Blast from the Past: Weekly Writing Challenge

Hello dear friends

The WordPress Challenge this week  asks us to step outside our blogging box and try something totally different so that we can become better writers. I like this idea! Therefore I am going to write my post today from the perspective of my maternal grandmother: Aseen Roofayel (nee Ellis,1882-1976). I will be taking on her persona.

It is something different for me and as I know a reasonable amount about her early life, I’m willing to give it a try! At the end we are asked to reflect on the experience so I have diligently obeyed!

Without any further ado, please come with me as we take my grandmother’s journey from Lebanon to Australia … the year she left was circa 1895.

“Oh Zahlé! My home town in Lebanon! How I long for you now that I am living in Australia! You were such a lovely little town, only 52 km east of Beirut.

To think I longed – as a child growing up in Zahlé with my aunt and uncle – to rejoin my family in Melbourne, Australia and now it has happened I wish I could go back.

Zahle today pop of 50,000. Only 7,000 in 1880

Zahle today pop of 50,000. Only 7,000 in 1880

Strange really, for I was glad when my aunt and uncle waved me goodbye. You see, I do not really know these people here that I call mother and father. They are strangers to me. My brothers and sisters are older than me, except for the baby girl called Lizzie who was born in Australia. She is my only comfort.

Now I have had to go and  work in a factory to help the family make ends meet. Secretly, when I am alone in bed at night, I wonder if this is why they sent for me! Not because of love, but because I am worth money to them. I do not like working in the factory as I cannot speak English and the girls there are rough and make fun of me. I long for ‘home.’

Since I was five years old, I waited for my parents to send for me. By that time I was almost 15 years old and had given up hope of ever seeing them and my siblings again. All I had left were fleeting memories and odd flashbacks that came and went as each year passed. I longed to escape the life they left me to lead: one where I was not wanted.

I was not permitted to attend school because my aunt and uncle saw me as being more useful in the house; a reward for being stuck with me. I longed to go to school and learn like the other children but it was not to be. I never did learn to read or write and it continues to be a cause of great sadness to me.

My biggest delight was being part of the local Mennonite Catholic Church where I made my First Communion and Confirmation.  You see, Zahlé is a predominantly Christian area of Lebanon but it was not without conflict because the year I was born (circa 1880), Zahlé and Syria were taken over by the Otterman Empire. They burned the building containing the birth, death and marriage records of all the people of Zahlé, to the ground.

This was one of the reasons I never knew exactly when I was born. My aunt did not know and as I was the sixth child, my parents did not remember either. For the rest of my life, I never celebrated a birthday! There was a vague thought that it might be in August but that was as close as anyone got to caring about it.

My parents meant well in leaving me behind but I felt the hurt of being abandoned and not loved. There were no choices for me when they kissed me goodbye; despite my tears, they never once looked back.

I do not have many happy childhood memories, but there is one good memory that ,made me feel special.  Somehow I was allowed to attend a class where I learned a poem. After I had recited it for the class, the teacher praised me and gave me a holy card. She told me I was intelligent and wanted me in class but I was never allowed to attend again. My sadness continued.

And then, like a miracle, the letter arrived from my parents with the money for me to leave Lebanon.

A sailing ship circa 1895

A sailing ship circa 1895

I stood alone on the deck of the sailing ship and watched  the sun set over the mountains of Lebanon as we sailed out of the port of Beirut. 

I had a mixture of feelings: sadness, excitement and terror all rolled into one. I wondered how I would cope on the voyage for three months on my own as I was shy. Now I would have to be part of social events on a strange ship amongst strangers.

The voyage proved to be an adventure for me and a man on board paid me a lot of attention. I had no idea what it all meant until he proposed to me half way through the voyage! I was horrified and said an emphatic “NO! But I was flattered. He had no idea I was only 15 years of age as I looked older, but he was still not deterred and persisted in asking for my hand in marriage. 

Something shifted inside of me during those three months on board the ship sailing via many mysterious ports to Australia. The daily routine of shipboard life was a balm to my confused soul and I soon became part of the rhythm of the vessel and the pattern of its days. People were very kind to a young girl like me travelling on her own.

Finally the time came for the ship to sail into Melbourne. My anxiety became acute! My parents were waiting for me but it took a while for them to recognise me. I knew then that I had a whole new life ahead of me.

But I do hope that time will heal the hole I have in my heart, for I do not know where I belong anymore … here in Melbourne or in Zahlé, Lebanon, where at least my misery was played out in familiar surroundings. Here, I am a stranger in a strange land with people I do not know, but sadly … there is no going back now.

Somehow, I must summon up the courage to continue on and make the best of this situation. At least I feel that the presence of little Lizzie will give me reason to find some hope and a little love.

My grandmother and me taken in 1970. She was approx 88 years old.

My grandmother and me taken in 1970. She was approx 88 years old.

Dear friends, I found it a wonderful experience to write about my grandmother! Surprisingly so. By becoming her, and writing from her perspective, I understood Aseen for the first time. As a child, I found her a very depressed and unhappy woman, who nagged my grandfather constantly and hardly acknowledged her grandchildren’s existence.

Later in life, when she came to live with us after my grandfather died, I got to know Grandma as I helped my mother nurse her after a stroke.  I was between 12 to 25 years of age when I cared for Grandma and she would tell me various things about her life. I gleaned all this information during that time. I must have listened more carefully than I realised!

This has been an amazing personal experience for me and I would now like to do some further research so that I can write the whole story of my grandmother’s life.

I hope you have enjoyed my attempt to bring Aseen, my mother’s mother, to life.