Bearing THE Mark – Grandma’s Tattoo
Religion and education run through my veins like a river – whether you look at my adopted side or my birth side – the lines run deep back through both lineages. They are a part of who I am, and where I’m from. Whenever we are in doubt of who we are, reflecting on from whence we come is a great starting point.
In our family, the name for Grandmother has always been Tita – from my Dad’s Syrian/Lebanese roots. I wear the title of Tita with great honor – as did my mother and my Dad’s mother before her. All my memories of MY Tita however are someone else’s as she passed away when I was only nine months old – but boy are my memories wonderful! I was raised being told how she approved of my name even though it isn’t in the Bible but contained the word Christ so it passed her approval; how I bit her so hard once when she was trying to rock me to sleep she had tears coming out of her eyes but refused to put me down; yet my absolute favorite is one that I’ve only recently acquired, and fascinates me to no end.
Stories and family lore run deep around both the Curry and Lugar branches of my somewhat complicated and gnarled family tree. The tales of my Tita hold some of the greatest mystique for me – I think because everyone has always told me these tales of how deeply she adored the infant that was me. As a young immigrant to the United States, the wife of an Orthodox priest, and the mother of eighteen children (yeah – you read that right it’s not a typo – however only seventeen survived past infancy), the stories around my Tita, Mary (George) Saba Curry, were always about the life she lived in the US, not of the one she left in Syria/Lebanon. But, this NEW lore makes the rest pale in comparison, and astounds me even more than what it must have been like raising seventeen children at the turn of the century …
You see – my Tita was born December 15, 1880 in a small village in Syria , which is now a part of Lebanon. She and my Grandfather immigrated to the United States in the 1890’s eventually settling in Johnstown, PA and established St. Mary’s Orthodox Church with twelve other families. I still have my Tita’s cross – one of my most cherished possessions – which I received on my sixteenth birthday (as a little girl I used to beg my Mom to pull this treasure out of her jewelry box to gaze at this marvel that would someday be mine – laying on the skin over my heart, just as it had my Tita’s).
A few years ago, I had to travel to Houston so I was able to catch up with my cousin Cissy, who had always been the big sister I longed for but never had. I lived with her young family of three in Texas the summer of my fourteenth year after my father died. She was everything I had hoped I would one day become, and visiting her after so much time had passed was a much anticipated reunion.
Luxuriating in her living room as if 34 years had not passed by us, Cis shared with me her childhood memories of my parents who have both now passed, showed me some of our earliest family artifacts, (including the Bishop’s bench that she had from her mother, my Aunt Lil – this was the seat the bishop would sit in during his visits to the church, located in a place of honor while parishioners would kiss his hand/ring in a show of respect and reverence as they came forward — it did not look very comfortable at all by today’s standards), and a tale of my Tita’ early years in Syria/Labanon. Being slightly my senior, Cissy knew SO many family tales that were new to me, and we sat into the wee hours of that evening with me riveted to her every word.
I had always heard the “coming to America” tale through Ellis Island, and how my maiden name became Curry instead of Khouri (Lebanese for priest), and I even had an inkling that they fled their home country for religious freedom (Christians were not welcome with the Ottoman Empire). Yet – I truly had no idea or concept of what it would have been like to be a Syrian/Lebanese Christian in the late 1800’s in the Mount Lebanon region of her homeland. Any imaginings of my Tita in the tales being told always had her part played by an elderly, head-scarf-wearing woman – just like the pictures of her I grew up seeing. Thinking of her as a young girl in a primitive, far-away Ottoman-run Syria was a new and novel experience for me.
As the hours wore on and the stories continued, Cis said, ‘Well, you know Tita had a tattoo …” My mind came to a screeching halt, still trying to get my head around my 87 year-old Tita, bearer of 18 children, with a rose tattoo on her hip or lower back –
— the visual just wasn’t working for me.
Apparently – while a young girl in Syria – Christians would literally meet in mountain caves and the countryside to worship together. My Tita bore a small cross tattoo on her hand as a secret sign used by fellow Christians to identify one another. The stories vary about whether the tattoo was on her inner wrist, which would have remained covered under her garments, or on the web of skin between her thumb and her fingers, on the palm side – but she DEFINITELY had the cross tattooed somewhere on her hand. My first thought was “OW!!!! that HAD to be painful!” followed by “WOW….[silence]…”, just WOW!
In a world where showing your faith is ridiculed at times by the general populace, the thought of permanently marking yourself with a tattoo – not for vanity reasons but as a true symbol of faith and your commitment to God – is staggering to my mind. What strength and conviction my Tita had – to physically bear a sign on her body, that if found could cause her death! This cross was a constant and permanent reminder of the commitment that she’d made – a silent, subtle reminder for the rest of her existence of where her heart resided – in her devotion. Here we are in a society where we question publicly displaying our convictions, yet so many faithful before us risked their lives to make sure we were able to worship safely – a gift we so
easily take for granted!
My images of my Tita still envision her as the elderly, head-scarf-wearing woman, BUT now I feel a connection and gratefulness to her for her willingness to be an example of a God-fearing woman- I am even more in awe of her life and her desire to serve God.
it runs deep through my veins.
It’s at the core of my being —
passed down from generation to generation
and through adoption.