I stand outside in the garden behind my grandmother’s house tracing the lines of the pathway with my feet while she stands by the barbecue, fork in hand, cooking dinner. I can smell the sizzling red meat on the grill being guided by her expert hand from years of practice. I have always attributed the scent of a hearty home cooked meal to the idea of family, the smells of Lebanese cuisine wafting through rooms every Sunday at family gatherings, seeping into each thread and every carefully crafted stitch of your clothing that clung to you for days after. It’s the smell of love and satisfaction.
It is then that she turns to me and speaks in her broken English: “Do you have boyfriend yet, habibi?” I don’t look up when I answer, “Who, me?”
“Yes yes, you must bring him here, one day.” She says, “I would like to see you happy.”
I smirk when I say, “Only for you Tayta. I would only do it for you. And you’ll be the first and only one.”
She doesn’t turn around but I see her set her shoulders as I continue my acrobatic performance on the invisible tightrope.
The idea of food being interweaved into the bonds of family were first sewn by the shaking hands of my grandmother, who came from the wild fields and broken buildings of Lebanon, and was created by familial obligations, sacrifice and religion.
Forty-eight years ago, this same woman stood in an airport in Paris. She was 19, newly wed with a child bundled in her arms and another clinging to the ends of her skirt. The room was busy, full of the ghosts of these foreign people, rushing through the room in a blur. In fear, she clings to the bundle of cloth in her arms, but she doesn’t turn back. She was searching for freedom far away from the Middle East. She was 19, and a hell of a lot stronger than I am.
At the age of 16, she was forced into marrying a man 10 years older than she, who had fallen in love with her the moment they met. He was a butcher and a man living a comfortable life, a man worthy of being a husband, as her father would agree. As a woman of duty and sacrifice, my grandmother left behind her dreams of a brighter future and the prospects of being the first woman in her family to finish high school to attend to the wishes of her father. She told me she would’ve liked to be a teacher. Little did she know, I had learnt the most from her over the years, and like many good teachers, she shaped me as a person.
She spent her life in a kitchen, partnered with her husband, where they bonded over the art of food and hospitality. They moved from a small butcher shop in Lebanon, to owning several independent restaurants in Ottawa, Ontario, where every crucial life event in our family would occur.
My father was raised here, in the freedom of this city, spending his youth ducking under dinner tables and knocking over silverware, playing street hockey in the parking lot outside, and learning his own version of familial obligations by sacrificing his time to shred cheese in the back kitchen. A chubby Lebanese kid raised in the industry, who grew into himself with the support and love from his mother and became a man with my grandfather’s steady determination and passion for his art. It was in the restaurant business, that my father met my mother. Time seemed to mirror the past when he fell in love with the fair haired, blue eyed bombshell working as a waitress at his parents’ restaurant when he was 16. But history is a fickle thing, and seems to be inevitably repeated.
My earliest memories of my grandparents are frayed and blurred, much like a photograph of a woman standing dutifully beside her husband. The counter separates us from them; they have the power and knowledge of years of sacrifice, of scarred hands from long days spent carving meat from the carcasses of wild animals, burnt from hours spent beside a stove and peeled from scrubbing away stains off the same few pieces of clothing they owned. A love created over time was built on the bonds of food and family, of struggling for years to maintain a comfortable living her father had dreamed for her, had believed was possible in the arms of my grandfather. And this faith saved my family.
I see it in the moments when my grandfather loudly calls her name from his spot in the living room, enduring her angry retort when she pops her head out of the kitchen to yell at him, just to see her face. Or when he wakes up early on her birthday, even at the age of 78, to pick her flowers from the garden. When we gather as a family every Sunday evening, comforted by the sounds of mixing bowls and oven doors opening, knives chopping and pans frying. When I finally get home and can still smell the evening on my sleeve.
So when she turns to me in moments that may be as simple as cooking dinner and speaks of happiness, I see a past life passing over her large brown eyes like a film reel, emotions flickering at the burned edges of memories from long ago — eyes that have always stayed constant throughout memories of my own, even when the exterior changed. She endured pain, resignation, passion, sadness, love and she was reshaped by events in her past, the dreams she gave up, by having a family of her own.
So when she asks anything of me, I always concede because I’m not the one that deserves to be happy just yet, but I know that she does.