By Judith Goff
My mother was a first-generation Syrian, and, to most people here in America, that made her (and me) seem pretty exotic. But nothing about my Syrian mother and her big, noisy, messy family ever seemed exotic to me. Not the Arabic that she spoke with her nine siblings and the many other Syrians who lived in our neighborhood, using it as a kind of secret code among themselves, undecipherable and untaught to me. Not the Syrian food she made nor the way she taught me to eat it, tearing a piece of pita bread and using it to scoop whatever was on the plate instead of using a knife and fork. Not the Syrian music, with its drums and ouds and wailing voices that pounded out at holidays and celebrations. Not the crowd of Syrian poker players who rotated houses from week to week, and when they came to ours, filled the rooms with the smells of burning and burnt out cigarettes and cigars, stale liquor, and heavy cologne, and noise, oh, the noise, the guttural Arabic sounds, the laughter, the shouting, the players calling each other by their nicknames—Scorchy, Fuzzy, Bullets, Mike Mike. Not the dark little Syrian Orthodox church she made us attend sometimes, built by her father, who founded the parish, with its Byzantine-style icons, permeated with the scent of incense burned at hundreds of masses and of varnish, of wet wool on wintry days or sweaty bodies on summery days, and, oddly, of lemon peel. Not the bargaining and posturing over every little thing and every big thing, as if our entire lives were a series of transactions in a Middle Eastern bazaar. No, all of that was absolutely routine, humdrum, part of my everyday surroundings.
What was exotic to me was my father. He was as WASP-y as they come, from northern European roots—blue-eyed, fair-skinned, tall and lanky, a lapsed Episcopalian, a New Yorker reader since its inception in 1925, a word lover. His voice was low and gentle, the ideal wrapping for his richly worded, many-claused, delicately balanced sentences. Contract bridge was his card game, where deep, thoughtful silences are punctuated only by short rounds of quiet bidding and the soft snap of cards. Tennis and table tennis were his sports—gentlemanly games in those days, when the crowd stayed hushed during a point and clapped politely not for misses but for winning shots. His own father, who died shortly before I was born, was an amateur photographer and took hundreds of loving pictures of his only child, most of which we inherited. I loved looking at them, glimpses into another world. In one of my favorites, Dad is in his 20s— it’s probably 1932 or so—and he’s in the parlor at his parents’ house. He’s wearing a tweedy three-piece suit, sitting in a big, comfortable, wingback chair; a floor lamp on his left casts a glow on his young, downturned face, a large fern in a brass planter sits on the floor to his right, and heavy velvet curtains hang behind him. He’s reading a big volume resting on his lap, and a wisp of smoke curls up from the meerschaum pipe he holds in one hand.
Service in World War II, marriage, two children, and, certainly, other things, which have always been beyond me, hurled him out of that world and somehow landed him in the middle of the Syrian hubbub that was our house, where his tweedy three-piece suits were replaced by work pants, tee shirts, and thermal jackets, and the velvet curtains gave way to Venetian blinds. Still, no matter how he was dressed or what his surroundings, he always had about him the aura of that world that I found so exotic, a world of good manners, of conversation carried on in measured voices, of knowing the rules—from tableware etiquette to dealing with others squarely and honestly—and playing by them. And in the swirling cacophony of everyday life—people talking over other people, throwing around wild exaggerations, often in a language I hardly understood—his quiet voice would find just the right words, when the world seemed bleakest, to lighten my heart.
Judith Goff is a retired speechwriter and editor. She is currently working on trying to figure out memoir writing. She was born, raised, and educated in central New York State and has lived in California since 1990.
Copyright Judith Goff. All rights reserved.
(Want to read about another parent? Try Colleen McKee’s Mother.)