“Whoever wants to increase his rizq and to live a long life should honor ties with his blood relatives.” (Bukhari)
Before I became a Muslim, I never really thought much about my family history. Those within our tightly knit Harford County crowd were enough. When members of the Muslim community asked about my identity and roots, I forged a guess.“Irish?”
It baffled them that I didn’t know. Especially amongst the Arabs, who prized lineage. My identity was as fluid and diverse as those around me. Pakistanis would ask me if I was Kashmiri. To Turkish colleagues I looked Arab, to the Gulf Arabs I looked Egyptian and the wheel of identity kept spinning. The truth is I didn’t know. I barely spoke to most of my family members, particularly on my mother’s side.
My relationship with my grandmother is not defined by what I know about her. I don’t know her favorite color. I wouldn’t have a clue how to make her a cup of coffee. Does she like cream? Sugar? Pumpkin spice? Can she drive a stick shift? Is she an early bird or a night owl?
Armed with geography, teenage selfishness, and a unwavering loyalty to my mother, I let our relationship wither years before. When I was younger, she made attempts to come to Maryland for celebrations: my Church confirmation, my high school graduation, my cousin’s wedding. I let the fact that she stayed with an abusive man define her. In my mind, she wasn’t my grandmother. She was the woman who stayed. And as a result of her actions, people got hurt.
When I left the United States for Saudi Arabia, I did everything I could to ensure my mother didn’t feel abandoned. Regular calls and updates, frequent visits back home, one foot on either side of the Atlantic. We never spoke about it, but I knew what I had become. A woman who left.
I lived in the shadows of the women that came before me — those who had made mistakes with men, women who selfishly escaped, those that fled responsibility. I wasn’t like them. Until I was.
Seven years into a toxic relationship, I clawed my way out. Growing up surrounded by the unwanted bits and leftovers of the past, and the aftermath of going, it turned me inside out to leave. But it would have also killed me to stay. It was then I realized, sometimes leaving is the best thing you can do. And that the choice is impossible. You choose the best you can.
After that, I set my sights on reconciliation. I started with those closest to me. In the years that followed, I reached out in my own way to loved ones, stopping short at my grandmother. What would I say? Who was she? If she wanted to talk to me, wouldn’t she have reached out by now? Was it all my fault for not trying harder?
I put it out of my mind until my family met my husband M for the first time. We flew to Maryland for Christmas last year, and within the span of a few seconds, I introduced him to my entire family. Although I was happy we were together for the holidays, I felt inexplicably sad. Visiting his family in Egypt had taken weeks, and we had only worked our way through the “close relatives,” not including his family in Canada.
M wanted to take a DNA test to get more information about his mother’s side of the family. In a late night Walmart trip, we picked up a couple kits from 23andMe. We registered and sent them off, not thinking too much about it.
When the whirlwind of the holidays ended, we moved to China and with my little brother’s wedding coming up, we had a lot on our minds. It took a week for the kits to arrive in California and another six weeks to process. The results presented an interesting mix of European ancestry, with a few surprises.
I spent the next few months researching and preparing for my upcoming visit to attend the wedding. There were so many questions! Maybe my grandmother would be willing to take the test to get further answers?
That was all put aside when I realized my grandmother didn’t even recognize me, or my mother, and that any hope of reconciliation was gone, right along with any memory of me. At ninety-three, those little bits of the self-unknown have disappeared.
She remembers my grandfather, her husband, or “ Bill, that bastard,” and my aunt Jackie, with whom she lives. Many of us have fallen within the cracks of never, wisps of memory blown away in the wind. I don’t know whether or not she missed me. or why she left for Florida when I was four.
It is also beyond me why she stayed with my grandfather until his death, or whether she regretted anything. Her favorite childhood memories, pet peeves, favorite television shows, and foods are privileged data, as unreachable as government archives inside this new mind of hers. After the wedding, I was sitting in my parent’s living room, in the house I grew up in, reminding my grandmother that she was safe in a place she was supposed to be. She apologized for being so confused.
“I don’t know why I left. I’ve been trying to make my way back for a while, but I just couldn’t seem to. There are people I love….they’ve got to be looking for me, don’t you think?”
I’d like to think that wasn’t confusion, but grace. A way for her to tell me she was sorry. That I was someone she loved. That she had been looking for me. And that I was found.
Whatever secrets my grandmother carried are under lock and key inside her inaccessible mind. They’ve been passed to me, encrypted, a series of letters that form the building blocks of me, her, and the many women before us. Those who ran, those who stayed, and all in between. When I logged onto my grandmother’s 23andMe account, I wasn’t sure what I would find. Long buried secrets bubbling to the surface? A painful past, long forgotten? I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it was okay not to have all the answers. Sometimes things just are what they are.
I scoured her profile, carefully comparing percentages and recording slight variations. Somewhere in the overlap, I realized that I was choosing to define my grandmother with unknowns. But, I didn’t know how to change it. What could I possibly learn about my grandmother that would change things, now that it was too late?
I clicked on DNA relatives and received my answer. Something I knew within my bones but had forgotten along the way. Right there, at the top of the list of stranger’s names was mine.
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Name: K.T. Lynn
K.T is an American revert to Islam at the age of 22. I exist mainly in what people view as contradictions. She is a corporate writer/editor by day and a novelist by night. She is a Zumba instructor, PADI certified scuba diver, Toastmaster, and coffee addict. An enthusiastic dabbler, she frequently practices yoga, kayaking, hiking, and 5 K run's. Follow her journey on ktlynn.com.
By Safa Brown