritable treasure chest of priceless riches.
When we immigrated to Canada in the 60s from Lebanon, my parents had very little to go on except love although over time even that was worn down. Living a life of poverty in a country of prosperity wasn’t always easy but it certainly built character. We eventually discovered that with each battle won, and each obstacle eliminated what we were inadvertently doing was building a life of texture and depth. We were weaving a mosaic of stories and experiences that would be intrinsic to the people we would become.
I never thought about this until a friend said, “Our children will no longer have any stories of their own to tell.” We had been doing what generations of mothers before us had, we were commiserating about our children. I didn’t quite understand what she meant at first and then it slowly occurred to me that she might be on to something.
If we were to take the time to dissect the lives of our grandparents, the burden of their existence would destroy us. My grandfather running away from an orphanage in Syria at the age of 13, believing that his entire family was lost to him only to find his sole surviving sister years later in Beirut and then losing her once more during the great repatriation of the 1940s never to see her again; my other grandfather being uprooted from his ancestral village, not once but twice, losing his first wife to typhoid after giving birth to their son, my father, only to lose his second wife to heartache; my maternal grandmother battling the demons of her tortured memories for the duration of her short life, while my mother was taken out of school and made to take care of her younger siblings at the ripe age of 9.
We were the children of the children brought up by orphans. Our nourishment was the stories they told us, those they had pledged never to tell and those they needed to impart to ensure that their existence on this earth had mattered. Our shelter was their ability to survive and their determination to protect us with what little ammunition they had in their arsenal. So, while our grandparents fought for their lives and our parents struggled to sustain them and we fought to make ourselves better so that we could be a sense of pride to our parents, we carved out a life of comfort for our children and when possible, made sure that it was absent of pain and adversity.
I still smile in wonderment every time I remember the things my mother had us do as children growing up in Canada. She carried her Middle Eastern lifestyle and sensibility with her to the most Anglo-Saxon neighborhood in Toronto. She had brought pure wool comforters from “back home” and each spring we would have to remove the wool, wash it, dry it, beat it, place it back in its individual sheets and using a large needle, sew it into place. I still remember the smell and texture of the damp wool, strewn on large cotton sheets in our living room.
Our tiny overstore apartment did not only witness the cleaning, beating and drying of wool; it was a constant, relentless hub of domestic activity. There was no way my ever-industrious mother was going to allow her three young daughters to be languorous. So, we made soujouk, falafel, yogurt, peach compote, jams and jellies, lahmajoun, sekhtorov hats, and on and on. I remember trying not to gag as I would hold animal intestines in place while my mother used this medieval contraption to stuff her prepared soujouk into. We would then hang them up to dry on a string my father had placed in one of the hallways of the apartment. I remember jars of compote – mostly peaches lined up on a shelf above the kitchen cupboards. I also remember that we weren’t allowed to go outside after dusk because the “hippies” would be hanging around our street and they were not to be “messed with.” Our list of weekly chores was long and non-negotiable and once a month every square inch of the apartment would have to be scrubbed down otherwise we would catch some unearthly disease.
So while my blonde and blue-eyed friends would be outside skipping rope, their hair in braids and ribbons, or riding their pretty bicycles, or going to their piano lessons, we would be scrubbing the walls with rags, making soujouk, pealing peaches for the compote and beating wool brought from the old country…
Trying to console my daughter one time about something which eludes me now because in my mind it was irrelevant in the larger picture of her life, I blurted out that I envied her childhood. She looked at me quizzically and for a second I regretted saying it. I certainly did not begrudge her a single thing in the universe that my husband and I had worked so hard to provide her with, but in that particular space and moment, I was envious of the childhood I had been able to give her and heartbroken over my own. Those words, “I envy your childhood,” were uttered from my lips but they came from my mother who worked 10 hour shifts in a garment factory in a country, which after more than 40 years is still alien to her, sewing heavy winter coats to provide for her daughters and from my deceased grandmother whose essence I can still feel but whose soul was shattered almost a century ago. Instead of being envious, I should have found fulfillment at being able to reverse the cycle of bitter childhoods.
And herein lies the question…will our children have their own stories to tell?
This new generation might not have stories of wool and peaches; they might not have grown up with memories of heartache and pain but they will have to negotiate the next leg of our nation’s journey. They will determine the course and set the standard and while we might think that they have no stories of their own upon which to construct the next stage, they will have the burden and the privilege of doing so on the shoulders of all those who came before them.
Our children have the ability, creativity and imagination to become the heroes and heroines of their own stories and just as my generation tried to break the cycle of bitter childhoods, perhaps they will have the fortitude, energy and desire to reverse the cycle of unbearable challenges and shape a brighter future for our people. Now that would be quite a story.