Like a seed held between thumb and forefinger, passed palm to palm and planted in soil, stories flourish and nourish, grow from the palms of our hands.
I follow lines of palms on the family tree in order to find my roots.
My hands are the hands of my mother, of her mother, and hers. I’ve wanted to know first-hand the texture of the soil in Lebanon, my mother’s mother’s Lebanon, Tita’s Lebanon, where she lived in the mountains, in a village named Aitou, until the day she joined her hand to another, in marriage arranged at age sixteen. That day, she left the only soil she’d ever known and came to America, and when she spoke, her hands faltered in the soil of new language, as syllables crumbled like clay on her tongue.
In Aitou soil, Tita grew apricot trees. In Illinois soil, Tita grew apple trees.
Tita’s fruit trees and recipes became my mother’s stories and then mine. In Tita’s kitchen, my mother’s kitchen, my own kitchen, I taste the smells of spices simmering, and the soil of Lebanon reaches my tongue as Tita held her language in the articulation of her hands. I watched her hands mix spiced rice and raw meat and roll her stories into grape leaves. I watched her stirring homemade yogurt, laban, at the stove, knowing when she dipped her pinky in the milky foam and could count to ten, it was time to mix the old culture with the new to begin the next generation. I watched her gather mint and parsley from her backyard garden, mash garlic with mortar and pestle, emerge with a bouquet of greens blooming between thumb and forefingers, dripping in lemon and oil, her fingers to my mouth, an offering of communion. My tongue recognizes home.
When Tita had to leave Lebanon at age sixteen, she didn’t know she’d never see her mother again. But Tita’s mother died before Tita was ever able to return to Lebanon. ‘Goodbye’ was a whisper that rolled off her tongue like a tear, falling into the ocean between two soils, between fingertips.
My mom told me Tita lamented how she missed Lebanon. Missed her mother. Missed her apricot tree.
My mom often confided to me her greatest desire was to complete Tita’s journey home to her motherland, to go to Tita’s house in Lebanon with me and my daughter. It was a statement of desire that embodied five generations: my mother at the generational center, surrounded by her mother and grandmother, daughter and granddaughter.
After years of talking about visiting Lebanon, my mother and I finally said to each other, Yes, It is time; we will go to Lebanon.
Two days later, Israel bombed the Beirut airport.
The following year, my mom said, “Let’s do it.”
Then she called me. A woman we’re related to from the Lebanese mountains was warning everyone not to come that summer, because two Saints and the Virgin Mary visited her in a dream and said it’s going to get really bad in four months.
Four months later, fighting broke out in Northern Lebanon lasting the entire summer and was reported as the worst internal strife since the Lebanese civil war.
Two years after that, we finally made the trip to Lebanon.
My first sight of Lebanon was from the air, a magical panorama manifesting through my airplane window, marking a mythical moment of arrival. Peering into the black night I saw the Mediterranean coastline, a dark velvet cloak draping the shimmering shoulders of Beirut glimmering like constellated stars glowing fractal patterns of ancient endurance. My heart was swirling with swollen resonance, years of cell memories stored deep, rising from the matrix and the marrow of my bones, craving to taste homeplace, to touch the carved stones of Tita’s Aitou, to entwine my roots in the roots of Cedars, trace the terraces, traverse the terrains, embrace the ruins, converse with my cousins, my family, my ancestry, journey across generations to hold Lebanon in my hands and to feel Lebanon holding me. We landed on Lebanese soil and my tears flowed into the Valley of Saints.
Our very first day in Lebanon we found Tita’s house. Old stone with faded turquoise doors and shutters weathered by time.
I touched the stone wall and tucked away a fragment of the foundation to bring home with me.
I saw Tita’s Apricot Tree. The tree from the stories. It grew as though the roots of the tree and the foundation of Tita’s home were one.
At the base of Tita’s apricot tree I placed the herb bouquet I had made from my garden the morning we left.
I had bound the bouquet in grapevine from my grapevine, which was from my mother’s grapevine, which was from her mother’s, which came from Lebanon, from this very same homesite to which I now return to place the grapevine-bundled bouquet at the base of the Apricot Tree.
I picked two apricots from Tita’s tree and handed them to my mom. She held each one between her thumb and forefinger and stood by the turquoise door.
She ate the fruit and handed me the seeds. I wrapped them in tissue and tucked them into my purse.
Sitting atop the mountain of Aitou, I felt home. Connected to the stone, to the terraces and terrains. This embodiment of place, this shift in location, was knowledge producing.
Here, sitting outside the ancient convent built on Canaanite ruins, I began to understand differently displacement and war. I gazed past the terraces, across the valleys and up to the Cedars of Lebanon hovering in the distant mist and grimly realized how severely I’d underestimated Tita’s grief.
My Tita was taken from her homeplace to the Midwestern United States. No mountains, no sea, no biblical forest, no terraces, no familiar language, no family. Just the saying goodbye to Aitou, to her motherland and to her mother, and moving away forever.
What could she do but to begin again, with the seeds of the earth. Tita dug from within and into the terrain to plant her fruit trees and (re)create homeplace.
The apricot seeds my mother handed me from the fruit she ate of Tita’s apricot tree came with me from Aitou, Lebanon, across the Atlantic to my home in Marion, Illinois.
Nine months later, when the seeds were so dry I could hear the inner kernel rattling, I put them in pots of soil and saturated them with water. Then I waited.
Finally, in one of the pots, I saw the cotyledon, the first leaves emerging. Then a tiny, tiny tree, delicate and fierce.
Here was a tree from my mother’s mother’s tree in Lebanon, sprouted from the seed of vulnerable resistance, trusting enough to emerge strong and tender and to live, just like my Tita, all the way from another time and place.
On Fall Equinox 2012, my mother, daughter, father, partner, and me—five of us— gathered to plant the tree at my home in Southern Illinois, in the Mandala Garden of the five-pointed star, which represents the five generations of the motherline: my great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, myself, and my daughter. The apricot tree represents the motherline itself, the survival of the motherline and the way our mothers’ mothers’ stories live on.
The three-foot tall apricot tree was in a large turquoise pot, the same turquoise as the door of my Tita’s house, and I needed to break the pot so as not to disturb the roots. It broke into exactly five fragments, five fractals of five generations.
Together, we dug the hole in the heart of the star garden and buried the traveling roots, so that this family tree, the daughter of the mother tree of Lebanon, could burrow into the five points and interconnect the generations in branching arms.