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One of the family stories I know best is about the time my mother discovered pepperoni.
It was 1983, and my mom and her family had just moved into their first house in Canada, a bungalow in Mississauga, which her parents, sister, four brothers, and a sister-in-law would all share. They had immigrated from Pakistan only a few years earlier and so much was still new to them – the language, the weather and even the food.
They unloaded their luggage and figured they could order out for dinner that night. And although they’d only recently been introduced to pizza – the first couple of times they only ate the crust – they were developing a taste for it. So, the ladies left instructions to order some before stepping out.
By the time my mom returned home with her mother and sister, the pizza was waiting for them. Her brothers had helped themselves to the cheesy pie. But my mother’s eyes landed on the burgundy discs scattered across the pizza. Luckily, a friend who accompanied them to the house told them what they were – and that they were made of pork, which Muslims cannot eat – before she could take a bite. Unfortunately, her brothers learned too late.
I’m Maria Iqbal, and I’ve just completed a run as a summer reporter at The Globe. The pepperoni tale is one my favourite family stories, but it’s one of the few windows I have into my mother’s life before I was born – both in Canada and in Pakistan before that. I realized that this March, when my mom lost her mother and began spilling stories about the family that I’d never heard. I saw then that I’ve dedicated my career to documenting the stories of total strangers, but I’ve spent very little time hearing the stories of those closest to me.
In many ways, these stories have helped me see that my mother went through many of the struggles I did, years before I was born. My mom tells me about how when she arrived in Canada, she and her mom and sister were among the few Muslim women she knew who wore the niqab. As the three of them would come down the elevator from their three-bedroom apartment in North Toronto, teens standing outside would scream, “Ghosts!”
Many years later, when I was growing up, I wanted to just fit in and tried to avoid anything that would make me stand out. My mom even says that after I started school, I felt embarrassed by the way she dressed. She tells me stories about how when she walked me through the hilly pathway to and from school, I would walk a few feet ahead of her to avoid being seen together.
But as I’ve grown older, not only have I taken more of my fashion cues from my mom, she continues to shape me in unexpected ways. Like my mother, I will often get distracted mid-chores by a headline in a newspaper strewn across the table, and will spend more time reading it than actually putting away the dishes. Whenever I drink tea, I will always take only half a teaspoon of honey even though unlike her, I’m not diabetic. I’m just as bad at directions as she is, and like her, never remember where the car is parked after going shopping.
I also learned that when my mom and her siblings were young, they used to pretend to be awake before dawn for their morning prayers. They’d tap their feet on the bedroom floor so it would seem like they were up to perform the daybreak observance, before sneaking back into bed. To this day, my mom tells me how difficult I am to rouse for the prayers.
A couple months ago, I stumbled on a series of tweets from author-illustrator Jonny Sun about how he’s discovered many of his random habits can be traced back to his parents. “I focused so hard on trying to avoid inheriting my parents’ negative traits that I let all these random neutral traits of theirs slip through, I realize as I rinse out a Ziploc bag and prop it up inside-out to dry so I can reuse it at a later date,” he wrote.
The part that stuck out to me was when he said, “We internalize traits we observe in others as a way to honour and remember them. We are all walking memorials.”
No doubt many of my mom’s habits were inherited from her mother.
As she continues to remember her mom through her stories, I hope I can at least make time to listen.
What else we’re thinking about:
My Globe and Mail mentor Ann Hui went on a similar mission to discover her family’s history. Three years ago, she wrote about visiting Chinese restaurants in small towns across Canada, to learn the stories of the people behind them. Only after her feature on the experience was published did she learn that her parents had a Chinese restaurant of their own before she was born. So, she became determined to discover her family’s story and wrote about it in her book, Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Café and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants.
On another note, school is back in session and this editorial in Ryerson University’s student newspaper, The Eyeopener, reminded me that it’s not business as usual at campus newspapers and other student groups at Ontario universities. Because students can now opt out of certain ancillary fees, these groups risk losing funding – potentially threatening their survival. As an alumna of my own campus newspaper, The Medium, I know how important these groups are into keeping students informed – and how excellent they are as training grounds for future journalists.
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