Episodes from My Family History
Two young ladies went down to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to meet the ship that would embark upon a journey from Syria (now Lebanon) to the United States of America. One was twenty-one-year-old, Asma Asaff, with her eight-month-old baby as her traveling companion. That baby was my mother, Matilda Asaff. The other was Athuna Asaff, Asma’s teenage sister-in-law, who came to see her off.
After a tearful goodbye, Asma said, “I hate to leave you here, Athuna. Do you want to come with us?”
“Yes, I would love to go with you, but I have no money for a ticket,” answered Athuna.
“Not to worry,” replied Asma. “I will send word to George to wire money for you.”
So Athuna came on board that day with no money and only the clothes on her back. “We will share everything,” Asma told Athuna. “You are my sister and good friend. We will take care of each other.”
The family story goes that as the ship set sail, Athuna waved to her birthplace and said, “Goodbye, you sons of bitches,” and she never looked back. Asma, on the other hand, had such fond memories of Syria, that she would point to the moon and say, “Same moon that shines over the old country. Same moon.”
Asma Asaff was born when the figs were ripe in Berbara, Syria, a Christian village near Mt. Lebanon in 1890. Fleeing Ottoman oppression, she came to the U.S. via Ellis Island in 1911 with her firstborn baby. Her husband, George, had traveled to America the year before to earn money for his wife and child to follow him there.
Like many immigrants in those days, Asma was illiterate. In the old country, she had learned to bake in an outdoor stone oven, using her hands as measuring tools.
In America, Asma rose at 4:00 a.m. to bake bread, singing Arabic songs while she was at it. She crafted thick, round loaves from scratch, placing the sign of the cross on the dough before baking. Her kitchen always smelled heavenly. She also made delicious spinach and meat pies with the dough, and on special occasions, fried donuts with powdered sugar on top.
Cooking and feeding people came naturally to her. She would sit on her front porch in Lake Charles, Louisiana, waiting for men from the nearby airbase to walk by. “You hungry? Come in, I give you food,” she would say. Once inside, she would introduce them to her single daughters—and that’s how Uncle Roy met Aunt Rosie.
We called her Big Mama. When her first grandchild, my sister, Virginia, called her Mama, she replied, “I not your mama, I your big mama.” Big Mama never learned to read or write and spoke broken English. The letter p was difficult for her to pronounce, substituting it with the sound of b. One day she offered my brother’s friend some peaches, saying, “You want some bitches, honey?” He knew what she meant by the fruit in her hand, but he replied, “You got any?”
When not cooking, Asma peddled piece goods door to door in her neighborhood. She tied her money in a handkerchief and had her own system of bookkeeping. I went with her occasionally and got to see firsthand how smart she was. With limited English, Big Mama found other ways to communicate, and we could always taste the love in her bread.
One of the unexpected joys of researching this story came when I heard from a cousin, Athuna’s grandson, with whom I had lost touch. He reminded me of a fun trip we took together as kids, riding in the back of a pickup truck from Shreveport to Dallas. He also reminded me of the courage and grit our grandmothers had when they traveled as steerage passengers on that long voyage to freedom and the “blessings of liberty” promised in the preamble to our Constitution. If not for them, we wouldn’t be here today.