On the night of February 22, 1929, a baby who will later become my paternal grandmother is born.
Her parents, Sam and Fatmeh Allie, hold her close. They swaddle her in blankets and attempt to shield her from the West Virginia winter. She is the first of their children born on American soil. Coincidentally, she is born on the birthdate of the nation’s first president. They want to name her after him, but alas, she is a girl. In a moment of inspiration, they settle on naming her after the founding father’s wife.
They shed the naming convention of the village they left on the other side of the world. Normally, they would give this daughter a personal name, then her father’s name, and then the family’s name. But instead, they give her a middle name that reflects their new country.
The last name is tricky. Back in Lebanon, Sam was from the Smidi family. But here in America, he decides to change his last name to something that sounds less foreign. Or is at least easier to pronounce among his adopted compatriots.
Martha Washington Allie.
Her siblings were born in the home that has been with the family for generations, high in the mountains of northeast Lebanon, along the border of what we now call Syria.
* * *
Life transplants the Allies from Beckley to Detroit. Maybe it’s the burgeoning auto industry, and the hope that it will help them provide for their children in the midst of the Depression. Sam Allie does what he can, with his limited education and professional credentials. He ends up peddling goods door-to-door, selling curios to his new neighbors. Some days, he gets on a truck with other immigrants and they are taken to perform manual labor. He makes enough money to one day purchase a beautiful watch. Before he dies, he passes it on to his grandson, the man who would later become my father.
Meanwhile, Fatmeh Allie tends to the home and childrearing. She is economical with every meal that she cooks. Nothing is wasted. Her kids learn to eat kidneys and other innards with great enthusiasm. Her love is expressed in quiet actions rather than grand gestures. She never has a bad word to say about anybody. When Martha later has my father, and she is not well enough to care for him, Fatmeh takes up the responsibility. She teaches my father how to make bread at home. Together they roll the dough for spinach and meat pies.
* * *
When I am born, my parents teach me to call her sito. Martha holds me, calling me sito, until I catch on and repeat it to her, and this is how I learn to call her sito.
We also call my mother’s mother sito. It becomes clear to my parents that they should develop a mechanism to help us distinguish them. So, my father adds the name of the place where Martha has spent most of her life to her grandmotherly title: Sito Detroit.
In turn, I call my maternal grandmother Sito Caracas. Neither of these names reflect where my grandmothers were born or where their families first came from. But it encompasses them in a way that feels whole to me. In my child’s imagination, I cannot picture them anywhere else. It is impossible to conjure up images of them in unfamiliar territories, at times when their skin was taut across their foreheads.
* * *
Martha grows into a woman with her mother’s profound love but with sharp edges that are all her own. She gets married, and although it doesn’t last long, she keeps his last name. It is the name her son was given, and that he in turn has passed on to his children.
Martha Washington Haidar.