For an American, being on one’s own at 18 is no biggie, so how could a 20-year-old feel anything but elated at the chance to be independent of family ties.
You have to understand that in the Middle East, it is not common to leave home until one has a job that necessitates a move, or is getting married. Living with family is a given, a welcome stable life pattern.
Since my parents were very strict, I was not going anywhere at 20. I had already had a proposal of marriage from the son of one of my parents’ friends, an eligible family, but I wasn’t interested. I was in my third year in college, and expected that I would get married once I graduated, and probably settle down in the city.
Growing up in an upper middle class family, I was sheltered from the types of responsibilities independence required. So to be thrown into a city hundreds of miles from my family or anyone I knew at the heels of leaving Lebanon, was not easy.
I rented a room in a house 2 blocks away from campus. The owner was a seedy looking older man, and he kept one room locked where his furniture was stored. A girl about my age who worked in an office, had the room opposite mine, but we hardly talked in the beginning. I used to cook a small pot of stew and another of rice for the week, and heat food when I came home after classes. I didn’t watch TV often, but locked myself in my room and did homework or read. Many nights I wished I was back home.
My Welsh professor, who I had a crush on when I took his classes in Lebanon, was now divorced and in his very early 40’s. We sort of dated for a while. I had never really dated anyone except superficially back home, and on the sly. So this was a new experience for me. I was so grateful that he was there to do stuff with, otherwise I would have been miserable the first semester.
I made friends with my housemate, and met some of her friends. Then another girl moved in and we all did stuff together. The second semester I had a fallout with my professor, on a personal level. I moved into dorms, which suited me better. Dad sent me money for a car, and I negotiated my first purchase ever! I bought a Datsun B210 and felt so proud to have gotten $100 off!
Of course there was the novelty of being surrounded by Southern Belles and getting used to the gossip, the high pitched screams and lazy drawls, and the husband-hunting that went on. I befriended foreign exchange students and couple people from my Black American History class.
In my senior year I had gotten into a groove. I dated a guy with Swedish heritage, and hit it off with his family. I got a part-time job at a local TV station doing the early morning news, and the afternoon 5 minute news updates.
In my last semester I met my future husband in a Logic class, a southern man. He was going to Galveston to the Maritime Academy the following year (he was 2 years younger). I wound up following him to Houston, where I got a job as a receptionist.
By then Mom and Dad had returned to Lebanon, but things were still unsettled.
My family wondered why i wasn’t coming back to either California where a brother and 2 sisters lived, or to D.C. where my other brother and sister lived. My life mentor and guide told me to pursue the relationship with my bf, and to enroll in Graduate school.
I did. I studied Business Management at University of Houston, and graduated just as my bf started shipping out as a Marine Engineer. We had been secretly living together for 2 years.
Mom wrote letters reminding me to beware or becoming complaisant with lifestyle that surrounded me, and to remember my morals and foundation of faith. She was worried and wanted me to come back to Lebanon to get married.
In 1980, after I graduated, I told my siblings about my bf. He came out to California with me where I was to spend a month in the summer, and returned to Houston a week later. Mom never knew. He stayed with my sister and brother-in-law, and they both liked him.
We got married 2 years later. Dad returned to California where he built a small cottage in my eldest sister’s back yard. Mom was too attached to her relatives and to her charity work, so she stayed in Lebanon. This was Dad’s first time living alone and he loved it!
When Dad met my bf, they got along great, but Dad didn’t want to tell Mom! She was a strong-willed, opinionated woman, and none of us crossed her lightly.
My bf would not be acceptable because he was #1 not of our religion, #2 an American. She refused to come to my wedding because i told her I was going to marry him with or without her blessing. A bold, but hurtful thing to have done.
We didn’t talk for a year.
In 1987 Dad had a stroke while Mom was away, which affected the vision in his left eye, and caused him to need a walker. She came back to California a month after this incident. She met and grew to like my husband and his Southern manners very much. John Wayne was her hero, and she thought of my husband as a Texan (he wore cowboy boots and had a drawl), so that made everything alright!
My daughter was born a year later, and Mom, already surrounded by 11 grandchildren, with 6 more in DC and Beirut, welcomed the new addition with open arms. She sewed a gorgeous bassinet cover for her, made clothes, dolls and knitted sweaters and booties. We bought our first house and enrolled my little girl in a private school where my sister worked.
Dad passed on after a brief course of prostate cancer, and Mom went back to Lebanon. My daughter was almost four.
I now had a full-time job and a family, and found that while my heart and faith were still very Eastern, my intellect and attitudes were more attuned to the West.
And so I began a second life, on a new continent, with older siblings and many nephews and nieces I barely knew growing up, but was happy to welcome into my life.