His name is Paul, my maternal grandfather that is, but everyone just calls him Pop. I’ve asked my mother a hundred times where his nickname comes from, hoping that maybe once, just by chance, her encrusted neurons would finally make the connection. But, alas, the origin of the name, Pop, is lost history, or maybe it never had a reason. My name is Elias. “Ee-lie-us.” (Simple; though apparently not to some people). But everyone in my family calls me, “Yai-Yai.” The name, Yai-Yai that is, isn’t Lebanese or Arabic, but the result of Paul—the other Paul, my brother that is, who shares the same name and birthday as Pop. Paul, my brother, two-years of age then, maybe three, struggled with articulating syllables and sounds without over-salivating and excessively precipitating on a crowd—oddly enough, when the doctor told him the unfortunate news of his drooling condition he gloated about the family for some time over his new-found abilities.
To my family, the name Yai-Yai is the transliterated abbreviation that was bestowed upon me since that time my spit-sloppy brother, Paul, called me Yai-Yai. But I was given my name, Elias, not Yai-Yai, from my father who was named after his father. What were the odds that I would get this name? Him, my dad that is, the last of twelve kids. All loud, mostly. A Lebanese family, Christian: Maronite. That drove in a packed car with siblings hanging out the car window, snuck snacks during their pre-Sunday mass fast, and froze when they saw that Blessed Mother. What were the odds? Me, the last of five, not twelve, kids. And what were the odds that we would both grow up to look nearly identical?
Yai-Yai is a peculiar name though as its both the formal and informal variation. Most of the parents I grew up around when they needed to be serious with their children, even adult children, would refer to them in a serious tone and usually by the full extent of their name. In this case, “Elias Hatem Attea the Third,” said sternly, would be my proper address, but that wasn’t like my family. Our disciplines were vague and hazy. Oftentimes punishments were discharged only an hour after their sentencing. In which case, laxed in formality and enforcement, the name Yai-Yai stayed.
Later in life, as my emotional aptitude became more adept, the name Yai-Yai became confusing as the channels of expression (praise, scorn, and whatever behavioral reinforcement is used to demand your child to grab the television remote) all referred to me by the same nickname and oftentimes the same tone (barked-at-like). Sometimes it’s endearing to be a mature adult and still be called by my one-year-old title and then sometimes those conversations sound more like this:
Cue Dad (in a discussion with me about my grandfather, Pop) some family-owned sub shop in a rural town in Western New York. His eyes glued to a television screen as he maintains conversation:
Dad: “So, you couldn’t handle staying at your Pop’s, huh?”
Me: “Well…I wouldn’t say that.”
Dad: “Well, what then? Why’d you move out? You’re not there anymore, anyways.”
He chuckles. I stir. A man riding a horse giddy-ups across the television screen while bandits follow.
Me: “I didn’t want to be a mooch, I guess.”
Dad: “A mooch?”
Me: “I, I made a promise to help around the house or do farm work, and when I started working a job I didn’t have any time to offer.”
And pause. Here, this is what I mean. The tone associated with the use of “Yai-Yai” could go anywhere, but since I already hyped it up, I think you know where the tone of this conversation is about to go.
Dad: “…don’t ever think like that! A mooch, huh. Oh, brother. You know, your Pop has been there at that farm for how long you think? Don’t you think he knows what he’s doing? I mean, what’s he going to do? He’s surrounded by people all the time; don’t you think he likes you around for company?”
My dad was speaking for Pop but also for himself. Implying that someone’s house can be an extension of the body. Pop can’t get around his home much these days without a walker and without someone assisting him. That house, to him, is the set of arms that could offer gifts and legs that would lend to service. It means the world to Pop to host people and offer what he can because of the now lack of mobility. My dad, on the other hand, can get around, but his worn-down patience and limited attention span (the bandits on the screen, by the way, are apparently some famous actor that just passed away) restrict what gestures of affection he can offer his family at this point in his life. At age seventy, he’s had a long life, a choppy relationship with his kids, though we love him and vice versa, I hope (well, I’m not sure about the status of my brother and dad—not because of the excessive saliva problem, no that’s been long resolved at the age of six or seven. And to much good news, he, my brother that is, has since assimilated very well into normal social behavior, boasts about achievements not oddities, and can speak rather clearly, all syllables, too). In the same way that my dad pays for dinner, this sub sandwich at least that I’m eating right now, his house and money are the extension of his hospitality that he can’t actualize himself and the last offering when it seems there’s nothing left to give out of love.
Dad: “Yai-yai,” My dad refrained, slowly to a stern halt. “Don’t ever say something like that about being a mooch. You just got to ask.”
. . .
There’s a lot I can’t say or ask for at times, at least not in another language that I’ve yet to learn: French—which, think as you may, is still a fully-equipped and well-policed language, like so much of our inhibited honest self, is far easier to speak but less rewarding when someone else is doing the talking. Especially when traversing the French country side by myself, clueless but figuring out my sense of direction and how to communicate as I went. Oftentimes, I would strike up a small conversation, as I would in English, about a shared experience. Something simple like a noisy car passing or the distraught feeling of being without food on a Sunday when all the grocery stores are closed. Other times I bonded with my hosts by humoring them with paralleling similarities and oddities lost in translation. There are the more sophisticated conversation starters that make people think you’re interested in talking to them like identifying identically-spelled French words in the English language (which humorously tend to be the more abstract nouns like courage, joy, and of course, casserole, as if these words weren’t present prior to French influence on English). And for laughs, there is the ever-popular pronunciation of the word, squirrel, that gets hosts, myself included, jovial.
And then there are some other conversational threads that I was surprised to relate to others over including plants: A magnolia tree is still magnolia, but the word for beans (a type of legume) is not referred to as a legume, but rather as des haricots. While, I’m trying to understand why the ending “s” in French is not pronounced, my host tells me legume is reserved for the word vegetable. Perplexed, I thought to inquire about something that I had been curious about for some time now: the origin of the word, dandelion: which, as I had been told by an old North Carolinian mountain man, derives from the phrase dent de lion (teeth of a lion), but other sources say dandelions are commonly referred to as pissenlit (pee in the bed). Dandelions are an excellent diuretic, after all.
Oftentimes I marveled at how, for someone who knew so little French, I was able to reach to even these sorts of conversations. In hindsight, I made myself obvious while traveling. I was thrifty, often foraging for edible plants the French people that I met so rarely touched vegetables. And, the same mountain man who told me of the French name for dandelions also taught me how dandelions can be a valuable resource for nutrition and greens. Consequently, I spent much of my time before dinner poking around in the city parks for stinging nettle, rose hips, or dandelion to supplement my nutritional deficits.
Eating dandelion wasn’t so terrible. After throwing the plants into a kettle, the heat mitigated some of those untamable flavors of astringent country side, like the smell of silage, fermentation, self-understanding, and solitude. Dandelion’s aftertaste offers a residual film on the tongue that captures the reformulated bitterness lost somewhere in the throat, carries itself back up into the mouth, and induces a gagging or churning that is not so violent as some cough medicines, nor as repulsive as a raw clove of garlic, but was bad enough that at times my stomach couldn’t handle what I just chose to take in. That earthy and harsh flavor stayed in my mouth lingering like something I was all too familiar with, stuck, literally on the tip of my tongue, but unnamable like those raw feelings that stir constantly, wild and furious in my belly.
I’m often unsure as what to do with this wild being inside, unsure as to how to safely let it out, and then I had difficulties asking for what I needed or wanted. And, how could I? I didn’t know how to even begin describing that thing inside of me. I did realize this vicious thing inside me got there because of choices I made, some that eventually passed, that I lived to tell after, but not before leaving that taste of sacrificing a choice and percolating into a cloud that fogged my vision. The same fogginess that I’ve seen in my dad’s eyes, which I can almost look into if it weren’t for the fact that he was still staring at the television screen (now all the horses in the movie are corralled at a rodeo or something). My dad’s eyes have a deeper blurring though, like the kind of haze that blocks the vision from witnessing the outcome of someone’s choices, that watches their children grow up unrestrained, undisciplined, informally-addressed by the full extent of their name—for God sakes, my name is Elias Hatem Attea the Third. It’s the image of an unforgiving man. Men, like so many in my life, who sit staring out into glassed over realities, drinking their tea, sweetened strong enough with Splenda to hid a bitter truth and calories, rotting out the teeth, and tiring out of the body.
Near the end of our meal, I could feel that nauseous rousing in my belly again. I interrupted our dinner by telling my dad I was going to be moving.
Me: “This is the first time I’m actually making a choice that I absolutely want.”
It insinuated a lot of arguing. I’ll spare you of that. I could have revoked everything I said. Kept quiet, maybe even later snuck out one night, without telling anyone, to just start driving. I wondered how long I could keep secrets from others, myself included. Instead of just admitting to something that I wanted. How long someone can live off eating dandelions, not making choices that they loved, yet continue going about their day with that bitter taste lingering on their breath?