Last summer, my Jidda (grandmother in Arabic) came on one of her annual visits from Syria. She is an American citizen but her children are still in Syria, so she returns to tend to her olive grove and to see her young grandchildren there. During the summer she stays with us for several months in New York, then visits my aunt in California.
Before Jidda comes, my mother tasks my brother and me with the ultimate cleaning operation. Every corner of the house must be wiped and polished, every pillow fluffed, every blanket washed. The pantries are stocked with Mediterranean groceries, and Arabic channels are purchased hastily and downloaded to our TV. The week-of, we all anticipate her arrival. We daydream about her suitcases which never disappoint; carrying knitted scarves and gloves from my cousins, candy, decadent Syrian pastries, and if we’re lucky, some of the year’s olive harvest; packed in delicious, lemony olive oil. When she walks in, the strong, athletic gait of a much younger woman, she grabs you tight and her clothes smell like her heavenly, earthy chamomile soap. Her Abaya (dress) is the same one she always wears, but it is neat and never frayed. She squeezes my shoulders and proclaims that I’ve gotten too skinny, and barks at my mom to sit down so she’s not overworked. She marvels at my brother’s height and calls him a young version of my uncle Khalid, (which is one of the highest compliments she can bestow). As she unpacked her suitcases, I would fantasize about the home-cooked Syrian meals to come. There are many reasons I look forward to my Jidda coming to visit, but undoubtedly, my favorite is this; whenever she comes, she brings a piece of our homeland with her.
She sits by the fireplace and tells us the stories of the year passed; from the characters she meets on her flight, to the now-lengthy, burdensome voyage across the hundreds of military checkpoints in Syria. She grumbles about the grave political situation and the lack of help she has from her sons in the harvest, and then gushes about her grandchildren. She tells ghost and Jinn stories, and ones of her adventures as a young girl in a small but bustling agricultural town. She speaks in her sharp, unadorned village dialect, but her eyes light up as she weaves spectacular tales, her melodious voice carrying us the whole way through. We laugh until our eyes fill with tears, and she sits there laughing right alongside us. Without her there, we rarely make time to sit together, let alone for an entire evening.
When Jidda is here, there is never a speck of dust in the house, nor a weed in the yard. My brother and I would begrudgingly adhere to this oppression in the form of hours of housework instead of going out with friends and being young. This past summer, with my mom and brother working full time, I became Jidda’s sole company most of the time, and she mine. Everyday we would sit and drink tea in the morning, and Skype call my family in Syria, which, I shamefully admit, I would never do before. I taught Jidda how to use an iPhone, which was endearing and hilarious at times as she fumbled with the voice mode and discovered emojis. She opened up her heart to me, and shared her deepest regrets. She told me that in her mind she is still that strong-willed girl who would run around barefoot and climb over walls while her mother yelled at her to come down. Only when her back injury flares up does she realize she has aged, a disclosure that I’m sure was very difficult for her. I would listen to her, often letting tears fall down my face silently. The thing I love about Jidda is she always continued with her stories, never asking why I was crying. We gave each other the space to feel what we felt, and in that we discovered a sense of peace and companionship.
My biggest triumph and test during her stay was when I decided to take on our jungle of a yard and make a garden. Being her caretaker and friend (while rewarding in so many ways) had also made me feel isolated, alone, and unproductive, as my days fell into a routine revolving around Jidda and her needs. I wanted to create something that I could reap a physical benefit from. I slaved for hours every day, for weeks, digging up earth, fighting through blisters and thorns and summer’s heat. My shoulders became coated with a layer of lean muscle. Jidda taught me how to plant trees, and how to seal the earth with my feet and water it so it gave life to the seeds within. In a few months’ time, we were harvesting tomatoes, zucchinis, cucumbers, squash, peppers, herbs, and even fruit. She would bring me tea to drink, and we would sit quietly, proudly taking in our accomplishment.
After a while, I began to realize that as I get older, my Jidda is getting older too, just as my mother will someday (God-willing). I see now how much this woman sacrificed for her family and her children, despite an arranged marriage at thirteen, and a life filled with adversity. I am by no means saying my grandmother is perfect. She is stubborn and demanding, and a perfectionist to boot. She has a hot-blooded temper like the rest of my family, while my anger is the type that burrows in my chest like a block of ice and makes me want to hide from everyone. In many ways we are opposite people, who have lived opposite lives. We are connected through my mother, our language, and a nostalgic homeland I have only known through stories and summer vacations as a child. Yet everything about my grandmother’s presence here is home to me, and her narratives speak to me on a more profound level than I can explain or understand.
A few days after Jidda left to Syria, our neighbor came to the door, asking for her. He had a bag full of fruit from his own garden that he wanted to give to her. When I told him she had left, he looked disappointed and asked me to convey his well wishes to her. My grandmother, who doesn’t speak more than a handful of English words, had touched this man’s soul. Every day, when she went on her daily walk at dusk she would wave to him with her warm smile and say “hello.” He said he would miss her. I tearfully agreed.
I think about Jidda now more than ever. I worry about her and my family’s safety, and what the current political situation here will mean for them. The only difference between my life and the rest of my family’s is that I was born here, something that was not in my control but has shaped the course of my life in a completely different way. To some, this story might not be an American one, and it hurts me to think that if they saw my Jidda walking down the street in her Abaya and Hijab, they would see her as a threat somehow. However, I take comfort in knowing there are people like my neighbors, friends, and community members who like me have been touched by the grace and of this beautiful woman.