I dreamt this morning
That my ancestors were feasting together,
My very cells
Alive with their dinnertime chatter.
Later on I explored the West End
And found that my English great-grandparents’ (they met on a steamer from Liverpool and were married at Christchurch Cathedral in 1910) old house on Alberni Street had become an Irish eatery, after a long stint as Le Gavroche.
They had lived there until my great–grandfather was caught one day by his wife
Buying jewellery for the elevator girl he fancied
at the old Birks building, an Edwardian beauty demolished in the 70s and replaced by an ugly office tower,
And he was so ashamed, he left the very next day on a boat back to England, leaving her to run a rooming house in the Depression and raise their three children in the wilds of Point Grey.
Once they got running water in their cabin at 5th and Tolmie, things improved and Jack Shadbolt was a lodger,
Even sharing Sunday roasts in the house
that has now too been disappeared.
I visited the old railway houses in Strathcona, where three Lebanese families had once lived (when Lebanon, like Palestine, was still part of the Ottoman Empire, and cousins trumped Sykes-Picot borders).
I thought of my mother’s ancestors, newly arrived from the Bekaa Valley, having escaped Turkish gunboats at night, arriving at Ellis Island to have their passports stamped Asiatic,
And spending a single winter in Winnipeg before arriving here.
They stayed briefly before heading to Prince Rupert, where they opened a store, helped feed the Nisga’a in the Nass Valley during the Depression with groceries sold on credit, (the Mussallems, they had good meat, the elders told me when I visited) and were adopted by a Haida chief.
When they lived in Strathcona, there was once a wedding and feasting for three whole days. Families walked to each other’s thresholds, anointing doorways with rosewater and ululating, sharing aromatic lamb dishes like svihah and so many stories from the village. Now creeping condos lurk in nearby shadows.
As the light faded, I walked back to the old Alberni Street homestead-turned-eatery (minutes from the old White Spot that sold last year for 245 million dollars) via the seawall, around the park where Chief Khatsalano and his band were exiled by the CPR,
And came back hungry.
But before I could dine, I stopped to ask directions at a café run by Iraqi refugees,
To see the cheapest apartment in town, only to discover it was across from a new twenty-storey tower construction site.
I marvelled at how all the English men in my family
had a knack for abandoning their families and leaving real estate to second and third wives and other children,
Disappearing them like so many Palestinian villages, like so much Coast Salish erasure,
And at how all the Lebanese women they first married had a penchant for both suffering and delicious cooking.
I thought of my great-grandfather Ditmars who built city bridges and Shaughnessy mansions and left everything to his second wife, and of his grandson, my father, who abandoned my mother and I on Burnaby Mountain in 1971, for a hippie commune, when we were all living in the SFU married students residence named for LouisRiel—the hanged Métis hero—now freshly demolished.
We had no car and there was no grocery store there then, before my mother had to abandon her studies for a job in West Van where the freckle-faced, field- hockey- playing bullies called me paki. We still depended on weekly rides down the mountain from a neighbour to the Safeway.
I remembered the grocery store my ancestors ran up north, hanging the bananas in bunches just like they do in Beirut, and unlike all the other merchants, offering store credit to the Haida who adopted them.
As the cold Canadian night wrapped me in its chill, I suddenly felt faint with hunger and a longing I could not quite place.
I came home to my 450 square feet and an empty fridge, but found some frozen halal lamb from New Zealand in the freezer. By instinct I took it out and began to prepare garlic, onions, olive oil in a pan, thawing the lamb as I sautéed them.
I turned on some oud music and took out the pine nuts, the allspice and the peppers, the parsley and the lemon. Soon I was dancing in my kitchen and the whole room smelled of memory. I used a pan that belonged to my great -grandmother Massadi, who had seven children in a foreign land and never went back to her village.
I ate what I had made and loved it.
Oh fickle real estate, this is much more powerful,
this deep knowledge in my DNA of how to make lamb taste delicious, this dance of my ancestresses they can never take away.
I happily ate my inheritance,
And the ancestors laughed and laughed