I have been reflecting on the awesome responsibility of being a grandmother. It has been a transition to say the least. And with all transitions there is an adjustment period and an awkward sense of the unknown as well as the anticipation of what is to come and how it will all look once everyone finds their sea legs.
My gracious son and daughter in law let me choose the name I would like to be called by little Boe and it was a quick decision. Like my Sittis before me, I felt that the Arabic name for grandmother was more than appropriate because it speaks of a long history of Lebanese women who wanted nothing more than to cook, feed, and make a cozy home for their families. And even though I had the means and awareness to get a college degree and beyond and have a thriving and rewarding career, I have to admit my first goal when I stepped onto a college campus at 17 years old was to get my MRS degree, have a family, and create a loving home for them.
I was named after my maternal Sitti, Rosa Maloof, and of course like all good Catholic girls, the Blessed Virgin Mary. (My parents must have had high aspirations for me!) I had to do some fact checking with my brothers and as my memory serves me, I only saw my maternal grandmother three times in my entire life. She and my grandfather lived in Atlanta and were not fond of flying. We were a family of eight in California and traveling across the country to see our grandparents was a bit out of the budget. I was able to spend time with them once as a little girl, once as a teenager, and much later when I was 30. When my mother passed away at 61 years old, they did not come out for her funeral. It is still incredulous to me today. I would move heaven and earth to see my children in any state (or state).
My father’s mother, Louise, died in childbirth along with her fifth child. My dad was the oldest and we think (our collective memories) he was about 6 years old when she died. The baby’s name was John and I remember my dad telling me the story- never with a straight face- always with tears running down his cheeks. My brother John was named after my dad’s little brother.
My grandfather sent for a wife from Lebanon (cousins.. can you do some fact checking for me? This is part urban legend passed down through oral history). Her name was Madeleine and she had to quickly adjust to a new country, a new husband, and to my grandfather Thomas’ four children. They went on to have four more children of their own whom my grandmother favored. And she favored their children as well.
With that said, I must confess that I don’t remember having a Sitti who wanted to kiss me and hold me, babysit me and get on the floor and play with me and/or agonize over the next time she might be able to spend time with me.
I write all this not so that you will feel sorry for me. I write it for my own understanding and for my children’s understanding. I write it to rub a salve on a wound that has just recently been exposed as I reflect on my own experience as a grandmother. I write it to help me understand this longing in my heart to be near my new grandson and be a part of his life. I write it because I know I am not alone in this reflection and confession and to open a conversation about the role of a grandmother in a child’s life.
In the song Both Sides Now Joni Mitchell sings “Something’s lost and something’s gained in living every day.” Life is not always easy. Family is not always as Norman Rockwell would illustrate but I believe people try. In the absence of holding me and reading stories to me, my Sittis cooked and cleaned and fed me and I suppose they thought that was enough. But this Sitti wants something different with her grandchildren.
I would love to hear your thoughts on being a grandparent.
I found this engagement announcement years ago after my mother passed away. I had inherited the “trunk” with all of the family heirlooms and photos. When I first saw the fragile news clipping, I thought nothing of it really. I assumed it had gotten torn somehow and my mom had saved it nonetheless.
Years later, while going through the trunk, I saw a different fragile news clipping. It was a reflection of a broken heart, a broken woman, and the life she had imagined torn asunder. She most likely carefully and deliberately tore the piece right down the middle and replaced it in a box of photos.
No accident here. It was a message. A statement. Perhaps a legacy.
My mother told me once in a private conversation weeks before my own wedding, “I never planned on being divorced”. It was during an argument between us when I foolishly told her that what happened to her would never happen to me. If only I could take those words back.
Not only because I am now a divorced woman. But because my words had a certain arrogance and a sting that hurt her deeply.
No matter how you slice it, divorce wreaks havoc on a family. It creates “teams” that don’t play well together. It rents the fabric of family life, rearranges every holiday plan and every summer vacation. The repercussions rear their ugly heads in the least expected moments.
Growing up is something we all have to do. Becoming wise and learning difficult lessons is optional. Knowing what I went through with my parents divorce, I have a difficult time digesting the fact that I had a hand in repeating this history. Perhaps it was my legacy. Or an unconscious attempt at solidarity with my mother.
Maybe it was an “I told you so”.
Nonetheless, I am the woman I am today because I had to grow through the pain and struggle of my decisions. If only I could have been this woman without having had to wreak so much damage and heartache.
We project a part of ourselves into what we see and observe. What we interpret has everything to do with our own experience. As a young married woman with three small children, I saw a fragile news clipping that had accidentally gotten torn. Years later I see with different eyes. It is a statement of grief. A message and a warning.
And sadly, a legacy.
in the secret of darkness
before I saw the sun
in my mother’s womb
Dear little Boe,
You are a miracle. A gift. Someone new to love and long to hold. A bundle of sweet smells and warm cuddles. You have us all in awe and wonder.
How beautiful you are. A blank slate. A crisp white page to be filled with lovely lyrics. An empty vessel within which we place all our hopes and dreams. Your innocence is compelling. I feel absolution in your presence.
I know that some little parts of you have been etched from my own body. That in itself is mind blowing. I look at you and feel such love and connection- and at the same time, a sense of mystery. Who are you? Who will you become? How will I fit into your life? What will we do together to build our relationship?
Little lovey, the day you were born we all experienced a life changing transition. Woman and man became mother and father. Mother and father became grandmother and grandfather. It may take some time for us to learn our new roles so please be patient with us.
I hear other grandparents brag that they can spoil their grandchildren and then send them home. All the fun and none of the responsibility. Then they laugh! But Boe, I have a little secret for you.
I would do it all again. The pain of labor, the sleepless nights, the diapers, the desitine, the sticky kisses, the million and one soccer, basketball and little league games, the waiting up for teenagers, the “sex” talks, and the endless and painful letting gos- witnessing three little boys traverse their paths into manhood.
But there would be do-overs. I would clean less, order more take out, play more games and be more attentive to the ebb and flow of raising a family. And most of all I would allow myself to enjoy it all. Not be so stressed and insecure. Not be so hard on myself. Not compare myself to other moms who appeared to be doing it better.
Little Boe, when your daddy was growing up, I wrote him letters on his birthdays and other occasions so that he would know how my love for him unfolded and developed as he grew up and became a young man. When he graduated from high school I gave him all those letters. It was a labor of love.
I want to do that for you, little Boe. I want you to see what I see in you. And in those moments when you are feeling insecure or a little blue, I want you to know how much you are loved, fearfully and wonderfully made, and carefully knit together in the secret of your mother’s womb by an even greater Love.
My heart is full. My life has taken on a new meaning with your birth. I have so many things I’d like to share with you. So many songs I want to sing to you. And I have all the time in the world to listen to you.
Stay sweet, little boy. Take in all the love you can. Learn honesty and integrity. Be generous and kind.
Grow up to be a man for others.
I love you,
It’s Mother’s Day and it seems appropriate that I would be channeling my mother in the kitchen this weekend. Tabouli, Hummus, Baba Ghannouj- salt, allspice, cinnamon, garlic, tahini, eggplant, and parsley dripped and splashed everywhere! You can’t make Lebanese food without making a mess, using your hands and taste testing along the way. The sterile kitchen police would have me under arrest.
My daughter in law is craving Lebanese food for my little Lebanese grandson still nesting just under her heart. A new little Shaheen boy in the works. My mom would be beside herself! Another man to cook for!
I found my place very early in life next to my mother in the kitchen. I had no choice really. I just grew up in there with my own apron and stepping stool, stirring the rice pudding, chopping the parsley and washing the dishes. Sometimes all at the same time.
I never complained. With a family of eight and so many brothers, it was the only way I could sneak something to eat before the food hit the dinner table. It was also my special time to be with my mom. To smell her perfume and sing songs with her. At a very young age, I wanted to be just like her. She was so loved and admired by everyone. And she was a fabulous cook. I think she invented that idiom about the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach..
She always knew just what to do in every situation. What to cook for every ailment. How to take care of her family. She could have written the book on mothering.
I watched her as a young mother wrap up my babies and sing to them. When my youngest, Peter, was born, I found her playing in the sandbox with Patrick and Robert and their trucks. “Whose mother is that??” I wondered! My mother never got dirty. My mother had her nails and hair done every week and wore heels and hose. My mother didn’t own a pair of jeans until she turned 50!
As I recuperated from each pregnancy and birth, she cleaned my house and did the laundry and cooked delicious things for us in the kitchen. I just held my babies and watched. I wanted to get in there and chop and stir and wash dishes but clearly our roles had changed and I was no longer the little girl helping. I was the mother. Still learning from her. Still needing her advice and expertise. Still wanting to be close to her in the kitchen.
Now on the cusp of being a new grandmother myself, I’m feeling a bit insecure in the transition. What will my new role be like? What are the expectations? Will I know what to do with a new baby? After all, it’s been 30 years since I had Peter. Things have changed. Mothers are more enlightened due to the internet. Information is dispelled easily through a quick Google. Does anyone call their mother for advice anymore?
The new parenting trends bring natural fibers and toxic free toys. Gender fluid nurseries and neutral color schemes. Babies sleep face up instead of face down. Bumpers are no longer safe in cribs. There’s something called “sleep training”.
Maybe I will Google “gramma training”.
So I find myself in the kitchen where I feel safe and smug. I know the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Or through his mommy’s stomach.
It’s a start. The rest will come in time.
As I chop the parsley and squeeze the lemons. Smash the garlic with the salt just how she taught me. Mix the Tabouli with my unsterile hands- I haven’t killed anyone yet with my cooking- I feel her standing next to me and I smell her perfume. I am infused with her wisdom and her strength and her confidence in me.
“You got this, Sissie! You’re going to be a wonderful Sittie!”
Feeling the Mom void..
We mount our bikes and get ready for a hardy workout. The room is dim but the stage is elevated and illuminated to spotlight the empty bike from where our instructor, Ian, will be leading our 45 minute session of blood, sweat, tears and redemption. We are warming up, adjusting our seats, and preparing our souls in anticipation.
Enter Ian left stage. He is ripped and torn and fit as a fiddle with a dashing smile and a charismatic personality.
“Who has not been to Soul Cycle before?”
“Who has not been to MY class?”
He makes a mental note of who might need some extra attention in the room. He is like a prophet bringing the good news to the flock who long for health and fitness.
And off we go. The music is pounding. My daughter in law inserts her ear plugs. Ah, those thirty something kids! They can’t handle loud music? Me, on the other hand, after raising three sons with a drum set and other accouterments of a noisy household- including broken windows and baseballs thrown through doors- can find peace at any decibel.
“I know you didn’t come here to just exercise! You came here to push your limits! To see what you can do! To be all that you can!”
Yes, I want what he’s selling! But I glance briefly at my 25 week pregnant daughter in law and say quietly to her not to push yet! She can’t hear me above the din of the rock music and of course the ear plugs.
“Get rid of any negativity. People tell you it can’t be done! You might fail! They fill you with doubt and cloud your dreams! Well, I have three words for you! THREE WORDS!”
I’m thinking “get behind me Satan?” No, that’s four words…
“STAND YOUR GROUND! Don’t let people tell you who you are and what you can do! STAND YOUR GROUND!”
We’re out of the saddles now climbing the imaginary hill of our challenges and struggles. The room is moving in synchronicity. Bodies up and down and up and down on cue. I am pretty sure that if Ian told us to do a flip over our handlebars we would all cooperate. We are mesmerized by his words and his commands.
“What are you holding on to today? Let me hold it for you! Let it go and BE FREE.”
I’m beginning to wonder if there will be a crucifixion at the end of class..
“Look around you. You don’t know what burdens people have in their lives. You have no idea what the person next to you is going through today. Perhaps the biggest challenge of their life!”
I move my sweaty hand and gently touch Breezy’s hand. I’ve been so cavalier about her being pregnant and having a baby. Women do it all the time. But this is her biggest challenge right now! Pregnancy, nutrition, getting enough rest, knowing when to stop working and start nesting, moving into a new place- maybe even being married to my son, Peter! Did I raise him to be a good enough husband and father?
We are heading for the climax of the class. We are sweating and panting and letting it all go and feeling free.
“I want you to leave here with an open heart! A heart ready to love!”
I’m thinking about how fortunate I am to have this wonderful relationship with my daughter in law. There is an intimacy that continues to grow between us. I couldn’t be more delighted with the woman she is and the mother she will soon be. And I love her as if she were my own daughter.
Cooling down now and stretching. The lights go on and I realize we are at a spin class- not a revival.
There have been so many changes in my life this past year. A new home. A grandson to look forward to. My new role as a Sittie. I have considered going back into weekly therapy with my 80 year old guru, Lucia. But now I’m kind of thinking that all I really need is this quality time with my beautiful daughter in law, Breezy, a positive attitude and an open heart from which to love, and perhaps a weekly visit to the Church of Soul Cycle.
Do I hear an AMEN?
And everyone knows that food is love and the bigger the frig the more food and the more love! It would be a huge splurge. It’s what I love to do. Entertain. Make food. Food Is Love.
The stainless steel doesn’t turn me on. But I’ve been told that it’s time to join the real world and stop being a hippy. I’m still not sure this refrigerator fits my lifestyle. I really loved my magnetic door white frig with the 100 pictures plastered on it and magnets broadcasting everything from what wine to drink with dinner all the way to the phone number of my favorite appliance guy, Kenny.
I guess those days are over… sigh.
“So, can I have your address?” says the nice man at Lowe’s.” He’s about the age of my sons and tall and skinny and I’m thinking maybe I’ll invite him over sometime and try to fatten him up.
“Oh.. I don’t have it with me.” I’m embarrassed that I haven’t memorized my new address yet.
“OK. You can just call it in with your credit card and we’ll do the transaction over the phone.” He didn’t seem the least bit suspicious. “Now when would you like this delivered?”
“Um… I don’t know.” Now I’m sounding like a crazy lady.
“I bought a new townhouse (friggin’ 10 months ago) and it’s not done yet.”
“Oh.” he said with a raised eyebrow.
Yes, OH! That’s what I say!
Now, I don’t know my address. I don’t know when I’ll be in my new place. I don’t know how I’ve survived this transition without going a bit nuts. But I do know that I’m going to need that big ass frig so that I can have a lot of food and do a bunch of cooking and have people over and show them how much I love them and make my new house into a home so stop asking me all these silly questions and let’s get on with our business, shall we?
I thought to myself…
It’s been said that if you build it they will come.
Maybe if I buy the frig the townhouse will be done.
One can only hope…
I recently traveled to Pendleton, Oregon via Portland to attend a wedding with my manfriend, Dale. Driving along the Columbia River, I requested to stop at Multnomah Falls, a place that I hiked often with my little family when we lived in Portland almost 18 years ago. I was totally unprepared for the flood of emotions I felt as we stood at the base of the falls.
The next morning in our hotel, after engaging in a ruckus round of early morning texts with my siblings- not an unusual exchange and something my son, Patrick, refers to as a Lebanese alarm clock- my brother, Johnnie, who lives in Pullman, Washington, singled me out in communication.
“Did you drive or fly in?” he inquired.
I responded: “We flew into Portland. Made me sad. Good memories.”
” Yes.. I bet.” He replied.
Me: “Don’t you wish you could have some do-overs in life?”
My brother, Johnnie, left the Catholic church years ago for a more fundamental Christian congregation and I quite expected him to come back with a bible verse that might elevate me out of the mundane into the spiritual realm.
But his response surprised me.
“Yes.” He said simply.
Now I would not bore/shock you with the list of potential do-overs that I have experienced in my life. Some are huge detours I’ve taken off the main road and some are on a smaller scale yet significant nonetheless. A few are so private and personal that I don’t even allow them into my conscious awareness, never mind share them with my closest friend. Most have had far reaching ramifications that were impossible to foresee.
I am going to make a list of those potential do-overs for myself, have a good cry, and then create a ceremonial burning so that I can face the future without regret, remorse and existential angst. If you decide to make your own list, I’d love to hear how that goes for you. Hopefully we can be the salve to heal one another’s disappointments in life, missed opportunities and painful mistakes.
I was quite saddened when I read about Vice President Joe Biden’s 42 year old son, Beau, who just died of a brain tumor. This poor man has been through more trajedy than one could imagine. First losing his wife and infant daughter in a car accident with his two small sons fighting for their lives. Then years later having one of them succumb to cancer after not only surviving but also thriving with an enviable life, a successful career as an attorney and a fulfilling marriage with two beautiful young children.
Fate is twisted.
Ya’aburnee means “you bury me” in Arabic. It means wanting to die before a loved one so as not to have to face the world without him or her in it.
This was the prayer on my mother’s lips when she received the news that my brother, Bobby, at age of 31, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. “Let it be me. Not you.”
She fought for her third son from the very beginning. He was born premature weighing only four pounds. Just big enough to fit in a shoe box. In school he was the class clown and the ring leader among his friends, often getting into trouble with Sr. Dolores, the principal at St.Philip Neri, in our small town of Compton. He would lead kids twice his size around the neighborhood, looking for mischief. He teased me endlessly about being chubby and offered to pay my membership to Vic Tanny’s Salon.
After nine years of Catholic school Bobby begged to be set free to attend the local public high school where most of his friends went. He was a rebel. A contrarian. A master of debate. How he convinced our ultra- Catholic parents to transfer him to public school remains a mystery to us all.
Years later while waiting to be accepted into Law School after earning a degree in Psychology from Loyola Marymount University and a Masters Degree in Political Science at American University, he would bide his time sitting on our couch at home reading through the encyclopedias from volume A through Z. By now I was taller and not so chubby. But he would still find things to tease me about.
Bobby went on to become a successful attorney. He fell in love and married Christine. Together they had a family, Matthew and Katherine. I’m sure my mother stopped worrying about him at that point. (If mothers ever stop worrying..)
Until the evening when she got the news of Bobby’s brain tumor.
“Ya’aburnee,” she gasped in fear.
She got her wish. My brother, Bobby recovered after several years of treatment. He was healthy and back to work as an attorney, just long enough to be the Executor of my mother’s will after she succumbed to ovarian cancer in October of 1986.
And I imagine she was waiting with open arms at the gates of heaven with St. Peter when the cancer took my brother Bobby’s life in July of 1991. For a brief moment, they would embrace and she would comfort him. After which they would move on to join the Communion of Saints, their lives on earth but an ethereal dream.
My father was not so lucky. He buried my mother. And then he buried his third son. Dad died of cancer and a broken heart almost exactly a year after my brother died.
All these painful memories come back to me as I read the article about Joe Biden losing first his wife and infant daughter, and then years later, when it looked like life had self corrected, he lost the son he fought so hard to save.
Ya’aburnee. You bury me.
My new mantra.
My neighbor around the corner used to walk her little boys by my house with their big wheels. We would chat sometimes and she mostly complained about the people who lived behind her who were constantly annoyed by the noise wafting from her back yard when her family and friends were in the pool or just out BBQing. And she always punctuate the conversation with “But I will never move! This is my dream house!”
Imagine my surprise when a couple months ago, her sons now graduated from high school, I spotted a big fat For Sale sign on her property. Now they are gone- to where I have no idea. Since her sons were old enough to travel the neighborhood independently, our only communication was a wave as I drove by her house. She was usually outside meticulously manicuring her yard and garden and/or washing down the entire street in front of her house in her bathrobe.
When doing therapy with children, a very common assessment tool is called “House, Tree, Person”. The child is asked to draw all three on a blank piece of paper and the idea behind this is that they will “project” into the drawing aspects of their inner world. I’ve always loved doing this with my little clients, allowing both of us to relax and get to know each other. (And of course, I love any opportunity to color with my set of 64 Crayola Crayons-Burnt Umber and Brick Red being my favorites..)
In my quest to “let go” in 2015, I threw away all my notes and paraphenalia from graduate school, including my very first House, Tree, Person drawing. But it doesn’t really matter. Every one I’ve ever drawn looks just like this one. I did this the other day sitting at my kitchen table. You might ask if this is my “dream house”. Not really. I think I’m the only woman on earth who has never longed for her “dream house”.
Rather, I have many houses that I dream about.
Shortly after we moved from sunny California to Portland Oregon, my son Patrick, then 9 years old, had a vivid dream about our family home we had sadly left behind. He was outside playing with his brothers and the neighborhood kids with squirt guns. Out of water, he attempted to charge into the kitchen for a refill but found the front door locked. A stranger opened it and promptly announced “you don’t live here any more”.
Pausing here for a brief meltdown.
I grew up on Halo Drive in Compton, California. I had my babies on Tedemory Drive in Whittier. I sent my first son to high school from SE 31st Street in Portland, Oregon. And I launched all three of them into adulthood from my current home on Del Monte Avenue. Each house was a “dream house” to me because the people I loved the most made it just that. And in each house, a part of me was projected on to the walls and floors and empty spaces as my own personality and inner being grew and developed, magically displayed like a crayon drawing on a clean white piece of linen paper.
I’m moving, downsizing, cleaning, sorting and putting up for sale once again a house I will someday dream about. I’m feeling both excited and sad and several other emotions in between. But I am holding the tension of the opposites deep within as I go through this process. It’s time to make a change, to grow in a new direction, to take a chance, to redirect the energy in my life. It will be a bittersweet journey.
I will take this home with me. Every house I’ve ever lived in has taken up permanent residence in my heart and soul, carefully placed on my own personal Street of Dreams.
And I can revisit them any time I like.