Over the River and Through the Woods, to Grandmother’s Home We Go!

by Amy McGarry

Yep. For me, growing up, getting to Grandmother’s home for the holidays, the river was actually Blue Creek (pronounced “crick”, of course) in Stevens County. The woods were the Colville National Forest. Those days, sadly, are long gone. These days, to get to “Grandmother’s” home, we cross one continent and one ocean to visit my husband Mustapha’s family in Morocco. We were fortunate enough to make that trip again this past holiday season, including a first-time visit to my sister-in-law’s home in Spain. It’s a long way to travel, but it’s worth it. Our daughter Sophia is 10 now. Mustapha’s connection to family is hands-down his top priority in life. So not only does he want to return home to visit as often as possible, but keeping Sophia connected to that side of the family is crucial. 

We arrived in Mustapha’s hometown airport after 17 hours of travel and four airplane switches. It was 10:00pm Moroccan time. We were greeted at the airport by Grandpa, two brothers, one brother-in-law, and two nephews. It took three or four cars to get them, us, and all of our suitcases back to Grandmother’s house. 

Walking in the door, we were greeted by no less than 30 family members of all ages. When I say greeted, I mean GREETED. One of the Moroccan cultural traditions that has taken me years to understand is the importance of greeting. When we walk into my sister’s house for the rare extended family dinner (and we do just walk in, so no one is answering the door), my sister will usually yell out a “hi, how are ya?”  Someone else might say a quick “hi”. But most of my family barely acknowledges our entrance. Or they just start talking to us. I’m not positive, but my guess is that’s not too uncommon for American families. In my experience, a formal greeting is just not that important to most Americans. 

A formal greeting is not only customary in Morocco, it’s mandatory, every time you see someone. I’m not sure why it took me so long for this to sink in. I’ve been married to Mustapha for 12 years now, and have visited his family in Morocco five times. The first time I visited I had no forewarning, preparation, or training for the customary greeting. Women, when greeting each other and meeting for the first time, always embrace and give kisses to the cheeks. Maybe this doesn’t sound so complicated or hard to grasp, but it is! Upon meeting my mother-in-law for the first time, I didn’t know which side of the face to kiss first, so we went back in forth an awkward chicken-like neck thrust, face dance until we’d had enough and called it “a greeting.” Was it one kiss to the left? One kiss to the right? Another kiss to the left? Or the opposite? Turns out it’s one kiss to the left, two to the right. Who knew?

This most recent visit I was prepared for all those women waiting to greet me when we walked in the door! And yes, I was expected to go through this formal greeting with each and every woman and child. There were at least 15. 

One greeting, however, was different. Instead of the formal kiss to the cheek, Auntie Aisha pulled me into her big, warm body and embraced me hard. She held me tight for a long time. I teared up as I felt her body shaking with sobs. Seeing me and her favorite nephew, my husband, brought back her grief. It brought back mine, too. Sadly, we lost my dear mother-in-law last October. Grandmother’s home was missing Grandmother.

And yet it wasn’t. As the 30 of us gathered for dinner together that night, her presence was palpable to me. I could see her face in the faces of her family, feel her love in the family connection. While it was sad to not have her physical presence there with us, we were cheered to all be together again, breaking bread as a family. Bittersweet, yes, but it was just a touch of bitter, the sweet overflowing our hearts with joy. 

Amy McGarry is currently working on a follow up to her first book, I am Farang: Adventures of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand. The next book details the courtship and marriage of McGarry and her Moroccan husband. For a summary of that story, see: https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2019/nov/28/love-story-couple-worlds-apart-find-each-other-in-/

“I am Farang” is available at Auntie’s Bookstore and Amazon.com.