“How to Travel with Kids while Getting Life-Changing News” EXCERPT from ALL WATER HAS PERFECT MEMORY by NADA SAMIH-ROTONDO

Olympia, Washington 2019 

You are a thirty five year old wife and mother of three, who just started a job teaching English language learners at a new school. Your husband tells you about a conference he has the opportunity to attend in the Pacific Northwest. In a rare moment of spontaneity, you say, Lets do it, lets go.” You havent been on an airplane in five years, you just completed a masters degree, and your youngest is right on the cusp of aging out of the free seat. Why not? Excited to be shown around the PNW by your husband, who attended college in Olympia, you request your days off at work and book the flights on a credit card. 

Two days before your flight, you check your To Do list and note how hard it will be to travel with a four and an almost two year old. You are grateful your oldest can go to his fathers house a few minutes away. On your lunch break, you open up your laptop and see an unfamiliar name in Facebook Messenger. You receive the shock of your life when you suddenly and unceremoniously learn that you have three half-siblings and a long lost father half a world away. Even more shocking is that they have been looking for you for a long time. They want to speak to you. 

They want you.
You are wanted.

You speak with your father for the first time in thirty years and forget how to carry on a conversation. Your kids carry on their normal after-school activities of requesting snacks and switching on the television. Soon enough they sense some- thing different is happening today and buzz around you like bees, adding to your feeling of numbness. Your father assumes the long pauses are due to emotional overwhelm and tells you its okay to cry. You discover you dont have the right words in either of the languages you know to explain youve left your body to watch yourself from the other side of the room. You dont know how to explain that youve had thirty years to perfect disassociating from reality. Your baba tells you an Arabic saying youve never heard before: What is meant for you will reach you, even if it is beneath two mountains. 

When you get off the plane, you see a mountain for the first time. Mount Rainier is a classic snow-topped mountain that is so picturesque it looks fake against the blue sky. This is your first trip to Washington state, so you are relieved that contrary to what you were warned about the constant rain, it is sunny and bright. You take the kids to a playground after grabbing coffee at a cafe your husband used to frequent in his college years. You savor a piece of pumpkin bread, remembering it is the start of a new season. Your husband knows his way around the small city and points out the sights, which you are grateful for because you cant seem to figure out which way is up. You come up with a list of notes for future reference. 

In case you are traveling out west for the first time with small children while receiving life-changing news, note the following:

  1. You will have unreliable internet
  2. You will need to download WhatsApp because thats what people with family overseas do
  3. You will need to buy more data for your phone, since its the end of your billing cycle
  4. You will be jet lagged and sleep-deprived
  5. You will give the kids chocolate whenever they want
  6. You will be over-caffeinated and cry publicly every place you go

You learn your grandmother wants to speak with you as soon as possible. You set up a day, forgetting you are on the other side of the country and that there is such a thing as time zones. You end up speaking to the teta on your babas side for the first time in thirty years while in Olympia on the front lawn of the house of your husbands friend. It is just after dawn, but in Jordan it is afternoon when you hear your tetas faraway voice. Afraid the call might drop, you run outside for a better signal, forgoing shoes. Your eyes burn from lack of sleep and your feet get wet from the grass, which is still dewy. The air is sweet and filled with the sound of roosters crowing from the farmhouse next door. Sunlight pours from the sky in bright streams between the clouds, a shower of heavenly light. Your children follow you out into the dewy morning but stop as their feet hit the grass, their socks suddenly cold and damp. This buys your husband time to coax them back inside, gifting you with space. 

During your stay in Olympia, you are a hibernating tulip bulb, dug out from cold winter soil. You feel weak, exposed, and helpless. Your guard is down when you call your mom and tell her everything. She reacts aggressively and makes it clear she doesnt approve of this new connection. Logically, you understand it doesnt matter how she reacts. You are a thirty-five- year-old woman who has taken care of herself in countless ways since childhood. You havent even lived in the same state as your mother in over a decade. Its a good idea to let it go, to keep your mouth shut, but you are a home to a rage creature that is chomping at the bit for some action. 

I went through a divorce too,” you say, words that take you running across thin ice. 

Whatever might have happened between us, I wouldnt have taken his child away from him,” you conclude dryly without remorse, recalling the several instances when you could have moved away but choose to stay and feel through to the bottom of the pain instead. You learned at a young age there is always a bottom to it; you just need to sit with it. 

Pandoras box flies open, as you predicted it would. Your husband is driving the family to a waterfront area with a view, because you said you wanted to see the Pacific. You regret allowing the rage creature to surface when you realize you are missing the sunset. You are only here for a short stay, you remind yourself: every moment counts. You glance at your children in their car seats; they have the same eyes as you, brown and shaped like almonds. You have a hard time sympathizing with your mother when she claims she had no other choice. We always have a choice, you think to yourself, as she sounds off her list of grievances and what she went through. 

I needed to get you out of there,” she explains, choking on tears. I had no rights as a divorced woman, absolutely no say,” she recounts. Your dads mother said I was nothing but a vessel for children. You have no idea what they put me through.” 

You notice your breathing is shallow, so you try to inhale deeply. You tuck your rage creature away at the bottom of your belly and concede. This is not a fight worth fighting; she will always have her truth and you will have yours. You remember another Arabic saying as your husband parks the rental: The wisest is the one who can forgive. 

A couple years later, after the shock has worn itself down to a blunter edge, fresh chaos erupts when your mother learns of your recent reunion with your paternal side overseas. You are at a movie theater awaiting previews when you notice several missed calls and texts. Sensing an emergency, you call your mother back. You step out into the empty lobby as she picks up on the first ring. 

You went to Amman?”

Without ceremony or hesitation you flatly respond: Yes.”

“Why didnt you tell me?” Her voice transforms into hot venom from across state lines.

You told me not to tell you anything more about him.”

The conversation descends into one-sided garble. Your mamas voice is simultaneously breathless and angry, the victim and the victimizer one and the same. You realize your eyes are tightly closed when your vision fills with dragons spewing flames. You open your eyes to spinning movie post- ers and raise your free arm to grip the snack counter, warm from the popcorn machine. You find this both comforting and tragic—the fragrant popcorn and yellow overhead lights, the gateways to movie magic, suddenly defiled. Your mama loves the movie theater. You recall the countless times she took you to see new releases.

All Water Has Perfect Memory (Jaded Ibis Press, 2023)

Despite what was falling apart in your life, she would somehow find and press the pause button. As though guided by magic, she would eagerly guide you by the hand toward thresholds of wonder, islands of clear weather in a childhood of storms. Movie theaters became dark sacred spaces— temples to action, adventure, romance, and fantasy. Shrines of visual storytelling, popular stars, and animated creatures. Lion King, Toy Story, Titanic, Jurassic Park, Mrs. Doubtfire— all holy and worthy of your full attention, for what is prayer but concentrated attention? Youll never forget the summer you were eleven when she took you to see Independence Day, despite a tropical storm warning. You remember an extraterrestrial sky greeting you as you exited the theater, black clouds in the same shape and size as the alien ships that descended on Earth moments ago. The air was thick yet still—the quiet before the storm. You rode home staring at the sky in awe, convinced Will Smith was also in that Warwick parking lot, ready to save you both. 

In a flurry of tears your mother hangs up. Exhaling, you notice the movie posters have returned to their original positions. You switch your phone off to return to your husbands side at the small movie theater. Previews are about to begin and your feelings can wait. 

In Olympia, you feel an unnerving dissolution of self when you surrender that which has defined you for so long. It is an act of courage to embrace what remains, to no longer be defined by lack or loss. At your husbands conference the kids pass out for their naps on benches in the hotel lobby. You chat with your newly found father on your newly down- loaded WhatsApp. 

Your baba writes, I did my best to let your sister and both brothers know about you so they can search with me for you. Alhamdula, thank God, we found you. And I was always thinking, did Nada know I never forgot her? Anyhow, you do know now how much we missed you. Every moment alone—of which there are few—is spent sobbing, so you are grateful you are not at work this week. You grow accustomed to the puffy eyes, damp cheeks, and constant nose-blowing. 

Thirty years,” you say to your husband in-between workshops. We missed so much that we will never get back.” 

Your father never got to see you graduate; he never celebrated with you at your wedding, nor saw his grandchildren as tiny newborns. 

But think about what well get now,” your husband says. You still have time.” 

You have a parent that kept vigil for you, that still has pictures of you sitting in his lap, just like the pictures you have of your babies with your husband. There is photographic evidence that you were loved and cared for and embraced by a family and never forgotten about. You know that now the real work begins. You need to figure out who you are with this revised story. You have found a thin place, like the threshold to a darkened movie theater, a doorway between worlds. The movie ends and the lights come up. I did everything to protect you appears on your phones screen. Slowly the audience stirs as if awakened from a deep sleep. Bodies shuffle down aisles solemnly. 

In Amman, after thirty years of absence, your baba asks, How did she do it? All these years and I wonder, how?” 

Baba recalls my mother as someone seven years his junior. A soft-spoken young woman, timid and unsure of herself. Someone incapable of driving nearly 950 miles across a desert during a war. He never witnessed how a wave of maternal protective instinct could surface, how the crest activated generations of maternal fury and power. 

Alone,” you respond, new awareness dawning.

She did it alone. 

Your baba talks about getting to visit the city of Yafa for the first time, and feeling like he was back. 

Back? he thought to himself. Ive never been here before. 

You tell him youve felt the same way about Palestine just from looking at pictures. Just from listening to stories. The land is in your DNA and you know that will never be erased. You feel like reuniting with your father is like reuniting with your land. It is just like a celestial bodys orbital return, long but inevitable.

Excerpted from All Water Has Perfect Memory by Nada Samih-Rotondo. Used with the permission of the publisher, Jaded Ibis Press. Copyright ©2023 by Nada Samih-Rotondo.

Filed under: Excerpts


Nada Samih-Rotondo (she/her) is a multi-genre Palestinian American writer, educator, and mother. A graduate of Rhode Island College, she earned degrees in English and Education and an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University. When she is not befriending trees or attuning to hidden stories, she is leading transformational educational experiences and addressing the social-emotional needs of historically underserved and multilingual youth. Her writing has appeared in Masters Review, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, and Squat Birth Journal. She lives in Providence with her husband and three children. All Water Has Perfect Memory is her first book.