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As a kid, I played for hours with my Smurfs under the dining room table, while my mother clacked away on the typewriter above my head. My favorite Smurf was Jokey, with his goofy, indestructible grin and the large yellow gift box he held that exploded in the faces of his unsuspecting victims. It was a joke that never got old-- his friends fell for it every time. Jokey was a glutton for attention--even bad attention-- and he endured the other Smurfs’ chides and complaints with an impenetrable delight that was hard not to admire.


Funny enough, the Smurf I related to the least was Smurfette, the only girl in the village. Smurfette was endowed with the classic, American-girl good looks that commanded shameless scads of male attention: the smooth wave of yellow hair that seductively bulged out of her cap; the trance-inducing curves and mounds of her torso; the helpless, “I-always-rely-on-the-kindness-of-strangers” look on her face; her coquettish, knee-turned, heel-up poses that defied all anatomical probability. Without a doubt, Smurfette contained in her two-inch, Made-in-China body all that I--with my dark, Arabic features and shy presence--could never aspire to be. She was the plastic thorn in my foreign-born side.



Nowadays, I hold no resentment against my tiny, flaxen-haired nemesis. In fact, I thank her for staying true to herself, despite the paltry amount of playtime I gave her under the table. It’s taken some time since my Smurf days to appreciate my own brand of beauty and femininity. I have to say, I’ve got a few things going for me that Smurfette never had: intelligence and wit, and, like Jokey, a penchant for eliciting strong reactions from my friends and readers. If only that little girl under the typewriter had known the explosive, raw materials she contained! If only she could have seen that her awkward, nerdy self was just a bombshell in the making.

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There was a photo of me I never knew about that hung in my father's house outside of Bonn for nearly thirty years. He lived in this house with his wife and seven children, filling it with memories, laughter, and love each day. The photo was taken during my father's only visit to New York when I was a child. I am eight years old, in pigtails and a sailor's dress, sitting on a Central Park bench.

Growing up, I'd had my own pictures of my dad, tucked away in an album my mother had carried with us across the ocean when we left. These were relics of someone else's life, not mine; clues pointing toward the mystery of a man I'd never known.

Years later, a mother myself, I'd visit my father for the first time, as he descended toward his death. Brothers I'd never met before would serve me tea in delicate glasses; in upstairs rooms, sisters would reveal the beautiful hair under their head scarves. I’d sit on the sofa with my father, whose fading breath struggled among three languages to bridge the decades of silence between us.

It was the first time I remember hearing my own name pronounced perfectly. The intimacy of its sound jarred me, the same way the sight of my own image on the wall felt foreign in its place among the others. Who would guess that a single word could soothe like a lullaby? A framed image on a wall could tell the story of a father's irreplaceable love?

Language Lost

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I’m sitting by your bed holding soaps and handkerchiefs-- the only gifts I could think of to bring a dying man. It's quiet-- both of us write poetry and are no good at small talk. We are straining for language. Your English is half-textbook, half-forgotten; my German slow and stilted, like that of a young child. And my tongue will never know the Arabic you were born with, the true expression of your heart.

I fear I am failing you in my only chance to be your daughter. I pull out a beat-up collection of Stefan Zweig's stories from your bookshelf. I’m told he is one of your favorite authors. (He is my mother’s favorite too.) I pronounce each word as thoughtfully as I can, hoping to borrow the beauty and weight of someone else’s language, to hold this moment in place before it is gone.

A year later, I’ll be the only one of your nine children who is not with you when you die. I’ll have a plane ticket in hand, but at the last minute, need to stay behind to watch my own three children. On your last day, my sister will call me in the afternoon so I can say goodbye, but whatever language I use will feel hollow--“Baba”--and insufficient --“Ich liebe dich." I will cry, not because I’m losing a father-- but because now I will never have one.

My mother will happen to be visiting me in Western Massachusetts, and I'll persuade her to talk to you for the first time in thirty years. I’ve heard her speak German my whole life, but on that day it will sound different, tinged with a tenderness I didn't expect. There will be love there too-- forgiveness even-- the things we all wish for when it's time to go.


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Once when I was eight years old, my hair caught on fire. My older sister saved my life by shoving me out the front door and burying my head in the snow. We were never close, thanks to an imaginary line my mother had drawn between the obedient, dependable daughter (me) and the obstinate, wild one (my sister). But that day, we sat shoulder-to-shoulder on my sister’s bed, counting the minutes in dreaded silence before our mother returned home to discover what had happened. My sister and I had directly disobeyed her instructions not to use matches, and the complicity of our crime, along with the shared trauma that followed, were enough to make for a rare tender moment between us.

Thirty years later, just west of where the hair-on-fire incident took place, another sister would come to my rescue. Born two decades after me to a different mother, and a continent away, she was practically a stranger when she came to live with us in our newly-rented house. At 18, she was also not much more than a child; yet there was an air about her of someone well beyond her years. Looking back, we were both like refugees, searching for safety and rest in those purple mountains we’d hoped to call home. My sister, who had just finished her high school exams while helping to care for our dying father, arrived from Germany still laden with the burdens from home. I, myself, with three young children, a relationship in trouble, and many personal demons just beginning to rear their heads, was already teetering on the edge of collapse.

That year, my younger sister and I kept watch over each other, waiting for the death of so many things: a father, a marriage, youth. During the day we’d take long walks and sneak cigarettes while I got to know my father through her stories; at night, we laughed as we jumped on the trampoline in the backyard and watched too many episodes of our favorite t.v. show (“Weeds”). I’d say goodnight to my sister as she headed up to her attic bedroom, only to find her in the morning curled up asleep beside one of my children. Neither of us wanted to grow up--neither of us wanted to be left alone.

Strangely, for one reason or another, all five of us sisters have never been in the same room together. Still, a bond exists between us that is as undeniable as it is unseen; a bond even stronger than a father’s love. Whether or not we’ve shared the same blood, I have had many “sisters” in my life who have sat with me, waiting for a storm to end; searched alongside me for a place to plant our roots. We are all here--living, searching, waiting-- like strangers in a strange land; like seeds in snow.

Tillamook Tide

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It turns out all access points to Multnomah Falls are closed because of the forest fires that have been raging for the past six weeks. Some kid setting off firecrackers in the woods. Carol, the 60-something-year-old highway worker guarding the exit, peers sympathetically into the car and suggests that we check out the tide pools at Tillamook instead. The promise of sea stars and urchins swimming in giant puddles is enough to get us up well before dawn the next day to make the two-hour drive to the coast.

When we arrive, the dark is already disappearing. There’s no time to lose before the tide’s pendulum swings the other way and our expedition becomes a fool’s errand. We follow Carol’s directions and climb along the rainforest trail that hugs the shore. At one point, the path forks unexpectedly. We go right, and keep ascending for another forty-five minutes, assuming that the trail will eventually lead back down to sea level. We’re about 200 feet above the Pacific when the path suddenly runs out.

Disappointment is never on Life’s guestlist. It barges in unannounced; hijacks the playlist; tosses tea cups at the host; unwinds every clock.

We sit on rocks with chaos on our laps because there’s nothing else to do.

Below us a giant gust of water blows fifty feet into the air. Massive shadows break the ocean’s surface-- Whales! A whole pod of them coursing through the current. Before we know it, we’re gasping, whooping, laughing at the perfect timing of events that’ve been nudging us toward this moment all along. The decision to turn right instead of left; Carol’s wizened smile; careless sparks from a teenager’s hands. We discover that Disappointment is not just an artful saboteur; it’s also one hell of a dance partner.


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