The Family Tree: 20 Weeks of Gratitude, Week 5

Part 1: Oummi

I’m looking at a NYT article from 1984. The story goes like this: “The United States battleship New Jersey bombarded Druse & Syrian gun batteries in Lebanon for more than nine hours today in the heaviest and most sustained American military action since the Marines arrived here 16 months ago.

The gunfire was directed at targets ”in Syrian-controlled Lebanon which have been firing on the city of Beirut,” a Marine spokesman, Maj. Dennis Brooks, said. The shells fired into the capital had landed in Christian-dominated East Beirut, several miles from the Marine compound at Beirut International Airport.”

There’s a lot to parse in just two paragraphs; reading on, I learn about British forces I’d never heard of before. That’s the funny thing about collective memory—it’s selective.

I’m reading about the New Jersey to write about my mom. The timeline’s fuzzy, & I don’t know all the details, but she’d been on the line when the guns stopped prematurely & her comrades lost their cover; she would spend the rest of the night listening to them die.

Two years later, I was born.

I’ve wrestled with this part of my mother’s life; in many ways, she was on the wrong side of history. She was also a teenager, recruited into paramilitary intelligence straight out of school. It was that kind of bizarro world where kids carried the fate of their nations on their shoulders & got dating advice from their direct supervisors; my mother was cautioned about fraternizing with the guys they sent out to do the dirty work. One such individual had met my grandparents but was soon killed in battle. My brain can barely process that world.

At a recent book club, we discussed how the author’s mom avoided activism in her extraordinary time & place; instead, she lived every moment as an act of resistance, with mothering as her means of change. This made me think of my own mother—her stolen childhood, her hopes & dreams, her traumas, her ideologies… I didn’t always see her life as resistance, but that’s the funny thing about collective memory—it’s unreliable.

My brain can’t parse my mother’s love; my heart can’t handle her pain, her strength. My mother’s faith is boundless & it carried me forward, even when I had none of my own; and though I liked to imagine having lived in defiance of her history, I am in awe with the very possibility of change under conditions like these.

Like so many Middle Eastern constructs, I am my mother’s son—not more, not less. And I am grateful.

Part 2: Oukhti

One thing I really hated growing up was when older folks acted like they knew my feelings better than I did; like how both my grandmas consoled me for the jealousy I must be feeling, now that I had a little sister. Their saccharine smiles would make my blood boil—how could I possibly be jealous when my sister was born because I asked for her?

That’s how it happened, as far as I was concerned. I’d cried & complained about wanting a sibling or a pet; a short while later, there she was—a gift.

I sometimes wonder what it must have felt like for her to grow up with the three of us, each one passionate & volatile in our own way. I guess that it was tough, though she made it look easy. My sister’s calm & measured presence has always been a blessing on our family; I just hope it wasn’t a burden on her.

I didn’t appreciate this when I was younger, but one of the biggest gifts my sister gave me growing up was her quiet, reassuring, & unwavering admiration; I liked who I was in her eyes, so I started to gradually become that person. In time, I watched & marveled as she turned into the better version of what I wanted to be; capable, confident, consistent—I really couldn’t be any prouder.

I remember coming home after my first trip abroad, and seeing her rush to greet me at the front door, her face suddenly at my eye level. How could she have grown so much in two months? From then on, I selfishly feared that my travels would pull us apart; I didn’t want her to change, and as two introverts who like to keep to ourselves anyway, drift seemed too easy. But we’re still the same—maybe a little too much.

We should probably talk more. The older we’ve become, the less I know about her interior world; I barely know her day-to-day activities. And my failings as a brother never seem to phase her, so I worry that I’ve become too accustomed to that kindness.

I should probably do more, or maybe do less—maybe I should stop assuming that I know how she feels.

Part 3: Abi

I’m thinking about the symbolism of this St. Benedict crucifix that my dad gave me soon after I’d announced my return to faith. It was a sweet gesture; my father’s beliefs are complex.

The more I look at this token, the more I read meaning into his gift. At the center of the cross, just behind the corpus, you find the letters CSSML on a vertical axis & NDSMD on the horizontal: Crux Sacra Sit Mihi Lux (“May the Holy Cross be my light”), Non Draco Sit Mihi Dux (“Let not the Dragon be my guide”). A strange medieval artifact; an interesting matrix for reading a man.

My father grew up in a time & place absolutely saturated with ideology. Our town birthed a nationalist movement & had poems written about it likening our pines & soil to incense. By his early teens, he was already training in boot camps for a war he didn’t even know was coming; it was just something to do, & he soon enlisted in the army, where he met other young men with stories like his own. This was the life of peasant children.

Growing up, my father made sure that I was wanting for nothing; his generosity was directly proportional to the deprivation he’d experienced as a child. He wasn’t always around, the prototypical subject of economic migration so common to the majority world. This was contiguous with his own childhood, though his was more extreme.

My dad is a self-made man in the truest & best sense of the term; I’ve always admired that, & I’ve felt the burden of living up to it too. The older I get, though, the more I see my father deeply engrained in my very constitution—how I laugh, how I joke, how I stand up for myself, how I stand up for others. I also see him in my vices, and that’s okay, because so is he.

We are both caught in Benedict’s crosshairs, at the intersection of Crux Sacra & Draco—thanks be to God.

When I first started to lean leftwards, my father celebrated my development; though we’d disagree on what that actually meant in practice, my politicization gave us a common language.

And as I continue to develop, I can see him still taking interest, quietly cheering me on whether or not we fully agree. For that, I’m grateful.

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