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Litmeh By Margaret Stone Burke

Every Thursday after Kindergarten, my mother picks me up at school and we go to Sitto Wadid’s house. Sitto means grandmother in Arabic, but Sitto Wadid is not my grandmother. Sitto is my father’s grandmother.

On days when the weather is cold and snowy, my mother buttons my coat up to the very top button and pulls my mittens on so tight that I can feel the wool under my fingertips. She tugs my hat down on my head until it covers my eyebrows. My mother winks at me. We both know that Sitto will worry if I’m not bundled up. I don’t even know how Sitto knows it’s me, I’m just two little eyes and the pink tip of a nose.

My stomach is already grumbling when the car finally stops, and I can’t wait to play with my little cousins. It takes so long to climb the steps to Sitto’s back door! When I knock, my mittens make muffled thumps and I jump up and try to peek through the window. Did Sitto hear? Finally she opens the door with a loud, cheery “Hello!” She is cozy in her bathrobe. The spicy smells of cinnamon and onions float out and around me on a current of warm air. Inside I can hear the squealing of my little cousins and my aunts, laughing and telling stories.

“Eat first!” Sitto Wadid says. We sit at the kitchen table and Sitto brings us plates of her good Arabic cooking. Spaghetti alzeith (spaghetti in oil), kafta bataata (meat and potato © 2001 Margaret Stone Burke

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stew), djaj and ruz (chicken and rice); it’s all delicious. On the table there are already bowls of olives and yogurt and seleta, which is salad. Sitto heaps food on my plate. Then she says, “Sm’allah, what a good appetite.”

We don’t eat with forks at Sitto Wadid’s house, we eat with Syrian bread. Sitto rips a piece of bread off the round loaf to scoop up some food, then she pops it in my mouth. That is a litmeh. Sitto says, “One for Uncle Michael, one for Giddo Jim, one for Auntie Rachael, one for baby Cam,” as she pops each mouthful in. I eat a litmeh for everyone in my family, until all of Sitto’s good cooking is gone from the plate.

My cousins’ eyes are peeping around the edges of the table. They know what happens when I finish eating. Sitto gets out bowls and spoons and takes the box of chocolate-vanilla-strawberry ice cream from the freezer. If one of my cousins hasn’t eaten all of his lunch, his mother will say, “No ice cream for you.” But Sitto Wadid tells his mother, “My house, my rules.” A few minutes later, four cousins are sitting at the table, licking spoons until we can see our sticky ice cream reflections. Our mothers smile and laugh. Sitto’s house is the only place we can have dessert, even if we didn’t eat our lunch.

The percolator bubbles and a rich, bitter smell fills the kitchen. It’s time to play while our mothers sit around the kitchen table and drink coffee with Sitto. There are no toys at Sitto Wadid’s house. My little cousins make a tower out of the cans in Sitto’s cupboard. Sitto calls out the number of cans as the tower rises over the kitchen floor, “Six cans! Seven cans! Eight cans!” until it leans and wobbles and all of Sitto’s cans of tomatoes and beans go toppling and rolling into corners.

© 2001 Margaret Stone Burke

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Sitto lets us play with the old necklaces hanging on the back of her bedroom door. There are dozens of strings of beads in all colors. I picked mine long ago, before the little cousins were born. We each have a favorite, and we run around the house, dragging the necklaces behind us, or we put them on and play dress-up, or we carry them around in baskets, pretending we’re going to market and we have baskets of juicy red and blue berries.

Sometimes I let the little cousins play with the necklaces by themselves. I take a pad of paper and a pen from the drawer under Sitto’s telephone, and I lie on the floor and draw pictures and listen to Sitto telling my mother and aunts stories about long ago. Sitto Wadid was once a five-year-old girl, just like me. She lived with her three brothers and her three sisters in an apartment over her father’s restaurant. Her father’s name was Giddo Joe, and he came to America from Lebanon. Even though Giddo Joe owned a restaurant, Sitto Wadid’s family was very poor. They didn’t have any hot water in their apartment. To take a bath, they had to heat water on the stove, and then pour it into a tub. They had to do that for four girls and three boys and two grown-ups! When Sitto and her sisters were sixteen and old enough to work, they had to leave school and go to work sewing in the mills, to make money for their family. When Sitto’s brothers were old enough to work, they had to help Giddo Joe at the restaurant. My parents and aunts and uncles all have a college education. They never had to work in the mills. Giddo Joe’s family has come a long way. © 2001 Margaret Stone Burke

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When Sitto talks about Sitto Effifeh, her mother, and Giddo Joe, her father, her voice cracks. She takes a tissue from the kitchen counter and blows her nose. Sitto Effifeh and Giddo Joe treated every person they met like the most important person in the world. If a man walked by Giddo Joe’s restaurant and the man looked hungry, Giddo Joe would bring him into the restaurant and give him a good meal. Giddo Joe did that until he died at ninety years old.

Sometimes while Sitto is telling stories, I look into the living room, where the wall is covered with pictures. There are many faces that smile back at me. They all have dark eyes and dark hair, although some is curly and some is straight, and many of the hairstyles and clothes are funny and oldfashioned. I know which picture is Sitto Effifeh and Giddo Joe, because it is the picture in the middle of all the others. They are old and fat and they look happy, as if they know that they are surrounded on all sides by pictures of their children, and their grandchildren, and their great-great-grandchildren, like me.

Š 2001 Margaret Stone Burke

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There is one picture of my aunts dancing the dabkeh at my mother’s wedding. They aren’t wispy ballerinas fluttering across a stage, they are as mysterious as a smile behind a silken veil. They dance in a line, with their hands entwined like the branches of the family tree. Dark shiny curls tumble around their shoulders, and bracelets jingle on their graceful wrists. That is my favorite picture. I have never seen the dabkeh, but I will learn it someday, and I will be beautiful and I will have gold bracelets on my arms.

We hear clinks and splashes as dishes are dropped into the soapy water in the sink. Our mothers are bustling around the kitchen, washing and drying Sitto’s dishes and putting them back into cupboards and drawers. It’s time to go, and we must bundle up again. Before we go out the door, Sitto Wadid pulls our mittens on a little tighter, buttons our coats up to our throats, and ties our hats so tight the wool scratches our ears. She leans down and hugs us very tight, and we reach up and kiss her soft and crinkly cheek.

When I leave, I am filled up with more than Sitto’s good cooking. I’m filled up with my family; the people I have known all my life, and the people I never knew who smile at me from pictures on Sitto’s wall. They are all inside me and outside me, and always will be.

© 2001 Margaret Stone Burke

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When Sitto says goodbye, I am the most important person in the world to her. She whispers in my ear, “Be good,” and I know that for all my family and for myself, I will be good.

© 2001 Margaret Stone Burke

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