Every year when I was a child my Father’s family of origin would gather together on Christmas Day to celebrate. Part of our celebration always included a retelling of Papa’s (my paternal grandfather) coming to America. As a child, my *Fambly’s Story made its mark on me, especially since I never knew any of my grandparents – all I had of them were the stories.
*Fambly – The First Generation’s (photo at end) distinctive name for themselves and their progeny is believed to have originated as a typo in a letter passed around between the siblings (true story). To this day, ‘Fambly’ embodies the closeness, love, and commitment to one another we all share.
The following work of fiction is based on the true story of why my Grandfather emigrated to America.
Saiad looked up from his paper. I could just make out the words “My Family” scrawled across the top of the otherwise blank page. Nice to see his penmanship was improving.
“Why did you decide to come to America, Papa? What was it like riding a boat all the way across the Atlantic Ocean? You had to come through New York, right? Why didn’t we stay in New York? They say that New York City’s gonna have the tallest building in the world! They’re calling it the Empire State Building. Why did they make you change your name, I forget? Papa, please, tell me!”
The barrage of questions left my mind struggling to focus as I met Saiad’s gaze. English would always be a second language to me. My eldest son’s 10-yr. old eyes glittered with expectation in the reflected light of our kitchen while my brain struggled to comprehend the meaning behind his rapid-fire questions.
“The tallest building in the world? Taller even than the Pyramids of Egypt?” I asked with a smile in my voice. After almost 20 years, my thick accent identified me as an immigrant, just in case my Middle-Eastern features and olive skin-tone failed to do so.
“Papa, buildings aren’t the same as pyramids!” his exasperation evident in his sigh.
It slowly began to dawn on me what he was asking. How could I ever tell him the truth? Should I tell him the truth – all of it? I certainly couldn’t risk having him write it down for his teacher to see. What would happen to our little *Fambly if this growing community ever found out what I was … what I’d done?
“I’m going for a walk,” I said as I stepped out into the cool evening. “I’ll be back in a little while and we’ll talk more about the difference between buildings and pyramids.”
“But, Papa—“ Saiad’s protest was cut short by the slamming of the screen door. I really need to fix that, I thought.
The last of the summer fireflies, dim in the twilight, flitted amidst the fig-laden branches in the back yard. Like miniature lanterns the tiny insects etched blinking, broad-leafed shadows onto the ground surrounding my homeland’s favored tree. I could hear the faint voices of children coming from inside the house. The voices grew louder, shriller; yet another argument had broken out between the girls. One calm voice cut through the chaos. I shook my head and smiled, thankful for Evelyn’s seemingly miraculous ability to restore order amongst her high-spirited younger sisters.
Saiad’s questions crowded back into my thoughts and my smile faded. Sighing, I wondered for the hundredth time at the wisdom of my decisions. Were my children ready to hear my story, to know me for what I was? The memories began to flood my mind, vivid and uncontrollable, like a nightmare from which I could never wake.
~ ~ ~
Sultry air matted thick, black hair to my face as I picked my way through the Syrian foothills. It was well past midnight. The little community slept, leaving the narrow streets deserted. A waning moon peeked out from behind threatening rainclouds. The dim light was all I had to help me avoid rocks and pitfalls in the packed dirt. For this reason I traveled at a snail’s pace when everything inside screamed at me to run.
Had I really done it? The scene played over and over in my mind as I tried to understand what had happened. How could my plans have gone so wrong? No one was supposed to die!
I heard them then. Shouts and screams began to bounce across the rocks, echoing between the stone houses nestled in the hills. They followed me down steep pathways like the sure-footed goats who called this region home.
Someone had found the body.
I picked up my pace as best I could on the uneven terrain. I had to get out of there before anyone saw – too late! The light of a lantern cast my silhouette back and forth on the packed ground ahead of me as it swung from the hand of one of my pursuers. Quickly I dodged into a copse of cedars and crouched, catching my breath. Maybe I could blend in with its thick branches.
The shouts came closer now, accompanied by more lantern-light. Angry voices began calling to one another, organizing a search of the dark doorways. I recognized many of those voices from the marketplace. I knew these people, and they knew me. I also knew if I didn’t get out of there soon I would be surrounded. But wasn’t I already surrounded – trapped by years of feuding resulting in blood I hadn’t meant to shed?
It was only supposed to be a beating, I chastised myself. “You let it go too far,” my whispered accusation fell dead on the thick, humid air, heard only by the branches enveloping me. My family had never understood my distaste for vengeance. “How can murder restore a family’s honor?” I had asked again and again. No one ever listened to my objections.”This is the way it has always been” was the only answer my father would give.
Of all people, how had this task fallen to me? Yes, I was tall and strong; as the eldest it made sense for the family to name me Champion. But I wanted the cycle of vengeance to end. Tonight I had proven I was no better than my Fathers. I had guaranteed the cycle would go on unchecked, perhaps for generations to come.
Branches around me began to move. Someone had decided to search the little cedar grove where I hid! A lantern fought its way through heavy limbs. In seconds I would be discovered. What can I do? I asked myself. I knew there was only one thing to do: RUN!
~ ~ ~
Back inside the brick house the cool tiles against my bare feet helped calm my thoughts. I turned to Saiad, resigned at least to make a beginning to my story. After all, my history was the heritage of all my children and their children after them. Surely the meaning of my name – honesty – held weight, even if it wasn’t enough to counterbalance my fear of uncovering old secrets.
“What do you want to know, son?” I asked. Before he could take a breath and renew the onslaught of questions, I added, “But, I’ll thank you to ask one question at a time!” I looked pointedly at Saiad behind a raised index finger. Then, shooting him a half-smile, I took my seat across the table.
At that moment I wasn’t sure I was prepared to relive those difficult years, but I felt as if a weight had been lifted. I knew I had to find a way to help my *Fambly understand why I chose to leave my homeland to make a new life – for me and for them – in America.
*I chose to make “Fambly” part of Papa’s vocabulary because, although he was not alive when the name was born, it was his dedication to and love for his future generations that made the name possible to begin with.