Our Lost Family History
She is in the middle of the photo portrait, sitting, with her husband and ten children. They are good looking, well dressed, confident. No one is smiling—typical of photographs for the early 1900’s—but my great grandmother has that grin, a hint of contentedness, and the same one I see in my father’s photo portrait. Her name is Flora Marie Ouwade (WHERE-Dee) Amory. We think she was born “about 1875,” and we do know she came from Hasroun, Lebanon (then Greater Syria of the Ottoman Empire).
To me she is mysterious because I know so little of her story. My grandmother, Mary Amoury, couldn’t tell me much about her parents or why they left the Middle East. I heard from one of Flora’s daughters, my great aunt Sam, that she left at age 15, or maybe 16, because she was charged with taking care of her family after her mother died and she didn’t like the endless drudgery. Sam thought she eloped with her husband, Joseph Khalil Amoury, born about 1860. My grandmother thought she and Joseph were married in 1890, and they left after that, going first to Spain where they had a baby, but we have no information about that child.
Another family story has them traveling first to the Bahamas, then to Spain, and then back to the Bahamas, where they settle and become successful business owners. They likely head to the Bahamas because Flora’s cousins, the Bakers, are living there and doing well. The Bahamas at that time is a British colony and few merchants serve the black, Bahamian locals. Joseph and Flora start selling things on the street and then open a dry goods store selling everything from shoes to sewing needles and thread. Visiting Nassau as a teenager, I love being in the store on Shirley Street because it is jammed with household things, tools, clothes, everything. By then, Joseph was long gone, having died in 1926. Flora died in 1949, the year after I was born.
In the 1980’s, during a trip to the Bahamas, we are waiting on the island of Eluethera at an airstrip for the plane back to Nassau. There is an old guy manning a small shack selling food and drinks. I tell him my father was born in Nassau to the Amoury family and he tells me that Flora was a legend in the community because she always dealt amiably and fairly with the native Bahamians. She wore flowing white clothes, had tattooed arms, and often smoked a pipe. We new about he pipe and tattoos, but nobody in the family could tell me what the tattoos depicted, our why she had them. I think they were likely religious images and icons.
People have told me that learning about the family will require a trip to Hasroun and a visit to the Church to see records about the family. Hasroun was an early Christian settlement in the Middle East and there are several churches. But records won’t tell the stories of their lives. Why didn’t Joseph or Flora talk about their days in Lebanon? Did the Ottomans persecute them because they were Christians? Wouldn't they have spoke of such injustice? Were there events they didn’t want to revisit? Were they throat cutters? Maybe they just wanted to move on with their lives. And why didn’t anyone write things down, like on my mother’s side where her WASP heritage and our written genealogy goes back way before the Mayflower.
I asked my grandfather about why his family, also from Hasroun, came to America. With his bloodshot eyes looking down his long green cigar at me, a big white ash about to drop on his sweater as he reclined in an easy chair, he said “whadya you care?” Eventually, he said he didn’t know because his father didn’t talk about it, at least to him. The family history on my father’s side, families counted as the first Arab Americans, remains a mystery.
To forgive is divine
But it isn't easy!
They say that girls hold grudges and I have to say I agree totally. My parents got married when I was about three years old. I remember moving into the house that my dad had shared with his former wife, and their son. Now, their son was much older; my dad was 24 years older than my mom. It came with a whole host of issues most blended families do not have to contend with, but my dad was the greatest man I know so I wouldn't change a thing.
I had my own room in that house. but the furniture must have been Scott's before I got there. I wasn't aware of any of this - but the bed. Oh, I loved the bed! It was this huge sleigh bed with a high head and foot. I felt like I was in a little cave that was all mine, and I loved it!
Then we moved to Connecticut. When we unpacked everything, my bed was not there. I was crestfallen - I adored that silly bed and thought at first that the movers had simply forgotten to put it on the truck. It turns out, Scott threw a little bit of a fit and so my dad left the bed with him. Yes, it would have been nice if someone had told me this before we got to the new house, but they did not for whatever reason.
So here was Scott, this man I knew only slightly, but now knew as the person who took my bed. Who takes a little girl's bed? I mean, come on??!! I knew my mother did not like him (he was only 4 years younger than she was which played a major role in their horrible relationship) and now he had taken my bed. With all the fury a 4-year-old can muster, I hated that man. It took me years and years to be able to see him as more than that one action, and I do not know if it was the bed incident or something else that kept us from ever really having any sort of relationship, but to this day, we are pleasant but I can't say I actually LIKE him. After all - he took my bed. How do you like someone who does that?
In high school, I tried out for the senior singing group. Only 12 girls are chosen. We had to try out, and the auditions were terrifying. I am a soprano, or at least I was back then. I did not know how to harmonize, but as a soprano, I would never really need to do that since we generally held the melody. Alto's need to harmonize. I could keep my notes when I was singing with an alto, but I could not BE that also finding the harmony. But my voice was good - I had been singing for years, and while I don't necessarily think I am a good singer, I have been told I have a good voice.
But I didn't get chosen for this group.
Amanda Taylor did.
She was far more popular than I was, and I believe to this day that is why she was chosen over me. She couldn't really sing, and when we got back together for our 20th reunion, a bunch of us went to Karaoke. She got up and sang. And as I remembered, she was awful. Like, truly bad. She couldn't hold a note, she couldn't find her note, and her timing was terrible. No sense of rhythm. And yet shew as chosen over me for this group. With her big green eyes and long blonde hair - I held a grudge against her from that moment, and to this day I can't say she is my favorite person. It wasn't necessarily her fault she was chosen over me, but all these years (over 30!!) I have held this against her.
Other things are easier to forgive. One of the students I had last year became a member of our family. He and my son were terrific friends, and my other kids loved him. He and I get along well, and the other students joke that he became my fourth son. There is no denying there is something special about him.
But perfect? Nope. He is not. There are times he is moody and grumpy. There are times he is downright rude. If I did not love this child, I would likely write him off because of his actions. And yes, I have not done so. Despite some significant challenges in our relationship, I remain his steadfast supporter.
The difference, I believe, is in knowing his story. I know how hard it is for Cole to trust other people. I know how much he has struggled with his relationship with both of his parents. I see there is a lot of pain and brokenness behind his actions, so when he acts like an ass, I know it is not something personal but rather something he has learned as a coping mechanism. Knowing the backstory makes it much easier to forgive the actions because the intent is not to hurt, but to protect himself.
I think that is partly what made it nearly impossible to forgive Scott - I did not know his backstory, so I could not have any empathy for him. I simply saw someone who took something I loved and did not give any explanation. I did not truly understand the reasons behind why Amanda was chosen over me, so rather than have the ability to forgive and move on, I became stuck in blaming her for taking my spot in a group I desperately wanted to be part of.
In order to forgive, it is vital to have empathy. If you cannot put yourself in the shoes of the person who wronged you, you will never be able to see things from their point of view. It is this notion of being able to walk a mile in someone else's shoes that allow us to forgive. And it is that forgiveness that brings peace.
Dead to me
I hold grudges. But that is misleading: If someone wrongs me or acts in a way I feel is unfair, I don't forget it, or forgive. I tend to cut the person out of my life.
This seems like a hard line to some, but in general, I think any act that requires forgiveness is one that defies some sort of principle, such as honesty or kindness. And in situations I can remember, the person's lack of self-awareness -- that element in him or her that led to the dishonorable act to begin with -- means he or she won't notice or care, in any case, that I've stepped away.
Recently, I left the board of directors of our homeowners association. I realized soon after being elected that I had misjudged the president, who in fact a neighbor and I teamed with to run. Our slate of three promised things would be done differently from how the previous board ran things. We three won, she assumed the top spot, and then she ignored everything I said. Worse, she also ignored everything everyone else said. She turned out to be a megalomaniac and a liar, and a board of one. Three months after being voted in, I resigned, making a short statement to neighbors at the board meeting as to why.
Forgiveness seems irrelevant. Were I to see her again I might walk by without noting her existence. Why exchange pleasantries with someone who is unpleasant? And what would be the point of discussing the crux of the matter -- that she lied to me, doesn't listen to anyone and is an awful board president?
True forgiveness, though, seems a concept more appropriate to a situation in which one was cheated on, taken advantage of, stabbed in the back. I have had plenty of events like that in my life, but not recently. For all those times -- when my best friend in high school was making out with the guy I had a crush on; when years later the same friend blurted out a secret I'd told her to my then-boyfriend; when a co-worker started a mean rumor about me that I found out from other co-workers weeks later; when a fellow board member in a national organization did something extremely unethical then told others that the ensuing problem was my fault (that got cleared up soon enough and the group censured him); when a college friend crashed my car and told her parents and their insurance company that she hadn't driven it and the accident was my fault (hello, lawsuit); when a co-worker lied about the poor job she had done on a report by saying that I had produced the report (again, cleared up soon enough and she departed the company soon after); those are matters where forgiveness might be required. But they were long ago. And in each case, I wasn't disappointed. I was angry each time, took steps to straighten out the matter, then stepped away. Forgiveness did not seem relevant.
Strength and Fragility
"Don't say you're sorry. I'll know you're sorry when you don't do it again."
I heard this, or some variation on it, a lot from my dad while I was growing up. And to be honest, I don't completely know why. He was more passive-aggressive than aggressive, kept to himself, and could be an exacting taskmaster when personally riled, but he was never one for guilt-tripping.
I think what was going on here, is that he just didn't know how to deal with the unpredictability of growing up kids. Kids don't have full control over their faculties yet; they can do something they didn't mean to do, be genuinely ashamed or sorry over it, and then do it again. "Why did you do that again?" the adult asks. "I don't know!" cries the kid, and it'll be the truth. And then they turn into teenagers, whose only job is to figure out who they are and what they think, and to do that they have to put on and take off a lot of ideas and personas to figure out which ones feel right.
In truth, I think he was really unsettled with all the chaos embedded with raising children and felt unsupported and unable to process his feelings about chaos (for valid and invalid reasons, but that's a whole other story), and so he vented them on the thing in front of him: the child creating the chaos. To him, the sorry had to be a lie, because if it were true, he would feel better, and he didn't.
You won't be surprised that, as a result, I have some issues when it comes to apologies and forgiveness. To be specific, when I have to apologize for something, my gut instinct is to go quite over the top, to almost debase myself, so I can be sure the other party knows how rotten I feel. Mix in a childhood's worth of messaging that God will also only forgive you if do what he wants and not what you want--in fact, ignore what you want because it is 100% bad--and we are left with a winning combination that makes me wary of deeply engaging with others, out of a distrust of both them and myself.
But even in light of all of this, I also feel deep in my gut that forgiveness is as crucial as it is real. Forgiveness works in tandem with the love that is the glue that keeps human relationships together. If we love someone, we know they are going to mess up, and then we are given the chance to look at our love for them and see if it is stronger than the error they made. And the more love we have for ourselves, the more we can forgive others even if we don't love them, because our self-love empowers us to withstand the hurt (or chaos!) that the their error may have caused. We can give them that gift of release because are whole enough to not have our well-being be so dependent on the perfect action of another person, and we are able to care for them as a real human being and not an idea.
A Matter of Perspective
I’ve always thought, once a person admits something they’ve done is wrong, I’m kind of ready to forgive at that point. If they choose to repeat the offense (which is fairly rare), then I can revisit the issue. I try to keep myself surrounded with people who have the underappreciated and undervalued virtue of self-awareness. If someone can’t be convinced that he or she has made a mistake or at the very least come to recognize how there could be another side to the story, then it’s usually time for me to throw in the towel.
I don’t have anyone in my life that I hold resentments for. If I feel so aggrieved by someone, I just move on—usually by letting the friendship drift apart, or ending a relationship on as good a terms as possible, or, when it can’t be avoided, an outright confrontation. I’m lucky in this regard that the people who are in my life out of necessity and not by choice are all exemplary people. My family, my coworkers, even my neighborhoods couldn’t be more reasonable human beings for the most part.
There are definitely small slights though that have set me off over the years, but I try to always keep my focus on myself first. It takes two to tango, and there is always another side to the story. When I worked as an assistant to a rather intense litigator, I accompanied him on a meeting with a potential new client. The situation that the client described seemed like a slam dunk case of obvious intellectual property theft.
In the car ride back to the office, I said as much to the lawyer. He then explained something to me: “At no point between this moment and when we reach verdict or settlement will the case we have be any stronger than it is right now. Clients always describe the circumstances of their case as a great and obvious injustice against them, but every detail that gets added from here on out will only make my job harder.” In that specific case, and I’m sure in most, he was absolutely right. Over the next eight months of preliminary motions and discovery, we found out the many things the client had done wrong for herself. In the end, we ended up settling for much less that the client was felt she was owed, but a lot more than the nothing a jury would probably have awarded her.
I try to keep this in mind in my own life. When I feel like venting about someone, I think about how they might vent about me to their friends. When my friends give me their tales of woe, I usually just listen, because most of the time people just want to be heard more than they want help. But if we start going in circles or they genuinely ask for my unvarnished advice, I usually start by asking them to think realistically about the other side of the story. If they aren’t ready to think about it, I beg off, but sometimes the best thing I can do for a friend who feels wronged is to remind them that everyone is the hero of their own story.
In sum, I don’t have any profoundly original thoughts about forgiveness. It’s not something, I give a lot of thought to. I grant it readily when I grant it, and if I get burned later because of it, I hold myself accountable for the decision I made. And when I decide that something can’t be forgiven, I tend to just leave whatever or whoever it is in the past and move on.
Not For Me!
Sometimes when I see the day’s prompt my paranoia rises and I think I’m being specifically singled out by having a topic I don’t have a lot of experience with. After mulling today’s topic around for a couple hours, I’ve come to the conclusion that nearly all of my experiences with forgiveness can be described by the following conversation:
That’s not the fertile fruit from which to expect much of a twenty-two minute essay, but I’ll try.
I think I’d have a better shot at this if my life were more like a country-western song or an episode of Jerry Springer, but, alas, I’ve never been comfortable with drama. I’m too much of a chicken to do much to be forgiven for, and I’ve never been one to inspire others to much in the way of betrayal. It just isn’t in my genes, or my history.
Yes, I apologize, readily and profusely, for small infractions, but I’m not sure that’s the idea here. Maybe once or twice a month I do or say something I shouldn’t have, but I think I’m pretty good about readily admitting my faults. As for others and what they do to me, I almost as quickly let them know “it’s okay,” just so we don’t dwell on it.
And, after forgiving someone, I don’t think I hold it against them. One thing I’ve never been very good at is holding grudges. I’m too eager to have everyone like me to decide against them, and it’s rare for me to harbor ill will for even a day.
As good as I am about making excuses for my own behavior, I’m even better at excusing yours.
Which is all just a long way to go about saying “yes,” I do think it’s possible to forgive. I’m not sure I’d be so confident about that had anyone actually hurt me when they had a choice not to and chose, instead, to cause me harm, but that’s something that is fairly unlikely to ever happen, possibly because I don’t let people get that close to me any more. I’ve been hurt a lot by people, but mostly by being abandoned or set free, and that’s not the kind of thing that it makes sense to forgive or that they’d ask me to do.
Forgiveness, now that I think about it, implies making a mistake or an error, and someone dumping me isn’t either one of those.
It’s entirely possible that I’ve forgotten or blocked out all the despicable things I’ve done, and if so, I apologize. Most of the things I’ve done that I shouldn’t have, I’ve tried to set right, and in nearly every case, I was told it was no big deal. Again, I’ve slowly started to learn that hardly anyone ever pays as much attention to me or what I’m doing as I do.
I do feel bad about thinking about myself instead of listening to what you have to say, but when I mention that, others usually laugh and nod in agreement, so it might be more common than I think. A wise old guy once told me to look around and count how many people care about what I’m saying or doing, and if I get more than one for the answer, I should count again.
I laughed when he said it, and then I forgave him.