Halie Tolba

2017-2018 Live Deliberately Essay Contest

Halie Tolba, 17
Winner, 17-18 Age Group
Shrewsbury, MA

I mostly remember the way she smelled. Like rice boiling on the stove and sweet floral perfume. Like deep red Indian henna and of seaweed and salt and shells pulled up from the Caribbean floor. It was in every crevice of the house – this smell of dough lovingly kneaded into cakes sweetened with honey and wool blankets from across the Atlantic tumbling in the dryer.

I remember falling asleep on her lap, her body a home for mine to find rest on and her breasts a maternal pillow to sleep away my childhood worries. For the longest time I didn’t know that sito translated to grandmother. Of course, I knew she was my grandmother, but there was something special and almost cosmic about the way she loved that deserved another name. Sito, in my mind, translated to something equivalent to the soul of mother earth herself, a word of love so strong it was nearly divine.

We left her and my grandfather, my gedo, on the beach that summer to fish and live quietly in their old age, but I never saw her again. Months later I woke up in the morning light of my bedroom to my father climbing into bed with me, holding my head against his chest and telling me every decade old story of my grandmother that he could remember, all through quiet tears. The shadows that cast themselves across my bedside table became so much darker than before and I soon found myself with my feet in the sand once again, but without the woman who I had never imagined I would have to be without in the first place.


It was two years later when I met Mary. She was cold and blonde and smelled like the tangy type of soap you only use when trying to scrub away something regretful and stubborn.

I hated it.

I hated everything, from the way she organized every inch of my grandfather’s condo into this little box to the way she pronounced his name. Ahhhmed. That’s not it. Not at all. It’s pronounced Ahckmed – meaning praise in Arabic, meaning the prophet Muhammad, meaning my American father’s Egyptian middle name. At the moment it felt as though his name wasn’t hers to say.

I think that summer was the first time I ever saw my aunt cry. It was graceful and quiet, just like everything else about her, but I felt her aches through my own body as if they were my own. I assume those tears were the product of a culmination of things; maybe the fact that the walls were no longer littered with family pictures, but instead with Mary’s art, like graffiti in our sacred temple. Maybe it was the way Mary kissed him on the cheek. Whatever it was, something made it feel like she was sweeping fifty years of love for my sito underneath a dusty rug.

I think, regrettably, this may have been the result of a sort of elegy that we refused to conclude, a remembrance that was missing an essential element of moving on. My aunt, my father and I – we don’t know loneliness. We have yet to experience the empty space where a lifelong partner once stood, to feel the stillness of an empty home. Yet this man, this man who raised us with overwhelming respect and love that we still question if we deserve in the first place, was experiencing it right before our eyes. We wanted so badly to be the only salve to his wounds that we didn’t realize what he truly needed was the mere company of another who was also looking for peace.

It’s for this reason that I’m no longer bitter.

I’m not bitter because my gedo looks to her for the kind of salvation we all wish we could find and I’ve learned it is not my place to wish something as precious as that away.

I’m not bitter because though this path to acceptance was turbulent at best, I have discovered how to love even when my only obstacle is resistance from myself.

I’m not bitter because though I miss my sito’s picture hanging on the wall, Mary’s art is beautiful with the lens of ridicule removed from my eyes. They are paintings of seaweed and salt and shells pulled up from the Caribbean floor and she is not my sito, but she comforts my gedo as they fish and live quietly into their old age.