WE CALL HIM ABBA
by Sacha Gragg  “Sacha, is your family Jewish?”

I don’t remember which one of my soccer teammates asked me that, but the question stunned me. My hand stilled the wooden spoon stirring artificial lemonade. I twisted around to look at the groups of girls sitting at the granite island in the middle of my kitchen.

“No, why?”

“Well, you call your dad Abba, and you have Bible verses all over your house.”

“Oh, no. We’re not Jewish, my family is just Christian.” It was a sheepish admission, especially as I glanced at the bronze-tiered Menorah, Christian fish, and Star of David symbol mashup that hung below the cabinets just to my left. I’m sure my mom had picked it up at HomeGoods at some point, along with the little plaques of Bible verses and other Christian memorabilia scattered around my house.

“We just call my dad Abba because it means ‘father’ in Hebrew.”

That answer seemed to satisfy their curiosity. It was the response I always gave when my friends asked me why I called my dad Abba. I don’t know why I was surprised in that moment by the question; the topic had sparked interest for as long as I could remember.

For as many times as people have inquired why, the novelty behind saying ‘Abba’ never really made sense to me. It was just what my family did, like the families that called their grandparents names like Mammaw or Pappy. The only time I wondered enough to ask my mom about it was in elementary school, when I realized we didn’t refer to her by any other name than the traditional English ‘Mom.’

“It’s so Sana and Tristen don’t feel left out, since they have a different dad. This way they feel a part of the family because all of you call Keagan ‘Abba’ and they can still call Farrokh ‘Dad.’” That was how she explained it to me at the time.

In her early twenties, my mom, Gina, moved from rural Michigan to Washington D.C. after she was disowned by her adopted family. The stories Mom tells about that period of her life reveal a woman who had nothing, was impervious to fear, and was ready to test her mettle with fire. That’s probably why the community of wealthy Iranians that lived in the Tyson’s Corner high rise condos outside of D.C. appealed to her.

The exotic spices of the Persian culture drew her in. The power and excitement Farrokh the Iranian offered kept her there.

Mom has told me many times, “Your dad’s personality is like a Labrador, but Farrokh’s was like a lion.”

They were married for two years when the blaze of adventure from owning nightclubs, traveling by yacht, and unlimited income burned to ashes. Farrokh had the cultural mindset that wives were for childbearing, and not things like fidelity or “death do us part” love. Two children, the worsening situation of other women, schizophrenia, alcoholism, and drug addictions brought Mom to the limit of tolerance. For the safety of Sana and newborn Tristen, she moved out.

After a divorce that left her with nothing but the custody of the two kids, Mom found herself on a bale of hay at a church play, accidentally jostled by the gangly elbows of the man with midnight hair beside her.

A year later, she married the midnight haired man named Keagan: my dad.

Nine months later, I was born. Sana was six, Tristen was five.

Growing up, my family experienced the normal amount of dysfunction and sibling rivalry. I’ve been told that Sana and Tristen resented my birth at first. My addition sparked a new type of family dynamic for them. In turn, four years later, I resented the birth of the baby with Elvis sideburns, my youngest brother, Conner.

With time, my mom sweetened like honey added to black tea. But the passion of her youth was always there, carried with her through the birth of her children: Sana, Tristen, me, Conner, and Caiden. She had a will that could go toe-to-toe with the boiling blood of all five kids simultaneously. It never phased her to come home, flicker the lights on in the kitchen, and find one of us twisted up in rope, left writhing on the kitchen floor. Or duct taped to a swivel chair and left in her bathroom.

It made sense then that despite different fathers, we all looked similar to each other. Her DNA had no problem conquering the comparatively subdued, male DNA of Farrokh and Abba, ensuring my four siblings and I each entered the world destined to have dark brown hair and overgrown hedges for eyebrows. We all, at one point in our lives, came to acknowledge and then weed-whack our unibrows, our familial rite of passage.

Even with these similar characteristics, if one cared to look close enough, they could still tell that Sana and Tristen appeared a little different from the German, Italian, and Scottish blend Conner, Caiden, and I resembled. The heritage of their father had passed on a Mediterranean coloring of blended earthy brown, yellow, and green olives, along with Farrokh’s prominent Persian nose that held up their glasses.

The physical evidence of their heritage wasn’t all they had inherited from Farrokh. His violent temper, mood swings, addictions, and anxieties that stemmed from his past eventually manifested in Sana and Tristen as well.

From the beginning, our parents tried to minimize any distinction that might arise between the five of us. Sana and Tristen had to visit Farrokh on weekends, but soon Farrokh came to visit us instead. For several years, when he was in the country, he would live with us to save money, the eighth family member crammed into our tiny townhouse.

With Farrokh integrated into the family unit, I never felt the distance siblings of different parents can experience. We all had Abba and Mom, so it didn’t matter that Sana and Tristen technically had another dad. I was proud of the shy intelligence hid under Tristen’s afro of curls and his shocking sense of humor. Sana was beautiful and exotic, with a fearlessness I envied. Even when she only allowed me to play with her cool older friends because Mom told her to, I loved running around the house playing horsey with her.

I was eight when the inhibitions Sana never truly felt suddenly just disappeared entirely. It began with her dark-haired, edgy freshman boyfriend, Brandon. The wild girl with long brown hair, a love for horses, and a perpetual smirk faded into someone new. Sana cut her waist-length hair to choppy angles that hung at her shoulders, dyed a base of black with rainbow highlights of orange or pink or blue that changed each week. Her horse figurines were shoved to the side to make room for her new collection of black makeup and studded Hot Topic belts. The playful smirk became hardened with cynicism.

She began disarming the house alarm and slipping out the basement door at night. I had been in my loft bed, trying to sleep under my electric blue blanket, when Sana eased into our room. She was talking quietly on the phone.

“Okay, but I’ll keep my bra on, though.”

I held my breath. I was old enough to partially understand the conversation and realize it would not be good if Sana knew I was awake. When the blanket’s heat started to suffocate me, I eased my thumb on its remote button as quietly as possible, trying desperately to turn down the heat without notifying Sana. A gentle click sounded, and she paused for a moment, listening, but then continued planning with Brandon.

The next morning, I found Mom in the closet-like room my parents had built in the basement. The room had no windows and was just big enough for a bed, a desk, and a short bookshelf, but it provided the new personal space Sana absolutely required. I sat on the paint can of fluorescent green Sana had picked out while Mom rolled the vibrant Grinch color on the walls, explaining what I had heard the night before.

The yelling match that ensued between my sister and parents was thunderous, but it did little to slow Sana down.

The day after Halloween, I had to explain to my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Wilhelm, that I was late because my sister had run away the night before. She eventually was found or returned on her own. Just like always.

By the start of her senior year, my parents were at a loss. Sana was unstoppable, despite detentions, arrests, and parental interventions that included Farrokh. They had tried everything to help her but were still on a first-name basis with the local sheriff. In a last, desperate effort, Mom took a flight out to Missouri with Sana, where she was unceremoniously booted and taken to a therapeutic boarding school for troubled girls.

Sana came back a year later, both calmer and more bitter. The family dynamics had been radically changed.

The four years of Sana’s reign of terror had taken its toll on each of us. Looking back now, I think Tristen was the most impacted out of us all. No one felt the need to worry about him, though. His intelligence easily got him through high school, where he navigated the wreckage Sana had left behind. He had adopted the coolest of the nerdy hobbies, mastering every video, computer, and board game he got his hands on. The kitchen table would be sprawled with armies of tiny figurines he painted in the most careful, minute detail to battle within the epic games he played. Stored in my closet, I still have the statuette of Pippin he gave me, only half the size of my thumb, stabbing the air with a painted silver sword.

When we sat at the dining room table each night, Tristen would take the coveted spot as the oldest male at the end, sitting across the length of the table from Abba. From there, he would tell us stories that would leave us in stitches.

But after Sana was gone, Tristen changed. His dinnertime stories became fewer and further between. The random facts he spouted, or the in-depth monologues about the history of The Lord of the Rings, began to taper off. The funny, brilliant Tristen became sullen. There was a quietness about him his last few years of high school that lidded an ever-simmering pot of rage. The temper we all struggled with flared up in a new way for him. Before we patched it up to move, there was an odd plastered part of the wall by the front door where he had punched a hole through it.

He was late or absent for so many days of his senior year, he almost didn’t graduate. He was so absent from that year as a whole, I hardly remember seeing him before he headed off to college.

Whether it was the influence of Sana’s own metamorphosis, the dual childhood he had with Farrokh, or even if it was just the emergence of all the issues Farrokh had carelessly passed on to his son, I don’t know what it was that changed the older brother I looked up to. Once Tristen left for college, he never came back. Physically, he came home for brief moments at Thanksgiving and Christmas break, but not as the brother I had grown up with.

The summer Tristen left for college, Conner, Caiden, my parents, and I moved out into the rural part of Northern Virginia. After I had gotten over my fear of living with the hillbillies, the bumps and potholes of the gravel road to the seven acres I then lived on became the jarring sensation of driving home. It was the best place we had lived in a long time.

For the next five years, we recovered from what had been the previous four years of insanity. We went from a family of seven to a family of five. Without the constant fear of what would blow up next, we actually got to enjoy each other. It was like we formed a subfamily within the actual family. There was a friendship between my two brothers and me that grew during that time. Conner and I would drive the ten minutes to school, after I had practically pushed him out the door, communicating with each other only through the music that came from the car’s aux cord.

During the three years we drove to high school together, we managed to come up with several car rules that calmed some of the sibling chaos that so easily erupted between us. The rules revealed the partnership we had worked to create. The driver, which was usually me, controlled the volume. I enforced the rule mostly because of the pain that could be induced by the high decibel whine Conner called music. Passenger was DJ, which meant that Conner’s music had to have universal appeal, or at least appeal to me, otherwise it got vetoed by muted volume. He ruled that singing wasn’t allowed unless you knew all the words. Humming was acceptable, but whistling was strictly forbidden. Those high decibels were murder in the reverberating interior of a 2001 Lexus. This only left us to squabble about who had to pay for gas.

Despite the years we lived there, I don’t think it ever became home for Sana and Tristen. They breezed in and out like strangers. For several months at a time, they would live with us as house guests. Since there weren’t enough bedrooms for everybody, both stayed in the guest room with the strange, free-standing tub no one else had claimed.

It was like when distant relatives or old family friends you hadn’t seen in a while come to stay. They surprise you with a quick stop in, suitcase in hand, maybe an adopted dog, and the next thing you know, they’ve moved in, staying for far longer than you ever wanted or anticipated.

Whenever my parents decided Sana’s drug habit, alcoholism, or persistent antagonism was too much of a bad influence on the rest of us, she would be phased out and find a new place to live. Conner would angrily champion her removal, Caiden would stoically agree, and I would hedge back and forth, unsure how I felt. This happened a few times. With each move, Sana drifted farther and farther away. First living an hour away in Arlington, the next time two hours away in Baltimore. 

Holidays became a mixed bag of fear and excitement. There was the elation that came with the holiday festivities. I could feel the warmth of family in my bones during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. But those times were always blended with the fear of the unknown. We never had any idea what would happen when Sana and Tristen came home. It was like that feeling you have right before you go through the security checkpoint at the airport. What if you got randomly selected for a routine search? What if you forgot to take the pepper spray out of your backpack again? What if you said the wrong thing to Sana and she stormed out, door slamming behind her, driving away without a word?

For reasons I have never understood, both Sana and Tristen had developed an intense dislike for Mom. It varied from visit to visit, but at times their dislike bordered on hatred. I always thought their anger should have been directed at Farrokh, their biological dad who ensured their affection by bribing them with an allowance each month, often playing favorites and paying them each different amounts. But no matter how mad he made them, they knew not to bite the hand that kept their lifestyles afloat. If not Farrokh, then I figured maybe they would dislike Abba, the man who stepped into the place of their actual father. But Abba is impossible to dislike. He has a calm presence that has always absorbed everything I’ve spewed out until I had nothing left to spew, and then he would give me a slow nod that validated everything I felt while simultaneously deflating any lasting anger.

Abba was always the linchpin of the family. A few years after he married Mom, he tried to adopt Sana and Tristen. By changing their Persian last name legally to the German ‘Gragg,’ the hope was to erase any barriers Sana and Tristen might feel about their place in the family. Farrokh ultimately blocked that endeavor, but the character of Abba remained the same. He never treated my older siblings as though the blood running through their veins was any different from that of my younger brothers and me.

During one family outing, an incident over the possession of a shirt sparked Tristen’s outrage right as we were backing out of the driveway. I sat in the backseat, desperately wishing I had listened to the little voice that had said I should bring headphones. But with a mollifying tone, Abba diffused Tristen’s lit spark.

In response, Tristen told Abba, “I respect the crap out of you. There’s no way I would ever be able to love someone else’s kids the way you do.”

Perhaps that’s why any injustice Sana and Tristen experienced was to be the direct responsibility of Mom, the originator of all their troubles in the first place. She was no longer Mom but Gina to them. Sometimes Abba became Keagan, but more often than not, he was still Abba. In their minds, anything Mom said or did was always an attempt at manipulation. There was a time where I was afraid to mention anything about Mom, never sure what reaction it would set off.

I was sitting at the kitchen island with Sana and Mom at one point when Sana’s typical passive level of hostility began to rise. Not in the mood to watch her throw another verbal right hook at my mom, I asked as casually as possible, “Why are you being such a jerk?”

Immediately I hopped off the bar stool and walked away, terrified to face the impending wrath Sana was sure to shift my way. It was a cowardly retreat, but at least I said something.

Mom found me later with tears in her eyes and said, “Thank you. No one ever stands up for me.”

That was our new normal for a time, but normal is always changing. I watched Sana slowly change after the boarding school when she claimed her prize of independence. It was tentative, but as Sana continued to move further and further away to Colorado and then California, her harder edges eroded into the fluidness of a gypsy. Still an untamed free spirit, Sana mellowed out, embracing the way of the hippy. She started to become someone we all wanted to be around.

It was exciting. I felt like I had a sister again. In the past, I had only ever been the annoying baby sister—perhaps even less than that to Sana—but now there was a spark of something more to my relationship with her.

One of my favorite pictures in the years since Sana’s hair grew out into natural brown curls and she became a student of Buddhist philosophy was when she purposefully stopped on her cross-country drive to visit me in Colorado. In the picture, Sana is leaning over my shoulder, her olive tones against my peach, smiling mischievously into the camera, framed by dark, roiling clouds in the background. That moment perfectly captured the intensity of Sana and the playful connection that we had begun forging together.

Despite these shifting family dynamics with Sana, relations with Tristen continued to sour. During the fall semester of my sophomore year of college, he moved back home. Job prospects were limited for a degree in geophysics. We had moved again three years prior, this time to a place that had no spare bedrooms. Conner had just started his first year of college, which meant Tristen ended up staying in his available room.

Flying back home to Virginia for Christmas break was the only thing that had kept me going the last month of the semester. I was ecstatic to be home, away from academic pressures. But I knew Conner wasn’t feeling that way while Tristen still inhabited his room. There had been issues between the two of them over Thanksgiving break. Issues that had been simmering for years, but the new situational proximity of sharing a room for a few weeks was causing things to boil over.

During Christmas, it felt like a precarious game of trying not to upset Tristen. The loser received sarcastic, acerbic remarks. The holiday was fun, but you never knew what might tip Tristen off. One morning, I gave him a wide grin, showing all my teeth jokingly, “Wow. That made me really uncomfortable,” he told me, his voice edged in anger.

I was asleep when Mom got the call. It was supposed to be the day that I had waited three weeks for. Abba had taken all the boys, Tristen, Conner, Caiden, and Conner’s friend, Dev, to go skiing for the day. I could finally be an introvert in the comforts of my home without the endless noise of my family. It was my one day of solitude before I headed back to school for the start of the spring semester the following week. My ambitious plans included hoarding all the pillows on the couch to myself as I read the day away.

Sprawled out on my bed, I took advantage of the opportunity to sleep in—until Mom shook me awake frantically.

“Sacha, Sacha, get up. We need to pray. Conner just broke Tristen’s finger!”

It was a little difficult to process the ramifications of that statement when pulled from the depths of unconscious oblivion.

“What?”

Apparently, on the drive up to the ski resort, Abba had stopped at a Walmart to pick up some batteries. That’s when the tension that had been brewing between Tristen and Conner snapped.

And so did Tristen’s finger.

From what I have heard, Tristen was antagonizing Conner, who sat behind him in the Ford Explorer during the drive. In the parked car, when Conner ignored Tristen’s baiting and refused to take the remnants of Chick-fil-A trash Tristen threw back at him, something in Tristen shifted. He exploded at Conner.

Though I wasn’t there, I’ve been told Tristen reached to grab for Conner’s throat: maybe just to threaten, probably to choke. It seems Tristen first clutched onto Conner’s sweatshirt in order to leverage him closer. Conner, a dedicated lifter, broke the grip near his collarbone. In the removal, the hoodie that was still clenched in Tristen’s hand was ripped away from Conner’s sweatshirt by the seams. Twisting Tristen’s hand toward his own lap, Conner squeezed just enough, unintentionally breaking the knuckle of Tristen’s left ring finger on his dominant hand.

In a raging frenzy, Tristen got out of the car and began pounding on the window by Conner’s head, screaming for Conner to come out and fight him. With the prodding of Caiden and Dev, Conner remained seated.

When I got in the Ford two days later, I could see the smears of blood on the rear passenger window. I almost threw up.

A little over an hour after Abba made the call about the situation to Mom, they all made it back home, each with individual flavors of anger tinging the air from the emotions that churned in the car ride back. Tristen drove himself to Patient First.

Overwhelmed, I withdrew to my room. Everything felt raw and exposed. I had hoped my family’s issues could have been excused as typical, but this act of harm revealed the truth of our internal decay. The details I had learned about the incident in the car left me nauseous. I was horrified that my brothers were capable of that level of violence, especially toward each other. I was also scared. What else were they capable of?

Later I came back downstairs and sat next to Mom in the living room. Abba joined us after he had finished talking with Tristen in his office, who had left the house once more, avoiding all eye contact on his way out.

During the conversation, Tristen expressed his anger at Conner for his broken finger and his feelings of being the outcast of the family. I was shocked, as I had no idea why Tristen would feel that way.

Abba’s deep voice cracked with emotion when he shared how Tristen wept in reaction to his assurance that Tristen had always been his son.

As powerful as this truth may have been for Tristen, it didn’t seem enough. That evening Dev explained that while sitting behind Tristen during the drive back, he saw him typing on his laptop. “I am very angry. Conner broke my left ring finger on the way to the ski resort. That makes writing and typing very hard. There is nothing like the holidays to make you feel alone in the world.”

Hearing the depth of Tristen’s isolation, while being surrounded by family, the people that persistently loved him the most, was one of the reasons I sobbed into my pillow that night. It was grief at the tension that had sprung up again, at the loss of safety and the visible tearing of my family I could see right in front of me. Some of the questions being wrestled with that week were whose side were we going to pick? Would Tristen get kicked out of the house because of this escalation of aggressive behavior? I hated that there were sides at all.

I wiped my tears at the sound of a knock at my bedroom door. Slowly I opened it to find Conner standing tall and somber against the dim light of the hall.

“Why are you crying?”

I attempted to explain the heaviness and grief I felt, but Conner just shook his head and wrapped me in a hug.

“Don’t cry for him.”

But I couldn’t help crying for Tristen, just as I couldn’t have helped the times when I cried for Sana during her split with the family. I hurt for my family. Those tears came from the realization I had made a few years earlier.

It was during the time when the subfamily was growing closer. I was walking up the stairs when the comprehension of why we call my dad Abba hit me. My hand paused on the railing as I stopped and thought about what had just occurred to me. I don’t know what thoughts preceded it or came after, but all of the sudden I understood that, technically, Sana and Tristen were my half siblings. I always knew that their dad was different from my dad, but we had never used the language of half brother or sister before. I had never made the connection that the fine-haired division I saw between my older siblings and I could be seen as a great chasm by others, or even by Sana and Tristen themselves. They had always just been my siblings, good or bad. That’s why I wrote letters to Sana when she was at the boarding school, despite her four-year rampage. She was my sister, my family. We fought for each other.

The same went for Tristen, even in that moment after Conner shut my door and I slid against my nightstand in exhaustion. Tristen was and always would be my brother. There were no qualifiers to that statement for me.

From that moment on, I understood that we called my dad Abba because it broke down any barrier that the title of ‘dad’ might have created in our family. Abba didn’t mean father; it meant that we were a single, whole, undivided family. Even in our brokenness.         About the Author:Sacha GraggSacha Gragg is an undergraduate student at Colorado Christian University. She is currently pursuing a degree in Communications and Global Journalism. Her interests include communicating across social and cultural boundaries and playing a good rugby match.

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