Remembrances/ memoir by Penny Freel

These stories are neither Mother Goose nor Brothers Grimm. They are three of the many stories my mother told about our family, passed down from one generation to the next. They come to me in bits and pieces, not when I am deliberately trying to remember them and write them down word for word, but when I’m clearing leaves, or looking up to see the stars, or tending to my garden. I have passed them on to my family, but just maybe they will find a home with you. 

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The Wall

You know our family is from the El Chouf mountains. Your situ (grandmother) would tell me about her favorite fig tree near her house, the lemon trees that grew along the village’s roadside, and the vegetable garden that her mother kept at the back of the house.  Our entire family, your father’s relatives and mine, came from that village, and it was settled many, many, many years ago by three brothers.  The village was on a hillside where twisty roads led to the small center plaza where the Maronite church stood. It was a sleepy village at times. The men would go off to work, the women would tend to their homes and gardens, and the children would go to school. But there was also hustle and bustle. Vendors came to ply their goods, tinkers and gypsies, tailors and other tradesmen from Beirut and beyond would stop, and the village marketplace would draw the housewives.

To enter the town, you needed to pass by the wall and walk along with those who herded their cows or sheep or goats up or down the hill. Sometimes a man would be sitting on the wall, welcoming those who entered or left for daily business. Sometimes a group of young people would be sitting on the grass far enough away from Ibrahim, my maternal great grandmother’s older cousin, but close enough so they could listen to him. He was from a wealthy family and had been well educated, sent to private school in Beirut and later to the university to study law. He had traveled to America and Europe and lived in France for a while but came back to settle down. He was so handsome when he was young, charming and well-mannered, but he became very ill with leprosy. His family no longer accepted him, his friends left him, even the beautiful young woman who had loved him no longer wanted to be near him. He would walk from town to town in tattered clothes and position himself on a wall, or he would sit under a cedar tree to rest. The young people grew accustomed to how he looked. His knowledge became famous. He could talk about the stars and planets, he knew mathematics, and he could speak many languages, Lebanese, French, English, Aramaic, Greek and Latin. He would answer questions on religion and history, and he would tell wonderful stories about the ancient Phoenicians. Ibrahim would not ask for alms, but alms were given, A few coins, food wrapped in leaves to keep warm and bread from the ovens of the village. After many years, Ibrahim no longer stopped to rest or speak or to teach. Some say he fell asleep under the fir trees and never woke up. What a sad life he led. Make sure you say your prayers.

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The Lost Children

When my Khalti (your great aunt) was first married, she settled down in the village and began to raise her family. How lucky she was that she had two beautiful children! The villagers loved your great aunt. She was soft spoken and kind, just like she is today. She was devoted to her family.  One day, Khalti wanted to visit one of her dear cousins who had moved away with her husband to a different town. So, she set off with her children. It was a long, long walk and she traveled slowly so as to not tire her little boy and girl. But it was growing dark and the children became so tired and sleepy that Khalti decided they would rest under the fir trees near a mountain stream. She built a small fire, gave the children their picnic supper, and then they nestled together while your aunt sat with her back against a tall pine and kept guard.  She, too, was sleepy from the long walk and closed her eyes for a minute or two, but she fell into a deep sleep. When she awoke the fire had burned out, the sun was rising, and the children had disappeared. She called out to them to come and eat breakfast, but there was only the sound of the stream and the call of the birds. She searched and searched, but they were gone. She ran the many miles back to her village. Her husband, her relatives, and many townspeople ran back to the forest to look for the children. They searched for many days. But the children were not found. For many years after, Khalti would go back to those woods to search for signs. It was rumored back then that the gypsies had stolen them, for the villagers had spotted wheel tracks and the remains of a fire further in the woods. Some time after this, she and her husband came to America and worked to save up money to hire detectives. She had another child, my cousin A., who was born here in America. Every so often, Khalti and her daughter would receive news that the lost children, now adults, were living in Europe, or America, or South America. She even received letters from those who claimed to be her son or daughter, but, of course, money was always involved. No proof was found, only false promises. She was never able to hold her children again. 

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The Star

King Herod of Jerusalem heard that three wise men from the East were in search of an infant child, and upon meeting with them, Herod asked them to find the baby and report back to him. So, the Magi, Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar followed a star brighter than all others which led them to the manger where Jesus was born. The Wise Men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They knew in their hearts that they had found the baby who had been prophesized in the Old Testament. On leaving, they did not return to Jerusalem to report the news to King Herod but took a different way back to their homelands. Our family name is the same for the Arabic word for star, “najima,” and we are direct descendants of one of the Magi. How wonderful is that?

Penny Freel lives in Florida and the Hudson Valley. She is a writer, gardener and frequent contributor to Lightwood.

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