Written on a scrap of paper, 12.apr.09:
late 20th century migrant. fragmentation, post-NWO. move much? restlessness manifested to the nth degree. roots trying to push down, fighting through the concrete grounds of cities. little pieces of my heart scattered throughout the world. verandas in khartoum. alleyways in london. rooftops in toronto. balconies in muscat. fire escapes in montreal. car parks in regina. always in the city, and always left outside for the sun, rain, snow, and dust to beat down.
There’s been many conversations recently about fragmentation. Mainly fragmented families, and how they appear to be the norm. Both my parents come from fragmented families, bloodlines dispersed across continents, sibling relationships maintained online and on the phone. My story, and my parents’, is an immigrant’s story, re-lived and re-told.
One of my sisters lives in the same city as I do. I love having her close by, and I wish my other two siblings were closer. The last time we were all together in the same place was over a year ago. I haven’t seen my youngest sister since last summer. It hurts.
I see my extended family once every few years. My cousins grow up without me, and so do their children. I don’t know who suffers more. Probably me.
When I was a child, because of the family work situation, my father wasn’t around, and my mum was constantly preoccupied with work. Typical 20th century migrant family, doing pretty well so really, what do I have to complain about? I then left home for studies, moved back for a year, and have never used the family home address to receive mail. In fact, I’ve never lived at the first building that could be viewed as the family’s household.
Sadly, all too normal. The kids are grown now, and the future means we’ll just get more scattered – my siblings are each eyeing different continents in which to call home. I still don’t have home, although London had been filling that gap for a while. Toronto’s slowly edging it out, the main criteria for home having changed from where I left my heart (everywhere) to now being length of stay. I’ve lived in my current spot for over two years, the longest address I’ve ever been able to hold down by myself. This is an achievement.
This familial dispersion means that my culture doesn’t come easy to me. Proactive efforts made to learn, to absorb, to hold on to. Superficial cosmetic gestures to perform my cultural identity – incense smoke clouding my apartment, hibiscus juice in my fridge, cardamom to scent my tea, silks in my trunk. Mother tongue barely spoken, I have to teach it to my friends in order to use it more than once a month.
After I was born, my grandmother (a writer) published a piece in a newspaper about the birth of her first grandchild. I tried to get a hold of the article, haven’t been able to – searching for anything that ties me to my bloodline. There’s my family history, not passively absorbed, but actively searched for. I don’t know how to make kisra, I don’t own a mufraka, and I hate that I feel less-than because of things so small. I don’t know the names of all my great-aunts and uncles, I don’t know what the tattoos on their arms signify, and I don’t know all of their (my) traditions.
I now have to construct my own community, with its rituals and traditions. Create a new cultural identity without the past to give it some heft. Years ago, I vowed that I wouldn’t fragment my future family the way my present one has been. I don’t know any other way to be – but I recognise that my parents sacrificed the cohesion of their unit so I wouldn’t have to break up mine. It’s a tough world out there, tough enough with the support togetherness provides. Brutal without it.
Addendum: I had written this post over a few days and was getting ready to post it. Last night, a close friend, E., let me know that her grandmother, a woman who I had known and who was dear to me, had passed away. I met E.’s grandmother around the time my own passed away, 10 years ago. E. and I are pretty tight, and I called her grandmother Grandma. Fragmented as well, my friend lives away from her own family. And last night, she had no one with her to hug her. When she said that to me, it broke my heart. We’re loneliest in times of need, and nothing reminds us of that more than the death of a loved one. I wish I could hug my friend, as much for my sake as hers.