When I think of my mother, the word ‘energy’ comes to mind. She may be the most energetic person I know. Her excitement for life is palpable. You will feel it after spending just a few minutes with her. She is always looking to explore new places, meet new people, taste new flavors, and sway along to a new dance. My mother has a propensity for the spontaneous that I strive to find a little more of in my life.
Surely she enjoys her routines, too. She takes a cup of café con leche in the morning, and chamomile tea in the evening. Each day, she carefully applies her makeup and dresses impeccably. At night she wipes off the colorful powders on her face with an oiled swab of cotton, and replaces them with a nourishing dab of lotion.
I have always grown up with my head in the books, more interested in the contents of a novel than anything else. It took me a while to notice so much of the wisdom in my mother’s rituals, and how she left the space between them unstructured. She lets her daily habits serve as anchors to keep her afloat while she charts new territories. She simultaneously makes room for finding comfort and expanding her comfort zone.
She must have been brave since she was very young, my mother. She left Venezuela in her early twenties to learn English in America. She was working for the tourism department in Caracas at the time, and planned on coming back to her job after she picked up enough English to use it at work. She came to the one state where she had relatives: Michigan.
The Lebanese diaspora is an eternally complicated community. It contains many more narratives than that of my own family. But I can definitively tell you that the Lebanese have been emigrating for over a hundred years, and to cities all over the world. Many of them ended up in Caracas; many more of them ended up in Dearborn. This is where my dad’s family ended up, and this is mother met him, while studying English and staying with relatives.
My mother never let go of her heritage, nor has she relinquished her adventurous spirit. She brought these with her when she recently visited me in Amman.
She arrived to Queen Alia International Airport late on a Wednesday night. The next day we were taking a taxi to the other side of Amman. We were shopping for specialty groceries at the huge Carrefour at City Mall. We needed things like fresh avocados, a rotisserie chicken, and plantains. We found the former two but not the latter.
Why would we need to shop for such groceries within 24 hours of my mother’s arrival? Well, my mom had committed to the idea of cooking a huge Venezuelan feast for my friends. She came to Jordan with a suitcase brimming with pouches of harina pan, corn flour. We would use these to make arepas, one of Venezuela’s most beloved dishes.
Cooking dinner for twenty people is no small feat, so we enlisted the help of many of our guests. Firstly, my current apartment is much too small to host that many people. So, my lovely roommates from my past apartment offered their expansive home as a venue.
Some of my friends came over as soon as the workday ended. After I quickly introduced them to my mother, we put them to work. They picked cilantro and parsley leaves, peeled and mashed garlic and avocados. We chopped fresh vegetables for a salad, and mixed rice with saffron for arroz con pollo.
My mother directed us each step of the way, using the big voice she somehow contains in her small body. She enthusiastically offered instructions while wiping her brow against the apron my roommates had conjured up for her. Though my mother is all glamour, she is very serious in the kitchen. I know she means business when she sweeps her flawlessly styled hair away from her face. She always uses one of those huge plastic clips that are so characteristic of women in Latin America.
I led a group in rolling balls of dough for the arepas. My roommate went to work on the sangria, dicing fresh fruits to mix with 7-Up and bottles of red wine. One of my friends brought a bottle of homemade araq, grape liquor, from his family’s orchard in the Biqa’ valley of Lebanon. Another friend brought falafel, just in case we needed more food, and because we’re in Jordan, so why not?
The hours spent cooking flew by. Good company, laughter, and convivial conversation helped to mellow the frantic energy of preparing a huge feast. In no time, we had our dinner table set. My mother gathered everyone around the table so we could commemorate the moment with a photograph (or, more accurately, several photographs, many of which were selfies).
And finally, we dug in. People passed around the tray of steaming hot corn patties, scooped piles of avocado and chicken salad for each other. Glasses were poured and plates were filled. Words of welcome were exchanged and joy permeated the room.
We may not have had every ingredient we needed to make the dinner in true Venezuelan fashion. But never have arepas tasted so delicious as they did that evening, with my mother here in Amman.