In the vague storybook of my childhood memory is a place that stands out as clear today as it did when I was 14. That place is Big Mama's kitchen.
A Lebanese immigrant come to Ellis Island just before World War I, Big Mama went on to marry another Lebanese and to move South where she and her husband helped build the bustling berg of Greenville, S.C., starting a grocery-store chain, developing real estate and contributing to the financing of South Carolina's first Catholic churches for African-Americans. She and Papa eventually bought a large piece of land in the center of the city, where they built a house and raised four children, including my grandfather, who gave life to four children, including my mother, who gave birth to me.
It is within this lineage that I found cherished identity as a child.
Clearly there were other family trees to teach me who I was: my father's Southern Methodist family from Mississippi farm country, my mother's mother's side from rural South Carolina, poor millworkers who lived in houses with dirt floors and outhouses.
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But it was my Lebanese heritage that most connected me to me. I couldn't have said at the time why, why I felt so proud to name myself one-quarter Lebanese. I could only recall times spent at my great-grandparents' sprawling brick home with its porches on all sides, exotic with a goldfish pond, pomegranate and fig trees in the back yard, with Big Mama's jars of imported olives in the refrigerator and warm milk fermenting into laban, what we today call yogurt, on the stove in the kitchen.
It was Big Mama's kitchen that was the center of the home, and serious business, holding not one, but two refrigerators and two stoves, the top of which simmered with sour lentil soup with bulgur dumplings, the inside of which held enormous pie breads, what we today call pita, which Big Mama would pull from the oven with big paddle boards.
Here is where large, intergenerational groups often gathered – aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents, around laughter, conversation and bottomless bowls of grape leaves, cabbage rolls and raw kibbeh. I smell cumin or allspice to this day, and I am there, 11 years old, standing in Big Mama's kitchen. When Big Mama asks me to fetch something from the pantry, a room as big as my bathroom with a real door where she keeps her spices, I step into the little room, close my eyes and breath in the smells: Cumin, coriander and turmeric, allspice and cardamon.
There was more than just good food there, now I know. There was in Big Mama's kitchen the unmistakable feeling of family, a definitive culture and the signature determination that carried immigrants across the ocean in search of success. It was the combination of these pieces, I believe now, broadened and upheld by faith and traditions, that resonated with and helped me form my identity.
And then it was gone.
When I was 14, at an age when a girl most needs her identity so she can dismantle it, my parents split in an ugly divorce. Running away from her family in a manner befitting a shame-based Catholic divorcee in the South in the late 1960s, my mother took us from Greenville, moving us twice before we would settle hundreds of miles away, in New Orleans. As the years passed, Mama would make connections here and there with her extended family. But it was sporadic. And so it became for me.
As an adult, I found ways to reconnect, writing down stories on a yellow legal pad during a phone conversation I braved to make to my godfather, Uncle Jamile, a few years before he died at 92. I visited the Catholic churches my family started and the place where Big Mama's house once stood, now razed, now the site of doctors' offices. When I was 25, Big Mama died, and I talked Mama into going to Greenville and joining in the brief glow of intimacy I know a funeral provides.
I also taught myself to make the foods, and in so doing, called to memory Big Mama, her thin, gray hair rolled into a French knot at the back of her head, her heavy, maternal body contained in a dark silk dress. She is sitting at her kitchen table, feet shoulder-width apart and solid on the ground, stockings rolled to just above her black laced shoes, the bottoms of her heavy arms flapping as she uses a large wooden pestle to pound spices into lamb and cracked wheat for kibbeh.
I never lost my pride in being one-quarter Lebanese. Even in this current American culture that has trouble believing all Arabs are not terrorists. Even when close relatives no longer uphold my place in the tribe.
The identity is still mine. But until recently, it seemed only remotely so, as my children never met their Big Mama or their Papa. The stories I would tell them on occasion rang hollow in my ears, a mother trying to return to a past that no longer exists.
But then at the beginning of this month that is the glorious, giving time of Thanksgiving, my eldest child, a public-health graduate who has spent the fall living and working in Somalia, sent me a text. Sequestered in a barb-wired compound for work and sleep, he was continually finding himself with time on his hands at the end of a day – time to begin a Google search for something he knew not what.
"Mom, you'll never guess what I found!" he texted me excitedly that morning.
It was a master's thesis written by a student at Clemson University. The thesis, about the settling of Greenville by Lebanese immigrants, included the stories I'd always been told about my ancestors and the part they played in the establishment of the city. The thesis called my – our – ancestors by name.
I could hardly believe what I was reading, the stories of the familial ancestry I innately knew from my childhood to be proud of, staring back at me as history these many years later. Nor, more importantly, could my son fully grasp this moment as we chatted excitedly back and forth over the next days and weeks. He was eager for me to fill in the gaps with what I know. I was eager to revive stories for the son who was voluntarily now asking for them.
"We need to find a week to go to South Carolina and do ancestry work," he said. "And maybe we should go to Lebanon."
This, then, is the legacy of Big Mama, who bravely, wisely lay new roots for herself, her family, and generations beyond, in that warm, rich kitchen so many years ago.
Now, when my son comes home for Thanksgiving, finally safely home again, the two of us will sit at the table in our own warm kitchen as planned.
There, down the hall from a photograph of Big Mama and Papa taken in front of the house I remember so well, I will put out the necessary ingredients. And I will teach the great-great grandson of Big Mama to make grape leaves.
(Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent, Ohio, has been writing about family life since 1988. Visit her website at www.debralynnhook.com; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or join her column's Facebook discussion group at Debra-Lynn Hook: Bringing Up Mommy.)