The Case for Clinging to Tradition,
Or Yeah, I was a Debutante, But It’s Not Like That
Even three generations into our American diaspora, we’re still in some ways an immigrant family, the century-old memory of Lebanon ingrained in our genetic fabric. And whatever varying impressions of this reality my cousins and I may wrestle with, the following story is unassailably true.
In July 1991, my parents proudly presented me, aged seventeen, to the Southern Federation of Syrian-Lebanese-American Clubs at a banquet of a thousand people, on the last night of their annual convention. A dozen others were being presented, too; we were a collection of dark-haired, almond-eyed dolls in frothy white gowns and elbow-length satin gloves. Our tuxedoed fathers paraded us around the dance floor, their smiles competing with the stage lights for blinding brilliance. As far as I could tell from my observations all week, being a debutante here meant I was an adult: I could get married, I was expected to know how to cook, and my dad couldn’t tell me my clothes were inappropriate if the skirt was tight or the neckline low.
I remember Mom whispering to me in the hotel elevator beforehand to please try to smile. I pushed my now-ridiculous ringlets out of my eyes, clutched the rose in my fingertips, and waded into the tidal roil of formal wear in the foyer outside the ballroom, my father charging ahead and my crowd-anxious mother’s firm hand on the small of my back. Not five minutes later, a large man I’d never seen before came boisterously up to Dad and shook his hand, booming, “Robby, how the hell are ya? Where’s my future daughter-in-law?” His merry eyes landed on me. “There you are, darlin’. Oh good, you’re already wearing a white dress. You look beautiful.”
I turned in wooden shock to Mom, who hissed through her grin, “Don’t say anything. Smile and nod. I’ll explain in a minute.” I smiled. Nodded. My fingers shook in the man’s ham-handed grip. Dad went off with him for a few minutes of cordial discussion, away from my ringing ears. Mom took a deep breath and then, still beaming as if she were having the time of her life in this mess of people, she explained.
“When you were born, your great-grandmother arranged a marriage for you to that man’s son.” She pointed at the gentleman having an apparently entertaining conversation with Dad on the other side of the foyer.
“Who’s his son?” I asked, my throat closing up.
“His name is Allan*. You met him a few days ago.”
I wracked my brain. The only Allan I could recall was president of the youth club. A pleasant fellow, but twenty-six years old and the size and shape of an industrial truck. I meant to ask Mom if that was the guy, but it sounded more like a shriek. She interpreted it anyway.
“Well, yes, he’s the one.”
“When am I supposed to marry him?”
“When you turn eighteen.”
“That’s in eight months! And I’m still going to be in high school!” All I could think of was how pissed my boyfriend was going to be when he found out.
My American mother shrugged. “You won’t have to go through with it.” She nodded her head toward my father. “Dad’s handling that now.”
It helped that my great-grandmother had, sadly, passed away earlier that year. There was no real fuss from Allan’s father, but I steered clear of him the rest of the night.
Allan, on the other hand, I couldn’t resist speaking to. Later, after the shock had worn off and the partying had begun. We ended up in line for the same elevator when I was going upstairs to change from my ball gown into something I could dance in. He was cordially chatting up a Barbie-like blonde with a tight black dress and an updo the height of Lady Liberty.
“Hi, Allan,” I said pleasantly.
“Oh, hi, Angélique,” he smiled. “Enjoying the convention?”
“It’s been great fun,” I assured him, then grinned with what felt like delicious ferocity. “Did you know we’re supposed to get married this spring?”
The blonde looked at me like I was a bug. Allan’s face fell in crestfallen surprise. He started, “Uh, you’re really nice and all—”
“Don’t worry, I don’t want to marry you, either,” I said. “But you should probably ask your dad if he has any other surprises.” I thought, I know I’m going to talk to mine.
The elevator doors pinged open and I traipsed into the car.
“We’ll take the next one,” he mumbled.
“Good choice,” I said and waved. “Cheers!” The doors closed; I never had to see him again.
Many years later, in the moments before my wedding to a man of my own choosing, I related this story to my bridesmaids, who included two of my cousins who’d also had their marriages arranged by our great-grandmother. They were shocked. Their own American mother had never told them, either, perhaps thinking they would never need to know.
Ah, the hazards of clinging to tradition!
* I changed his name for the purposes of publication. What if he reads this? I know it’s been twenty years, but it would be my dumb luck that he’d read it, get his feelings hurt, and I’d have to hear about it from my great-aunts for the rest of their ever-loving lives.
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