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Seeking a Path Between Old and New

Cat eyes follow my every move as I walk briskly in my modest neighborhood, past small yards with their newly minted sidewalks. Around the corner, a red-capped woodpecker drums his rhythmic tune on the hollow branch of a cedar tree.

My walking habit had begun a few months before, when I visited my Aunt Anisa, my mother's sister. At ninetysomething, she lives in Florida. While braver souls frolicked on the beach in blazing sun, I chose the kinder, gentler mornings to walk in solitary ambiance on the broad sidewalk a stone's throw from the ocean.

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My aunt's memories of a time gone by propelled the walks we took together in the evening.

In 1915, my aunt had left her native Ramallah, in Palestine, and with her older sister, Bea, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of her American destiny. Only 12 years old, she began to attend a Quaker school in New York. Later, she was captain of her basketball team.

"I graduated in 1919," she told me, "a few days after Congress approved the vote for women."

Although America became her chosen home, Anisa made several ocean voyages to visit friends and family back home. From Palestinian and Lebanese relatives she acquired an acumen for business, eventually establishing summer and winter dress shops. She proudly named her shops "Anisa."

DURING our walks, Aunt Anisa's memories spilled out as joggers and skateboarders cruised by and we made eye contact with other walkers. I wondered whether those who looked our way could see beyond the figure in blue polyester pants to the fearless and independent-minded woman of fashion that Aunt Anisa was - and is.

Back in my own modest Texas neighborhood I walked past carports, cars clogging driveways, and a yard edged with volcanic rock. At one house, white iron egrets clustered near the front garden. At another, replicas of ancient Aztec faces edged the lawn. And in a third, antique roses spilled out their Old World charm among native Texas grasses.

Like early-morning sunlight, memories of a walk I took with my dad come flooding in. On that special afternoon with my father, he took me on a walk across the rocky hills beyond Ramallah. As a boy, he had often hiked across rugged terrain to Jerusalem, 11 miles away, and back.

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As we trudged along, creating our own pathway between rocks and clumps of thorns, he told me tales of caliphs and poets, and recited poetry from Souk Ukath, a gathering place where Arab poets pitted their creative prowess in friendly competition. At intervals we stopped to pick wildflowers or smell exotic herbs. I stared with awe as he pointed out the remnants of an ancient Roman road.

At age 15, soon after that memorable walk, I left home for college in the States. Like Aunt Anisa, I learned to adjust to a different culture.

Every week or two my dad wrote me letters weighted with advice and admonitions to study hard. He usually ended them with succulent descriptions of my mother's Mideastern cooking.

In turn, I composed my letters in English on a manual Remington typewriter. I wrote about my classes, my college adventures, and occasionally described American food as sampled in our school cafeteria.

To keep me thawed out until spring, my storm coat became my second skin.

During those rugged Indiana winters, snowflakes often turned into mounds of snow deep enough to make cars disappear. One evening, following the example of more daring friends, I straddled a cafeteria tray and slid down the incline of a small hill of snow.

Summers, I traveled by train, bus, or automobile to visit relatives or friends. I discovered the clever, even witty, Burma Shave verses by the side of the road. And once, on a trek to California with a friend's family, the display of geysers erupting in Yellowstone National Park took my breath away.

Later, I would stay in a cabin high in the Rocky Mountains, look up at the brilliant stars, and reach out to touch the sky.

In the days and years to come, I would learn to step lightly on the earth. And, like Aunt Anisa, I would create my own path between the Old World and the New.

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