I was seven years old when I began visiting Lenore. Having recently relocated to Spokane, Washington from Charlottesville, Virginia, I finally had an opportunity to meet some of my dad’s family. Lenore was my eighty-nine-year-old fourth cousin. She had no children and had been widowed decades earlier. When my parents phoned her asking if she’d be interested in spending some time with me, she was delighted. I was homeschooled, and my schedule was flexible. So it was decided: Monday at one o'clock.
Originally, the idea of making friends with an elderly woman excited me. I never had the opportunity to know either of my grandmothers well. And, as the first of four children all born within five years, I craved attention. I wanted to know and be known.
When Monday arrived, I felt slightly unsettled about visiting a stranger by myself. I began to doubt if I was up for such an adventure. What’s a fourth cousin really mean, anyway? Will she even like me? But I kept my uncertainties to myself and climbed into our wood-paneled Jeep Wagoneer for the drive across town.
“This is it,” Mom chimed twenty minutes later. I looked up and took a deep breath, surveying the scene from the backseat. Perfectly perched on a large corner lot stood a buttercup-yellow cottage. Red roses danced over and through a white picket fence that, with the help of a few apple trees and a handful of towering pines, trimmed in the rest of the manicured yard. Billowing bunches of lavender and tidy groupings of pansies, marigolds, and petunias lined the stone walkway to the carved oak door. Hugging all four sides of the house were countless overgrown lilac bushes: vibrant, fist-sized bursts of pink, white, and purple. Stepping out of the car and accepting my mom’s extended hand, the swirling in my tummy slowed. Lenore had already made a good first impression.
My fourth cousin proved to be as becoming and welcoming as her blooms, and our connection developed quickly. For several years, I visited Lenore every Monday at one o’clock. She adorned her neck with silk scarves and large statement necklaces, and I wore my “dress shoes”—faux patent leather slip-ons with big black bows affixed to the front. We drank tea from delicate, floral porcelain and sat in emerald green wingback chairs, playing double solitaire. We rummaged through treasure-filled drawers and cabinets. We coated ourselves in various hues of lipstick and pumped thick, musky scents from ornate bottles. By the time I was eleven and Lenore ninety-three, we had established quite the bond. Both our journals from those years tell tales of bus rides around Spokane, hunts for the city’s most delicious slice of cherry pie, and names of all the boys that had made our hearts flutter throughout my limited—and her ample—years.
Several years into our friendship, Lenore gave me a precious gift: a transplant from one of her lilac bushes. She knew how much I loved her garden and she wanted me to enjoy it more than once a week. I stood next to my dad as he carefully shoveled deep and wide around the plant’s roots, lifted the shoot from its known soil on Glass Avenue, and replanted it in its new home on Rebecca Street. In the coming months, that gangly shoot dug in deep and grew strong. Sitting on the edge of our property, I passed it often as I trekked across the yard to my piano lesson or to play with friends. And each time I walked by I gently patted it on the leaves. “Hey, Lenore,” I whispered.
The evening my parents entered my bedroom with watery eyes and told me Lenore had transitioned from this world to the next was the first time my heart experienced something deeper than surface-level sadness. I had never lost anyone I really loved before. It was disorienting. I reached for the heart-shaped pillow decorating my bed, a gift Lenore had given me years before when I commented how pretty it looked on her couch. Clinging to that lace-trimmed cushion night after night, I mourned the loss of my sweet friend, my first truly-known relative, my first relational tether to a city that was once so foreign. I felt like I’d been pruned. Like a part of my childhood, my family, and my identity had been cut away.
"Tears of grief watered our growing roots, bouts of joy snipped off and bundled up in life’s most glorious bouquets."
For several months after Lenore died, I regularly slipped out the front door to visit my lilac bush. I needed to touch it, smell it, and feel close to it. Rubbing the velvety green leaves between my fingers, I thought of wingback chairs and double solitaire. The fragrance of the blossoms transported me to puffs of perfume and toiletry treasure hunts. The soft purple blooms reminded me of the lilac tint of my friend’s wispy, gray curls. That bush acted like a bridge, allowing me to travel back to my beloved past and helping me stretch forward into a new reality of no more Mondays at one o’clock.
Over time, my need for the little purple bush waned. Pulling up to the house after a day of high school, I often looked over at it and smiled, thankful for memories of my dear friend and the grounding she brought to my early years. But I no longer sat in front of it just to gaze at the blooms.
And then I went to college.
And then I got married.
And then I moved across the world.
New people and memories and meanings filled my life and heart, lessening my need for the lilacs and softening the once-sharp longing for my friend. A couple summers ago, my mom mentioned the lilac bush had died several years back. A wave of emotion surfaced, and I felt a jolt of shame that I’d never realized my lilacs were gone.
More than a decade after Lenore’s death, I moved, once again, to a foreign city. This time, quite literally, to Amman, Jordan. I was one month into marriage and excited to join my husband, Peter, in his NGO work with refugees.
From the backseat of dingy, smoke-filled taxis, Peter and I explored Jordan’s rocky hills, covered in white, limestone apartment buildings and dotted with dusty palms and weathered pines. Compared to the greenery of the Pacific Northwest, Amman was a world of dull sepia tones and monotonous neutrals. But something in my heart cut through all the brown, and I predicted the coming of colorful desert blooms.
"Jordan taught me to build friendships outside of similar upbringings. She forced me to extend myself further than I thought I could go, to push forward just a little more."
After three days in the country, I pulled up to a beige four-story building for my first Arabic lesson. Apprehension seized my gut. I’d never been good at learning languages; maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. But I wanted to show myself strong. Matching footsteps to the cadence of my thudding chest, I wound up and around the dusty, trash-littered steps to the third floor. Reaching the center, I pushed the door open. Light and laughter flooded the landing. Rich, full-bodied laughter. Involuntarily, my shoulders relaxed.
Entering, I saw the source of the mirth standing straight ahead of me at a large wooden table. It was a young woman adorned in bright clothes and a floral-print head scarf. She turned to me and smiled.
“Ahalan, ahalaaaaan,” she welcomed. “Ismi Ruba. I am a teacher here.” And, as if she sensed my nerves, she reached for my arm.
“Come. Make tea.”
She led me to the small kitchenette in the corner, where she poured boiling water over a bag of Lipton Yellow Label and two heaping spoonfuls of sugar. Her magenta-painted lips smiled as she stirred the cyclone of sugar crystals. My apprehension dissolved.
In the coming years, Ruba morphed from Arabic teacher to friend and from friend to sister.
She got married. I learned Arabic.
She birthed a beautiful baby boy. I had a string of miscarriages.
The ups and downs of our lives seeded the soil of both our hearts. Tears of grief watered our growing roots, bouts of joy snipped off and bundled up in life’s most glorious bouquets. Our friendship flourished through each season.
As was the case with Khitam. And Ilham. And Ghada. And Dua. Women of Jordan, Palestine, and Syria, who tilled and worked the ground of friendship with me for over a decade.
Last spring, I sat working in the bedroom of my Amman apartment. I listened to my five children—five under five, including one set of triplets—through the window driving toy dump trucks through our dusty garden and picking apricots from one of our trees. Amidst that sweet calm, Peter burst into our room.
“Guess what?” His eyes widened as his teeth shone through a big grin.
I studied him intently. “Wait. No!”
“What? Really?” Excited tears pooled in my eyes as I leapt off the bed and flung my arms around my husband. “You got the email?!”
After thirteen years working in humanitarian aid and relief in Jordan and Palestine, Peter was leaving the NGO world to join the State Department and serve as an American diplomat. It’s a transition he’d been growing towards for years, one our entire family anticipated with glee. And today was the day he got the message beckoning him to Washington, D.C. My cheek against his shoulder, I glanced toward the garden and thought of the tiny, dirty feet of those who called this place home.
“How long do we have?” I whispered.
Squeezing my eyes closed, tears of joy now mingled with those of loss. Three weeks felt like an impossibly short window of time to uproot from the people and land who had been our home for so long. To break and pull away from this familiar soil.
"As a plant finds new soil and nourishment to thrive, the human heart extends its roots in search of fresh sustenance. We push on, adapt, relearn how to flourish."
Jordan grew me into the woman I am. She was the earth where I laid my barely-adult roots. My marriage sprouted in her dusty plains. My children were born into her hospitable arms. Her language, her culture, her people colored the way I view the world, expanding my capacity to love and be loved. Jordan taught me how to engage in and build friendships outside of shared interests and similar upbringings. She forced me to extend myself further than I thought I could go and, when I reached my perceived limit, to push forward just a little more. To say such a quick goodbye was inadequate and painful.
Precious relics from Jordan, Palestine, and Syria bridge my way into the new. Proofs of a past season well-lived and people well-loved: a small, wooden maamoul press for making traditional Eid cookies; a hand-embroidered table runner evoking flashes of my neighbors’ radiant dresses; dozens of Polaroids of families who filled a decade’s worth of my days.
It has been over twenty years since I lost Lenore. And an unknown amount of time since I last patted the leaves of my lilac bush. It’s been more than six months since I watched Jordan disappear from my airplane window. And only ten minutes since studying the faces in my beloved Polaroids. It feels heavy to walk into the future without these dear ones at my side. And I am scared of the day when, like the lilac bush, I realize my Jordan relics are no longer necessary for my heart to feel at home.
But hope pulls the weighted soul forward. Hope that the impressions made by the people and places my family and I love will always be with us. Hope that life follows transplant. As a plant finds new soil and nourishment from which to thrive, so the human heart extends its roots in search of fresh sustenance. We push on, we adapt, we relearn how to flourish. And somehow, we manage to do it without losing our tenderness toward who and what came before.
Today, in the midst of transplant, my youngest daughter bridges me from what was to what will be. Her first name, Nove, is an Arabic Bedouin name meaning “mountaintop” or “pinnacle.” It is fitting, as Jordan was such a perspective shifting force in my life. And her middle name, Lenore, is a daily reminder of friendship, lilacs, and Mondays at one o’clock.
Root deep, root wide, root anew. Bloom onward, dear one. ◘