Reliving Moments I Never Lived: A Mama-Hood Journal

11 Dec

One of the oh-so-yummy parts about mama-hood is reliving some of the blissful moments of my childhood through creating memories for my own brood. And just as special is reliving the moments that I never even lived. Snow is a case in point. I grew up in Florida, in a place where you can be guaranteed to never have a white puffy flake land on your tongue from the SKY! I never plopped down into a cushion of snow until I became a grown woman and moved away.

Every year or so we went to visit my cousins who were raised in the Shenandoah Valley, and you know what? It never snowed while we were there for as far back as I can remember. A few times when we arrived, it had just snowed. There were only little piles of it pushed into road side gutters, quickly melting and sooty. Still, I would hustle over and scoop up a few ounces in my cupped hands like manna from heaven, and then of course, throw it at my sister. SNOWBALL FIGHT!

So, I am not one bit embarrassed to report that after I delivered my third child, and less than two months later moved to the Mid-Atlantic, on the occasion of a very faint snow spell in November, I sprinted out with my kids and attempted to make a snow angel in our front yard. I couldn’t understand why all the neighbors were not out doing whimsical snow fairy dances around their young’uns. Sigh. They obviously did not grow up in the ‘Sunshine State.’

And the stinkiest thing about growing up in perpetual sunshine is that I have no tolerance for the cold. Now that I live in an oasis of four seasons, I have to start layering in early October and I typically can’t completely shed a sweater until early June. Even so, I love to plaster my nose to the window and watch my babies frolic in shaved ice.

snow ball fightI love to make hot chocolate and piping hot casseroles and call them in for breaks, then shoo them back out, dutifully layered, as only a Florida mom can manage.

Salma covered

When I do venture out, I mange to pry my gloves off of my hands and fumble quickly for the shutter button, so as to memorialize all of it, even their bare heads exposed to the frost despite my consternation.

Laith 1

I muster up the courage to venture out with them to find the best hills around town.

Laith sledding with SalmaI follow them like a Florida golfer caddy, pushing the little roly poly ones along with their sleds up to the tippity-top of the highest hill we can find, then listen to them try to convince me to slide.

Zayd on hill

I send them off and hear their belly laughter float, down… down… down, as my ruddy nose turns numb, and I can only see them far in the distance. I jump up and down with my flailing arms crossed over my head: Look at Mama. Look up here!! They finally convince me to stumble down and I ricochet painfully all the way over the worn out path, but I still pop up smiling because they are so proud of me.

When snow first falls, it really is beautiful, and it evokes deep, marveling praise to God for rendering such an ever-changing creation. Where there were fallen acorns and multi-colored leaves just a few weeks ago, now there is only the simplicity and surrender to winter, and settling down for the gentle passage.

Tree These are moments that I never lived, yet through raising my children I live them nonetheless. I watch them shifting in their sleep. Their visions of tomorrow are ignited in their ruddy cheeks and I am more alive than ever because of all the hours we have shared, and in my longing and hope for the days that only exist in our imaginations.

Ruminations on the Last Post

4 Dec

The majority of feedback to my last post during its short life-span was positive; many people expressed that I had put words to what they had intuited after watching the video. While it was gratifying to hear that my sisters found their voice through my blog, I also reflected on the intense criticism, despite it being in the minority. I am faced with an ethical dilemma. I don’t know where the line should be drawn. When are we supposed to respond in concern and when do we extend others the grace that we all seek? These are murky issues, varying only slightly in their hue of gray. In these types of situations, sometimes the only options are choosing between the least disruptive and preserving community. Even in this, I’m not certain that I am making this choice correctly. That, I suppose, is the nature of the color gray.

After much angst, I’ve decided upon the following course of action:

Though I remain convicted in my analysis, I choose to use the criticism as an opportunity to reflect. In my blog post I wrote, “I have a sharp tongue without 70 excuses to bear.” After meditating on the alternate viewpoint and the wisdom behind this Prophetic tradition, I’ve made the difficult decision to extend seventy excuses and let God alone judge, as He surely will, and may we all be encompassed in His Mercy, Love and Light.

Bare Me

23 Aug Bare Me

I was never the heavy makeup kind of girl- smothered in facial condiments, never leave home with out it. However, along with my tasbih (prayer beads), my purse did often tote a tube of #815 ‘Barely Nude’ Loreal Lip Gloss and matching lipliner. I imagined that these two superpowers could transform me from a speckled and withering, white petal into a radiating full bloom. Somehow, with a smear of lipstick, I felt worthier.

Yes, I read about the lead in lipstick…it’s poisoning salve! For this reason alone I considered abandoning it, but only for a few moments, just until that mad dash out the door…but wait…where the heck are my lipstick and liner?! In my other purse? Ugh! Let me see.

Digging my paws into the dark labyrinth, scouring for these items, sorting through the rubble and stubble of a no man’s land. Tis’ a mom purse. There can be found some stale cracker crumbs, a lone piece of gum, a dried up pen and an eraser, a Lego man, a Bandaid that is crumbled and stained by crashing with a lone crayon- clear evidence of the fact that I can never seem to recall its whereabouts when I need it.

There. I found them. Fortunate me!

“Just a moment kids, be right there!,” I call out to my boys. My daughter is standing close by, gaze afixed, my lips are swept out over the brink of my teeth. I take one strong, serious look into the mirror at my complexion – the only good stare-down of the day. As I carefully edge the lines of my small mouth, my six year old daughter asks: “Why do you wear that when you go out?”

I have no dawn good reason. Nothing to say.

Last year on Eid she asked only for a makeup kit. My five year old daughter asked for a makeup kit! I scoured the internet for organic play make up and found one company from which to buy. My little girl promised to play with it only inside the house, though she occasionally begged to wear it out on a special occasion. I faintly remember acquiescing once.

How did this come to be?

When I became Muslim and then embraced the practice of wearing hijab (headcovering), I did so audaciously, like a hard zealot. I wanted to be known as the verse explains:

…to draw their veils close round them. That will be better, that so they may be recognized and not annoyed. Allah is Forgiving, Compassionate.” (Qur’an, Surah Al-Ahzab: 59). 

I lacerated the puppet strings of the advertising kings. Goodbye Vogue, Redbook, Vanity Fair, and all the other peddlers and snake charmers. Goodbye to all the absurd self-help protocols that tell you on one page how to be healthy and strong, yet on the next page, how to even your complexion with chemical salves, or stand in a more flattering position for the camera; and yet another article on the ‘tell-tale signs to know when your man’s been cheatin’ on you!’ I was done acquiescing.

If I was going to accentuate, fiddle and toil, it would be for the sheer thrill of myself and intimacy with my husband. Firmly convicted, I relished in the opportunity for others to get to know the bare me- to listen to the content of my speech and interact with me sincerely, not to be sidetracked by my ability or inability to subdue my thighs into a more flattering shape, wear highlights, or accessorize my wardrobe properly.

I was a giddy covered woman for a time. I don’t know when the foundation, eye shadow, blush, and default lip stick featured into the picture. However, I do remember feeling that I needed to make “this” work. At some juncture, I had a set-back and decided that If I was only going to put my face out to the world, I should show it well, with at least some of the fixins.

As a young girl, I remember slouching on my grandmother’s rust colored, corduroy arm-less chair as the ladies in the room passed around a color wheel and accompanying make over book. I ruffled the shag carpet with my tiny toes, half listening to the ways of womanhood. They said women came in all the four seasons, and it was incumbent on every woman to know her season, so she could choose the appropriate color palette for her face. Only women who used toothpicks between their teeth in public places didn’t know the difference. Those dowdy women who grabbed the closest dime store tube of pink or red and slapped it on…or worse yet none at all. Nay! She should wear the colors according to her complexion.

My mother and grandmother spun the wheel near my face- certainly beaming with earnestness and curiosity. They angled it from all sides, then in one fell swoop cast expressions of concern and delight. I was declared a ‘fall’ forever more. Every gift of clothing thereafter would be a a shade of pea green or orange.

On my thirteenth birthday, when my doting grandmother determined that I had blossomed, she took me to the mall to get my first make over. I was beaming in my green, sleeveless turtleneck – proud to have arrived. I still have that Polaroid shot, taken by the waiter at the Bubble Room where we ate lunch that afternoon. A piled high piece of chocolate cake in front of me, I’m ecstatic to have shed my smallness and slipped into my new skin.

I learned how crucial it was to match my foundation precisely to my skin complexion, and to smile in the most eccentric way in order to accentuate my cheek bones in an attempt make the blush look nearly natural splayed across my face. Being a woman meant fixing up every day before leaving home. I realized that being a woman was an expensive chore.

I think as a covered Muslim woman, I could never reconcile my beliefs about what freedom authentically meant; indeed, what my soul longed for, with my hard-wired understanding about what it entails to be a woman. I wanted my hijab to be palatable and the bare me would not cut it. I needed to embrace my outer ‘fall’ in the company of complete strangers to really count.

I place the blame squarely on me, as there was no pressure coming from elsewhere. My husband has never been the sort to even suggest, much less pressure me, to look like a good catch, as some men do– holding their wives out as, let’s face it, material gains for others to gawk at in a vain, pathetic attempt to evoke a sense of jealousy or pride. Yes, Muslim couples engage in this sport too! You know those men who post dolled-up photos of their wives on Facebook, taken just before some party, before which she has painstakingly fixed herself from every angle. After a few bad shots, he manages to get the right pose, and contingent upon her pre-screening and approval, slaps on a caption that could just as easily be transferred to a ‘look at my Ferrari post,’ (if only he could afford one). Or maybe he is a little more wily; he wants to be envied without obvious pretension, so he attaches a subtle, flattering caption like: ‘All these years and still going strong.’ Maybe she even edits the caption.

No, I never felt that part and parcel of my worthiness to my husband was based on how prized a possession I may appear to be. Fortunately, the weight of affection was always based on intrinsic qualities. Yet, especially in my 20-some sprint of life, I was so seeped in a need to be an adorable, hijab-toting woman, that I scarcely left home without some article of makeup. It was as routine as fastening the pin on my scarf in the morning. No one in my professional circles should see what I really looked like. God forbid!

As for my lipstick, once I found #815, and accompanying lip liner, other women took note.

“That’s pretty on you? What color is that?”

I’d be feeling fortunate (and a tad smug) to have the good sense to know my season and wear it well.

As the years progressed, and I settled into myself on my quest to become a big girl, I shed much of the visage, yet, clung to #815, and if I ever had an important meeting to go to, one where I needed to make an impression, I was sure to wear a complete face.

Then, I attended the Reviving Rememberance Retreat, Al-Maqasid with my dear, old friend from Texas. Of the scholars, Anse Tamara Grey, was in attendance and provided a series of lectures to an all female audience. In one lecture “Saving Superwoman,” she poked good fun at the women (like me) who just had to have that jolt of eyeliner or smear of lipstick, justifying it at every turn- sparring with themselves to reconcile its use with their notions of modesty and enlightenment. I laughed as she impersonated the likes of me and so many other women I’m blessed to call friends.

Then, she narrowed her tone, cut to the chase, and dared to grate the rough layer of my ego. She claimed that women like me were trying to compensate. Instead, we should be confident in our choice, wear our hijab with absolute resolve and unapologetically bare our faces. We should leap out from under the veneer and be at peace with ourselves. She said that if we stood up with confidence and refused to apologize, or make our ways palatable to others, we would garner more authentic joy and respect.

She profiled the women mentioned in the Qur’an; for example, Hana (the mother of Maryam, may Allah be pleased with her), who struggled with infertility, then seemingly beyond hope, she received the fortunate news of a soon-to-be born daughter, whereupon, she unflinchingly pledged her child to firm spiritual devotion and upbringing in the Temple. Then, Maryam (mother of Jesus), though a virgin without a husband had a miraculous conception and labor whereby she brought the baby out, as a single mother, among a gawking public; yet, with firm resolve and faith, she refused to shrink or accept chastisement. Also, Assiya (wife of Pharaoh, may Allah be pleased with her), who stood up against one of the most notorious tyrants of all ages, defying her husband’s command to kill all newborn Jewish boys. She took Moses (peace be upon him) into her home and raised him as her own, plus gave refuge to Moses’ mother who nursed him in his infancy.

The distinguishing feature of all of these women, Anse pointed out, is that they refused to bow to the prescribed norms of their societies whenever it grated against their firm convictions to do the opposite. They paid a price, no doubt, but each was ultimately fulfilled for her prowess and sincere faith in her deep and abiding connection to her Creator and Sustainer.

Suddenly, my lips felt like they were buzzing and sending off an alarm of discontent. A real light bulb moment was a blaze. Where at once I opined that it gave me an edge, now I felt that it diminished my essence. I had the urge to wipe it away with the cuff of my sleeve. I grated my lips on my teeth, trying to scrub off the last remnants of #815. I wanted no more to do with her.

I believe the best reactions are those to clear truths, that spring on us so suddenly we scarcely have the window of opportunity to duck or flinch. We simply react on instinct, and swiftly, my instinct told me to take it off. Take it off! Now. Now. Now!

If we give ourselves space to be analytical in such raw moments, we can easily get caught up in a swarm of alternatives, each with a special justification, that ultimately hinder our honest goals by enabling us to justify the course we are already on and the choices we have already resigned ourselves to make.

The next day, shed of #815, I looked at myself in the mirror. I didn’t like what I saw — a speckled and withering white petal. I wanted #815 back, badly! But, I also wanted to live up to my full potential as a woman. I wanted to be authentic and strong without the fixins. I wanted to feel beautiful and walk firmly in my own flesh. Bare me. I wanted to feel worthy without products and compliments.

It has been almost a week. I still yearn a little for #815. I’ve replaced that yearning with a stronger dose of remembrance of Allah (Most High) and prayers upon the Prophet (peace be upon him). I’ve replaced it with prayers for myself and my society.

I don’t have to be silent to my daughter any more when I go out. She can look up at me now without a question in her heart.

Bare me. Beaming as I go out. A lightness in my heart. A prayer on my lips.

Bare Me

Bare Me

Eyes Playing Tricks

30 Dec

These days have been diluting, one into the other, in that otherworldly strain, when we break free of our routines; the moment we’ve been waiting for after weeks of toil. It’s called vacation, and this time we opted for largely a stay-cation, intending to truly rest.

Six year old Nelly asked her father: “Did you get fired from your job?,” curious to know why he is home for so many consecutive days. The cousins came to visit, towing along my sister and her husband. Sandwiched in between two snow patches was a crisp, clear, chilly day, fit for strolling and hot chocolate.

I marched us into the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, the perfect place I soon discovered to spend an afternoon WITHOUT six kids, if you really want to marinate in all the yumminess of folk art. Some of it is just plain kitschy, and other pieces spell-binding, helping to reveal things you want to know about yourself.

The boys lasted almost 45 minutes between the Lithuania replica made entirely from toothpicks (130,000 of them!) and the kinetic art display, featuring a gaudy boat made largely from styrofoam. Their uncle, who doesn’t like olive tapenade, vegetable pizza, or touring a three-story museum blaring the oft-repeated phrase: “Don’t touch!,” took the boys to the top of an enormous hill behind the building, overlooking Charm City.

I explored the gift shop, full of unpretentious trinkets where I nabbed a vintage-looking pin of Oscar, my favorite Sesame Street character. One wall featured an array of wooden placards with catchy phrases and emotive quotes – basically bumper stickers tastefully drawn up to double as wall décor. Three spaces down, on the far right, was a saying that gave me pause: “You’re the One You’re With.”

Ohhh….I like! Over and over again, I repeated it to myself, slowly and measured. You’re. The One. You’re With. Huh. Well that’s odd…but then, I get it. I totally get it! I should buy this, I thought, and hang it on the wall at home, where I’d be sure to see, say, and meditate upon it often.

You’re the One You’re With. Ain’t that the truth? Indeed, isn’t the root of every pain the absence of exercising that mantra? Aren’t the deepest heartaches, so sour they left a bad taste in my mouth for days on end, the result of trying to live outside myself so that I didn’t have to be with myself? Wasn’t every disappointing relationship only the result of trying to extract from another what I could not cultivate within my own skin? Didn’t every diversion that let me escape, only end up enslaving me?

If you are with yourself, deeply loving, and faithful to your purpose and nature, aren’t you truly joyful and merciful to everyone around you?

“The Faithful is the mirror of the faithful,” (narrated Anas ibn Malik; quoted by al-Tirmidhi). Is there any other means to absorb this prophetic wisdom and the teaching of the spiritual masters: “He who knows his soul, knows his Lord,” then to be (happily) with myself?

There was a tugging on my hand, and then a pulling, throwing me off-balance, into the adjoining room of posters and books. “Come on Mama, come look at this!,” Nelly led me to an assortment of vintage saris, hanging like swinging vines above our heads, as well as heaped up in a massive pile along the glass wall- ripe for the picking. We fed our hands into the silky trove, lacing our fingers through layer upon layer of tired things, worn by people, now old or maybe even gone.

I was eager to return to the sign board to pick up my soon to be mantra, ‘You’re the One You’re With,’ but Nelly had a few more things to show me. Finally our foot-path widened to the place where I had stood and grazed for wisdom. Far right, three signs down, it was there….but, no, it was gone. Another sign sat in its place. As clear as day it read. ‘Love the One You’re With.’ I turned my head away, like a taste-tester trying to clear her palette, then I looked back again, and again…and again. Love, Love, Love, it said all along, ‘Love The One You’re With.’ I scoured the wall, thinking that perhaps I had mistaken its whereabouts, but it was nowhere to be found. Had someone bought it? Was it so quickly replaced by another sign?

My eyes had played tricks so fluidly and masterfully, that I felt a pang of fear, tinged with the hem of sad fortune. I wanted the other sign, the one I read, not these 1970s folk-rocker lyrics. The irony riddled me- this vision of myself pining for the material advantage of possessing a thing to hang on my wall, in order to remind me of some intrinsic value- an irony so thick, it cast a smirk upon my face all the way to the check-out line. I paid for the Oscar pin, among a small scattering of other knick-knacks, and coasted out of the store, leaving my sign behind.

Outside, we climbed over that enormous hill and ventured to the edge of an overlook. “Let’s take pictures,” I sang out, which is such a predictable thing for me to say. My very Arab husband held the camera, but we had not yet converted our expressions into postured, spastic smiles. Rather, there was a loud, lingering hostility among our two youngest young’uns about pop rock candy and who should be made to share, which was thoroughly kicking this picturesque feeling in the gut. Unbeknownst, my husband clicked away, capturing just me inside myself, in front of a green bench. I’d later find the photo and plug it into my quirky pastime – photo filters.

photo bmore2

Then, we changed pace.

Baba in Bmore

We nibbled on pizza at Brick Oven in Fell’s Point, then lingered over the cardamom gelato swimming in espresso and drinking chocolate at Pitango, thanks to the prompting of activist and cookbook writer, Gaza Mom. Yes, you should definitely go there, even if it means multiple flights and lay overs. My three-year old niece, sporting a swaggering satin bow, ordered anything pink. Nelly quickly exchanged her chocolate/strawberry combo for my grown-up choice, with a short, syrupy, “Mama, please,” ring - such a Nelly thing to do. Off and on she played with her cousin and then sporadically, and characteristic of her quirky charm, settled into a pensive mood.

Salma pitango

I love this way about her…so blunt and sovereign is her sense of self that it never seems to cross her mind to provide fodder for the merriment. She would never be anyone but herself, or ask you to love her for any reason.

Once, when she was four years old, she drew a very sloppy picture and asked for my opinion of it. Feigning rapture, I marveled at how “spectacular” her art work was, heaping grain upon grain of praise. Instead of beaming, she recoiled in visible horror, wanting to know why I had gone to such extremes of outward display; after all, she stated hotly, “It’s not even a nice picture!”

This is not something I’ve ingrained in her. You have to own wisdom to impart it. She makes it look so easy -eschewing the ego for truth; loving herself more than clinging to the false need to be loved by others. I wonder if I was ever as big a girl as Nelly. Was I ever this comfortable in my own skin? Did I ever value myself unconditionally? Did I ever truly love the one I’m with? Pondering all these questions makes me very still, in that kind of paralysis evoked from ruptured melancholy.

Some have hearts which know the truth, and some have eyes which feed the heart, if only for a glimpse, to satiate the self’s longing to return to its hearth.

So it is. You’re the one you’re with. Love the one you’re with.

Love of Memory

18 Dec

It was a rare shot.mother-and-sonIf photos could sing, this one would drop down into a soulful tune. If they could morph, it would flutter into a worn-out quilt on a lazy afternoon. If they could speak, it would whisper, hold that baby a little bit longer, while you can still do it with one fell swoop. My sister, her feet also emerged behind me, captured the moment. That was the first and last trip to Morocco we ever took together.

I became miserably ill by night fall. We’d ventured into a shady grove of figs, and by the owner’s permission, I had a fateful bite. All night, my sister held my head up over a bowl and remained vigilant, letting my son tangle her hair in knots, as he cried to be nursed. Near an open window, I laid on a thin mattress in the summer night’s heat, boiling with fever, trying to catch a breeze. As dawn approached I was retching and hollow.

When daylight burst, armed with my sister-in-law, she dove deep into the dusty, sun-latticed souk, looking for vegetables, herbs, and a fresh chicken {which she found, literally}, while trying to explain the absolute necessity of this American thing called chicken soup. The miracle broth gave me strength to move around and nurse my son without falling back. Big sisters are very essential people. I wish my daughter had one.

Eventually, we headed off to Marrakesh to do all the touristy things. Having pumped some milk, I was nervous to leave my son behind with my in-laws, even if for one night, but I was determined to show my sister other parts of Morocco besides the live chickens for sale. It started with a wobbling train ride moving south, wherein we sparred with a sweaty French man, then enjoyed a chat with a group of young, Moroccan graduate students, close to our age. They reminded me of every other graduate student of late- completely not like me, completely not mothers.

Not long after settling into Marakesh, my sister and I had a fight. She stormed one way, I stood there, then traipsed off to our hotel room, where I fell on the floor crying in woeful snots. It was a heated, ideological battle – the most useless sort. We’d made up within three hours and then headed out to a fancy dinner. Sister bonds are very sacred, and equally as complex.

Marakesh-with-Sister

She got a kick out of putting our water bottle into the wine chiller of the pretentious couple next to us after they left. We still giggle about it to this day, in one of those: ‘Remember that moments?!,’ not because anything spectacular happened, but precisely because nothing spectacular happened, yet we still managed to have more fun than anyone else in the room, a decidedly Collard Green trait.

The next day, we all headed to a resort pool where my in-laws met up with us. My sister and sister-in-law wore bikinis; in fact, I think my sister even borrowed one from my in-laws assuming that she wouldn’t need a bikini in a Muslim-majority country. Meanwhile, I wore pants and a long shirt, prepared only to keep an eye on my son in the one foot deep kiddie-pool. Soon, the lifeguard was rabidly blowing his important whistle, motioning for me to get out; I stood there, playing possum.

Coming down off his courtly, high stand, leaving all the children in the deep end to fend for themselves, he marched over to strongly impress upon me the importance of removing my feet and ankles from the pool since women in hijab (the Islamic headcovering) were not allowed. My sister got up and demanded to know what was going on. When I explained, she stood close to my ear and declared: “If you get out of this pool, I’ll never respect you again for the rest of my life.”

A double dawg big sister dare- what’s a Muslim girl to do?

I persisted, meanwhile the hotel director arrived to strike a compromise. He said I could come back after dark and stand there, but under no circumstances should I be permitted in the day light hours to stand covered with my feet in the water,  not for safety reasons, but because the hotel had an image to maintain and I was apparently holding up bunny ears. Then, they threatened to call the cops, despite my sister-in-law’s protests. This was getting serious; I was at a cross roads. Between losing the respect of my sister for life and sitting my Collard Green fanny in a Moroccan prison, I knew what I had to do…I skittered away from that pool faster than a crawdaddy can hustle.

A few days later we arrived in the suburbs of Casablanca, where I took her to a mosque – plucky and delighted to usher her into a house of worship in Morocco. We sat side by side with the other women (all elderly) along the perimeter of the sauna-hot walls, waiting for the call to prayer. One of the women asked us where we were from.

“Alwelayet Almoota7eda (The United States),” I replied, loving the sonorous texture of Arabic rolling off my tongue. The woman inquired: “Where’s that?,” after which her friend tried to explain. “Ah! France!,” she brightened, “I know some people who live there.”

Along with her friend, we tried again and again to place the United States on some reference point on her mental map. Then, knowing the final call to prayer was about to cut us off, I gave up. So many fellow Americans I’d encountered back home had no clue where Morocco was, so why should I be flabbergasted that this frail woman couldn’t pin me? The thinness of her wrinkled, weary skin, reminded me of my great-grandmother who hailed from North Carolina. “Yes, we’re French,” I reassured her. Enchantee! Le temps est plus belle au printemps, oui? She was so pleased to meet us.

The devotees were not about to give up on my sister – suddenly the spiritual tourist. Instead of focusing on her own prayers, the woman to my sister’s left, physically choreographed all her devotional movements, as the sweat dripped from our chins. She pressed down on her back when it was time to prostrate, and moved her right index finger to the call of la illaha illallah (there is no God but God), the way Muslims pray. My sister was gracious, and obliged their enthusiasm like a good Collard Green daughter, but secretly couldn’t wait to get out of there. So,when one of the women followed me out and insisted that we come to her house for dinner, my sister said she would kill me if I accepted; and the thought of her rendering bodily damage seemed plausible by the look on her face.

The woman insisted in the way that Arabs are known to persist in offering hospitality. At length I explained that I could not oblige her request; I could feel my sister’s pulse quickening beneath my own skin. Finally, feeling backed into a corner with no way out, I said: “Someone in my husband’s family has just died, and we have obligations back home.” She bid us farewell and promised to make du’a for the deceased, calling out prayers for all to hear. I felt wretched for having concocted two false stories in just under an hour, and frightened by my performance.

I left my sister at the airport, with seven days more clinging to my own itinerary, and no affordable way to change my ticket date. I’d already been there two weeks before she arrived, and I was homesick in that lonesome, collard green way- when you want to stick your nose into the warm neck of your birthplace, and exhale. As eager as I am to go to Morocco, in the end, I always claw my way back. My Collard Green daddy, chided me once: “You don’t leave the country very well.”

Transporting myself back in time to all of these moments brings me abiding, almost mystical pleasure. Memory is such a miraculous thing; again and again, we go back to past lives, basking in both subtle and bold, emotional shades. The colors swirl, within them voices arching high and low….sniffles and wailing, giggles and guffaws. Sometimes when I am lying in bed at night, I comb through these stories as if running broadly through a meadow of colorful spring flowers – weeds actually; the ones that rise up in the fields without any planning or forethought.

Then, exhausted, I lay down in them and drift further away from the clear colors and voices, deeper into the murky underworld, which drags me more rapidly until it lifts me back up to the place where I left off, only more crystalline than before, to a place where I can see and touch the whole periphery of my memory. Yet, we are in the most bizarre fashion, often out of costume and context – not entirely as I remembered. My feelings flicker in images and emotions, much stronger than the currents that sent me to this familiar, yet foreign place.

The love of memory is the backbone of life, for even when men and women deteriorate in old age, when they can scarcely recognize their own children and spouses, they can remember their lives.

Memory is the conduit that, by God’s grace, delivers us beyond worldly confines…the friend of the prisoner and slave. Our bodies will become fertilizer for the earth, then one day the mountains will blow away like dust. Yet, our memories will live on, delivering us to our final reawakening, when we will startle for the last time, and swear that this, all of this, was certainly a dream.

The Girl Who Laughed Into the Palm of Her Hand

6 Dec

In the second grade, I met a girl who I’ll call Lilly; a brunette, she sported a tomboyish haircut and was blessed with high cheekbones, always ruddy from the sun. Though she smiled a lot, she muffled her laughter into the palm of her hand. In our class, Lilly earned the distinction of being the fastest runner.

But for Lilly, I would have never fallen in love with softball; a game I proved very sorry at playing, and so learned, that you can be bad at something and enjoy it nonetheless. Lilly explained matter-of-factly: “It’s almost like baseball, but since we [girls] can’t play that, they let us play softball.” I’d already tried cheerleading and ballet, and proved worthless at both. The ballet instructor said I was distracted and not cut-out. Ecstatic, I secretly cheered; ballet was as much fun as picking weeds.

Lilly brought a paper to school with all the information about the girl’s softball league in Ocoee- a neighboring town. My mother took one look at it and said no can do! Practices were several times a week with games on the weekend  – too much hassle. Lilly had a solution, “My mama will drive you,” she assured me without even asking her mama. I thought she was nuts; after all, she had five sisters to keep her mama busy. I was dumfounded when, the next day, she confirmed that her mama agreed.

I asked my mother if Lilly’s mama could be my chauffeur, which required providing her first and last name. I’d only seen her from a distance, a petite, slightly pudgy woman with Farah Fawcett hair, only shorter. She always wore boot-leg jeans atop sneakers, and a t-shirt.

In a small town, of course, my mother knew of the woman, but I was surprised to discover that Lilly’s daddy worked under my father’s management, seasonally, in the orange groves. A man without an immigration problem who worked seasonally was likely a drunk.

At seven and 1/2 I already knew that there were two kinds of drunkards – no good boozers and functioning alcoholics. No good boozers let their liquor interfere with their livelihoods, whereas functioning alcoholics showed up to work {blood shot eyes, but still working}. The later always garnered more sympathy than the former. Lilly’s daddy was a boozer, but since he had the distinction of being docile and working hard when he did sign on, he was put into a rare, third category – alcoholics who neither harmed nor benefitted society. A melancholy drunk.

I don’t know why my parents agreed, but they let me sign up for softball, provided Lilly’s mama drove me back and forth. Maybe I begged them incessantly, or maybe they just didn’t see any harm. After all, if we barred all the so-called “struggling” people in our midst, we wouldn’t have even been able to stand our own company.

Something else, though, made it extra-ordinary, something that is hard to be honest about, but you well know is the norm the world over, not the exception. What they called, dirt poor, did not socialize with working class, which is where our family fell. Working class people could cohort with upper class and vica versa, but neither had any dealings with dirt poor, unless it was direct, hand-to-hand charity. So, the extreme unlikelihood that I would ever be paired with Lilly for the two years that we were together is something that defies my understanding, from every angle. Still, it happened, and not in a dream. I remember many of my Lilly days, though the ending of our story is as sparse and convoluted in my mind as the memory of my own beginning.

Like most childhood friendships, ours evolved in as much time as it takes to shell a bucket of peas. As the relationship deepened, my mother would come out and speak to Lilly’s mama and occasionally invited her in. My daddy called her mama, “Sugar,” and made her laugh, just like everyone else who came to our yard. When she did that her shoulders shook, her head flew back, exposing back molars, and she’d slap him on the back. I always wished my mother would laugh at my father’s jokes like that.

During softball practice and at games, Lilly’s mama was always there cheering me on, which must have been hard to do because I was about as coordinated as a lizard on a greased porch railing, and even worse, I was dead scared of the ball flying near my head. My strategy, as an outfielder, when a fly ball soared through the air was to duck with my arms over my head like a crazed shooter was on the loose. Then, I’d pop my head up, gopher the ball, and throw it to the in-field. No matter, Lilly’s mama took me under her wing; between that, and Double Bubble Gum, all was well in the world of softball.

Lilly, on the other hand, was fearless on the field, so it surprised me when I invited her to a sleep-over at my house and she refused, confiding that she was too scared to sleep away from home. On the one night I managed to convince her, she was so petrified, she wet the bed. That was the end of that, she never came again. On the other hand, I slept at Lilly’s frequently.

The first time her mama came to pick me up in their faded, brown car, I (always) got a kick out of Lilly’s littlest sisters crouching on the floor board to make more room. All the way, I bounced up and down on the vinyl seat, so happy to be with Lilly and her sisters. Just on the outskirts of town, we pulled into a trailer park, which stopped me from bouncing, and made me affix my eyes to the car window like a tourist on an exotic vacation tour. Lilly’s mama slowed down over the unpaved, dusty road. Skinny dogs ran from under their owners’ trailers, forced back with chain gangs, yelping over the loud engine. Throngs of trailers on either side lined the way, some in better shape than others. Lilly’s home was the last trailer on the right side of the two lane park; baby-blue with white stripes running lengthwise, and held up by cinder blocks, definitely one of the shabbier ones. It backed up to a running creek and was towered over by large oak trees, so that no matter the time of day, the light was always obscured.

Once inside, I surveyed the strange wonder. On the immediate right, by the entrance, was the parent’s bedroom and on the opposite end was the girls’ bedroom. It had two queen-sized beds, shared by all six daughters, plus a long, oak dresser and an armoire made of plywood. There was one bathroom down the tiny path of aisle leading to the back bedroom. It was half covered with linoleum and half-exposed. There was a toilet there, but it did not flush. A bag was made ready for used paper and the flushing was done manually with a bucket of water from the bathtub, stained orange from the well water. There were no windows as it backed up to the tiny kitchen on the other side. A small living room contained two faux-suede couches decorated with windmills and country manors. I could get from one side of the trailer to the other in seven good skips.

As quickly as we went inside we left to go run wild outside, while Lilly’s mama prepared dinner. There were only patches of grass in her yard, it was mostly bald and dirt-packed. After a while Lilly’s mama called us in and we huddled around the black and white speckled diner-style table, trimmed with chrome. The meal was pan-fried steak, mashed potatoes, carrots, and purple Kool-Aid. I’d never eaten a steak cooked on a skillet, or even a steak prepared by a woman. My daddy always grilled them. I noticed that these steaks were also thin, resembling country ham. I cut up a piece, and put it in my mouth, chewed, and chewed…and chewed for a very long time. Each sister was gobbling down her portion while Lilly’s mama sat on a tall stool, without a plate, looking over like a nurse ready to respond to any of her daughters’ need.

My jaws were becoming very sore, as I began to panic about the wad of meat in my mouth. How should I dispose of it discreetly with so many watchful eyes?  Prickly heat spread over my body along with perspiration on my upper lip and forehead. The room was spinning and I felt like I had my tongue stuck in a Chinese finger trap.

My hazy mind was sharpened when laughter erupted among the whole lot of them – uproarious,  causing Lilly’s mama to tilt off her stool, and one younger sister to fall out of her chair. Lilly held her laughter in the palm of her hand. Only the wispy blond-haired baby, the only blond in the bunch, looked as stupefied as me.

“You ain’t never had poor man’s steak, I can see!,” Lilly’s mama howled.

I didn’t know how to respond, but out of relief I stopped chewing. I couldn’t say “No ma’am,” because that would be insulting so I just stayed silent. Finally the tremor of laughter died down.

“That’s alright, you don’t have to eat poor man’s steak if you don’ wanna’,” she assured me.

I put the full force of my concentration on the round, plastic plate in front of me, and dipped my spoon into the milky, white mound of mashed potatoes, after which Lilly’s mama discretely piled more and more until I had my full. Later she made Jiffy Pop and we watched T.V. The images were slippery and grainy. With a small living room and six kids, it didn’t seem any trouble flipping through the three channels and adjusting the antennae without a remote.

Lilly’s daddy never came home.

But, I would see him from time to time, like an illusion, suddenly he appeared, though his presence did not fill the house like my own father’s. He did not say much, though he would always ask about my daddy and told me to pass along his greeting, which I never remembered to do. Sometimes he would tell me a funny story about my daddy, to which I always raised two eye-brows out of respect, but they never impressed me because it was common wherever I went. People liked to tell me how funny he was. Yeah, I know, was the common refrain to myself.

Meanwhile, Lilly and I never exchanged daddy stories. She knew my daddy was a funny man and I knew hers was a drunk, and there didn’t seem to be any reason to talk about facts as obvious as the State capital. What our shared imagination spun was much more fascinating over countless hours of make-believe. I had found my little girl soul mate.

One suffocating, hot day Lily said: “You wanna go ring an old lady’s doorbell?”

“What for?” I asked.

“Cause’ she can’t hear a thing, not even a church organ! She can just hear with her eyes,” said Lilly, while shoving both of her index fingers into her eye sockets for emphasis.

Lilly had peaked my interests, “How can she hear with eyes?,” I asked.

“Her whole house is wired. If you ring her bell it sends off blue lights- all over, then she’ll get up and answer, cept’ if she’s sleepin,’ then you gotta wait a long time. She’s super old!”

“O.K.,” I perked up, “Let’s go, ” and away we ran.

“You push it!,” Lilly said, giving me the honors.  I was a little hesitant; what good reason did we have to ring the old lady’s door bell except to see if she would answer? Maybe she would knock us down with a cane?

“Just do it!,” Lilly assured me, so, I did and we waited, but no one answered. It was pitifully anti-climatic. We came back a half a dozen times until she finally answered, without a cane and with a big smile on her face.

This is my friend, mouthed Lilly, and she placed her hand on her heart and then placed it on mine. Lilly pointed to her eye then wiggled all 10 of her fingers up in the air like flashes of lights, or at least that’s what she meant to convey, and the old woman understood.

She enthusiastically gestured for us to come in. Lilly stood outside and rang the doorbell non-stop while I looked in amazement at the blue lights blinking around her home, in the most unexpected places- like Easter eggs. I found myself wishing that my home was equipped with that feature…for what, I hadn’t a clue. Lilly made out a few more statements which the woman seemed to understand, and of which I was clueless, then we set off to some other destination in the trailer park.

Another day, when the flies were particularly annoying, humming around the watermelon rinds, and having explored as much wildlife as could be found in the creek, and tossed the softball till we grew weary of its weight in our gloves, and journeyed to untold imaginary places, Lilly suddenly perked up: “You wanna go to church?!,” she blurted out, like asking if I wanted to go to Disney World.

“They give out cookies and juice, and sometimes candy, and they tell good stories!”

All of my short life had been invested as a somber Methodist, and I’d just reached the age when I was expected to go sit in a pew from time to time and behave. Bearing this in mind, I tried to make sense of Lilly’s sincere enthusiasm.

The next morning her eldest sister fit me into one of their dresses. I had no choice but to wear my mud caked tennis shoes, and for that reason alone, hesitated. I’d never attended church without stockings and black Mary-Janes, which always made my feet feel like they were melting under a heat lamp in the Florida sun. I wasn’t sure if it was blasphemous to walk into the Lord’s house on a Sunday without the proper footwear, but Lilly assured me that some kids even came in jeans and flip-flops, “So, you’ll be fine.” Now I really had to see this church!

In order to get to church we had to catch a church bus at the entrance to the trailer park which was another novelty for me. Lilly’s mama told us to behave, and sent us off, staying behind with her baby and youngest toddler. Before long a short bus, bearing a painted, shining cross, smiling children and a white Jesus, came rolling up. The whole lot of us, unchaperoned children, piled on. A middle-aged woman served as the attendant - her hair that had been frozen solid with a can of Aqua Net, and a clear orange line of makeup ran down her jaw line. She was a happy one, clapping and leading us in songs about Jesus that we never sang at the Methodist church. Lilly knew a lot of them which made me jealous and feeling left out. It seemed this woman’s only job was to pump us up for what was to come, a sneak preview. The driver just sailed ahead, unphased.

Lilly’s church was worlds away from any religious experience I’d ever had. Looking back, I count this as my first exposure to another faith. Though both of the Christian orientation, Lilly’s church was plain different. The congregation sang hymns, but in high and low voices, out of sync, and danced in place, looking exactly like my father jerking his legs and arms in a hallelujah grip, lip-synching Ray Charles,’ ‘I Got A Woman.’ The preacher was the most peculiar sight. He couldn’t seem to stay put on the pulpit; in fact, he made it look obsolete. Sporting a blue polyester, three piece suit, he walked back and forth furiously, from one side of the church to the other. From time to time, for no apparent reason, the congregation would cry out “AMEN!” in staggered, yet powerful crescendos. I tried it too: “Amen!” It was not hard to stay awake and pay attention in Lilly’s church.

She was right that some people wore jeans and other casual clothes, but most striking about the congregation was that they were mixed. I’d only ever prayed alongside people of my own race and I’d never given much thought to any other way. Lilly’s church planted a seed deep within me, one which many, many years later would eventually give rise to a comforting voice in the loneliness of my heartache and thirst, it said: There are other ways, many other ways- be bright, sing high, and don’t settle for inheritance, no matter how much it promises you, when it comes to belief.

I wish I could tell you how my story ends with Lilly. I have looked for her in my mind, time and again, hoping beyond hope to find a morsel of our last days together. I have come up dry every time. I do know that she moved away and then came back again, but I don’t remember ever saying goodbye, Lilly, or thank you.

Many years later I was with my father volunteering at a ‘Toys for Tots’ campaign in the youth center. The volunteers were tasked with taking the participants around the room, whereby they picked out one toy for each child in their family. Doing this job made me feel very grownup, and on a mission, though I was all of about sixteen years old. As the line progressed I saw Lilly’s mama waiting for a turn, looking older than I remembered her.

Maybe you think I ran up to hug her neck or say ‘I missed you,’ but I did none of that. I slipped behind a corner wall and hung there for a time, my heart beating rapidly. I wanted the wall to suck me in. Then, my father came looking for me. Of course, he had to show me Lilly’s mama, had to have me properly greet her. I inquired about Lilly who she said was doing just fine, and that her older sister had already married. She had four tickets in her hand, for her younger children still remaining. That was her Christmas; meanwhile, I was expecting my first car that year. The stark, shrieking contrast lulled my outward speech into superficial words and gestures.

The thought of walking Lilly’s mama around while she picked up her small gifts made me feel recreant and cringe. I hoped my father wouldn’t suggest…and of course, he didn’t. He just wanted me to pay my respects and then he walked away with her; slowly they strolled around the semi-circle of packages and I watched. I saw her laugh, her shoulders shake, and her head fly back as I clicked my tongue to keep the tears deep, deep in the well of my belly.

Still more years later I heard that one of Lilly’s uncles won the lottery – a big jackpot, but my source did not know whatever became of Lilly or where she lived. The news made me smile for the rest of the day. Since then, whenever I picture Lilly, I see her under perpetual sunshine, in a comfortable home with a swimming pool and acres of land for her children to run and play on. I have no hard evidence to substantiate this claim. It is all in my imagination which is, after all, the sanctuary where Lilly and I lived most of the time.

May Allah cover you in His unfathomable Love and Light, Lilly, wherever the sun rises on your mornings.

Gratitude Custard

1 Dec

It was an Asian-inspired brown rice confetti from a fellow mom at our homeschool co-op. How did I get to be the lucky mom to sit next to her during lunch? I jotted down the recipe.

I decided, {one day} I’m going to make this, because {one day} I’m going to make everything, but most things just stay in my recipe files, and I keep making the same stuff over and over. After working all day [which is what homeschool is, after all], the last thing I want to do is make a fussy meal.

So, while dropping the older two off at Qur’an class, one of them gets the bright idea to ask me what I am going to cook for dinner. I absolutely do not like this question because I’d prefer not to think about dinner…I want to advance to the next part of my day which is driving {nearly} solo in the minivan with only the sound of the heater blowing after I say “good-bye!” Three-year old Dimples was in the back seat sleeping. I love when he does that.

“I’m going to cook lasagna,” I said, because that is the first thing that pops into my head.

“Oh, please, don’t cook lasagna!!,” they cry, while blocking the passenger door with their fannies, so that all the frigid air is laying siege on my bones. I want them to go away. Go away!! Go away!! Go away!! I chant in my mind..the place my kids have never really seen…God forbid! It is where, with impunity, I can say all kinds of wretched things they can’t imagine. All moms have one. It comes with the baby.

“Fine, I won’t make lasagna,” I say.

Then, I remind six-year old Nelly with my slanted eye and pursed-lip expression not to sass her teacher. She politely asks me {again} for the definition of sass; she is always very courteous when asking, so as never to be blamed for malintent. She promises to try real hard but she doesn’t know if she can because, of course, that’s like asking a mosquito not to bite.

Satisfied, Nelly, releases the door, crinkles her nose through the glass {it’s starting to turn red} and says what I love to hear anytime of the day, “I love you, Mama!”  Again and again, she says it as she delicately walks sideways all the way to the front of the door, so our eyes remain locked. She’s blowing kisses, but without puckering her lips because her smile is so wide…so precious to me.

I decide to pull out that recipe as soon as I get home and get straight to work not making lasagna.  I forget to use brown rice the key healthy ingredient, and start to boil white rice into a mushy, gunky mess. Not because I don’t know how to read the recipe; rather, due to the fact that I am interrupted by Dimples who wakes up hollering {every day like clockwork after his nap}. It’s always disorienting. I can’t wait for him to grow out of it.

“Shoot-a-roo!” I exclaim and then set about thinking how to use it anyway since the thought of tossing it would  render me a rotten excuse for a role model. I pull out eggs, milk, butter, sugar, raisins, nutmeg. Rice custard, anyone? 

Just when I’ve mixed and ladled it into a baking dish, unbeknownst, I set it down unleveled on the milk carton cap, and so it comes tumbling down on the floor, splattering my pants and oozing between my toes.

I run a finger over my pants legs and place a dot of the creamy goo on my tongue. Yummmmy….it would have been so good. But wait! There is a little bit left that wasn’t ladled yet. I tip-toe around the kitchen, like ‘Mission Impossible,’ reach for a small ceramic bowl, spoon and lift it into the oven to set.

It will take a long time to clean up as this is not just a mess, it is a splattered mess…on my hands and knees, moving things around, washing and re-washing. Thank God I have a machine and I don’t have to wash my clothes out by hand! And hot water from the sink to sanitize the floor. And a bath tub to clean my feet. And a dishwasher to put to work. And enough custard left to at least have a taste. And isn’t it better to have to clean up a kitchen floor covered in desert than, I dunno….a gas station bathroom in a red-light district? 

In the interim I’ve found the brown rice and try to improvise dinner. My husband comes home in the middle of it all. Thank you, God! He is so amused.

“My American wife,” he laughs, and hustles around the kitchen putting things back in place and helping me get the not lasagna dinner on the table. He always says, “My American wife,” and laughs when I’ve walked into a funk. I have no idea what he means by that – probably precisely what I mean by ‘my very Arab husband,’ ~a catchall for chaos.

So, I ask him, “What does that mean?”

He replies: “She made that, so you decided, I can do that too, and you did [but you didn't].” My forehead wrinkles the way it does when he’s attempting humor [which is my job!], and I’m plainly confused. Should I try to set this straight? And then, Nah, I don’t care. I’m happily married 90% of the time and that’s purty darn good. I settle for asking him to pretend that he likes what I made.

The brown-rice confetti tastes nothing like the real deal, because I left out two key ingredients.  There is this little thing about directions….they require to be followed! Lesson learned for the 596th time.

My very Arab husband, sits down and very convincingly gobbles it all up so that at least two of the kids are convinced, and advance to the clean plate club. Nelly, no surprise, is not phased, and tosses her head on the table, weeping at the thought that she might be expected to eat mush for dinner.

“I can’t do it!! [big tears], please, I really can’t eat this!”  On and on she goes, like a battery-powered spinning top.

Lasagna would have been….so. much. better.

We strike a compromise. Then, what’s left of the rice custard gets eaten. I’ll have to eat this stuff all week because they aren’t going to amuse me any longer, but I don’t care. I’m just so grateful. I know I’m getting older, but I must be really getting older. I’m a Big Girl.

Some days it all goes wrong, but it feels so right.

{wide as the womb}

27 Nov

The night was young…

Two hot chocolates down and a vat of popcorn between us, we slipped into the second to last movie theatre row, shades flipped.

Instead, a commercial! Ggggrrrrr!

A shiny family appears on the screen {all smiles}. They are standing in front of their brand- new van. So content. The prepubescent daughter, arms folded, smirk-laden, and as defiant as a whiplashed bug on our 2001 [long been paid for] minivan, remarks: “Now, I don’t hate my parents anymore!” She cocks her little blonde head. 

Parents beam!

Parents. Beam.

Announcer tells us parents how to rock. You can do it. Walk on coals, feel the fire, don’t stop! This parody of family is too much {funny, that is}, the audience reels with laughter.

My son, 11 years old, mouth gaping, startled….looks like he just saw two pimps beat up an old lady and take off with her heirloom wedding band. He shakes his head. He wants to say words. The words won’t come. I’m also lost {to this world}. And then….

“My mom always rocked!,” he asserts, fist pumping, with the zealotry of a radical.

Big moon-smile erupts.

As wide as the womb that bore him.

The Principal Died

25 Nov

Recently, I spoke on the phone to a dear friend, an expat living in Morocco, whose children’s’ school principal died suddenly after complaining of chest pains. Earlier the same day, her daughter spoke to the principal about a problem with another classmate. After lunch, he never returned.

One moment here, the next moment…..

How do we speak to children about death? How do they do it in Morocco? I wondered.

Matter of factly, my friend, a former school nurse in the States explained. This isn’t America, she chuckled as if to let off some of the pressure. There isn’t a grievance counselor or special team to talk to the kids. Her children found out when fellow students came running up at school yelling, l’moodeer maat!!! {The principal died}.

Everyone went home. The next day the children filed down stairs to wait for the school bus. The driver came by on his rounds, reporting to the children {not their parents} that school was closed  – the principal died.

There were no notes sent home to parents, or phone calls made, or condolence messages posted on the website {what website?!}, or candle lighting ceremonies, news crews, or crisis hotlines. Within 24 hours He was buried, swiftly, without embalming, in the Islamic manner.

She spent time talking with her kids about their feelings. Then, they curled up under blankets on a grey, misty, Casablanca morning, and watched a movie to pass the time. She’s agonizing. Her third grade son, especially, loved the principal. They had built a deep attachment to one another over the past few years. What will happen now?

I prayed for my friend’s son and for her. I prayed for the principal’s family as well. He left a widow and minor children behind. I shivered, ruminating selfishly, what if that tragedy reigned down upon this house?  Another thought: Would this Moroccan principal have known that a Collard Green mama of three would be praying for his family upon his death? Would I have ever known? It’s strange how strangers connect after life.

Then, in the aftermath of the latest bombardment of Gaza, scanning the news, my eyes caught a photograph of a classroom – the young students sat in desks, two by twos.  A child looks up into the lens, a diluted smile on her face, eyes defiant and ruminating. The seat next to her is empty, in its place is a wide placard. In Arabic it reads: “The Student Martyr, Sarah Al-Dalou.”  The photo’s caption explains: Sarah and 10 of her family members were murdered …during the Israeli assault on Gaza strip. Out of 160 Palestinians killed and 1,000 injured, about one-third were children.”  I looked back at the classmate again. This child must feel her companion’s absence as heavily as she feels her own survival. I could not make out the expression of the girl before, but now I saw it clearly.

The news somehow made me flash-back to the ninth grade when a fellow classmate drowned over Labor Day weekend at the beach. For a week, our guidance counselor followed the boy’s schedule – he sat in all of his seats to fill the otherwise vacant space. I don’t remember exactly what he said, just that it seemed dainty and somber. He sounded like the preacher on the pulpit – only irreverent, because he didn’t mention grown-up Jesus, or even baby Jesus- not once.

What do you say when a child dies? He lived a good life? I do remember that the guidance counselor assured us that we should feel comfortable to come to him at any time to talk things out. The boy sat behind and to the left of me; he was soft-spoken and pale, sporting square glasses that dipped below his cheekbone, overshadowing his small features. I can’t remember ever exchanging a single word with him, yet when I found out he was erased from our world forever, I could remember the exact tincture of his sandy-blonde hair. The absence of his presence hung heavily for many days. In his desk, the guidance counselor looked over-grown and I thought, goofy, towering with his bulky forearms and clasped hands extending over its perch. The ceremony only punctuated the boy’s absence more, yet the absurd sight of that balding, middle-aged man, with the concerned eyes, sitting in the lost boy’s seat, made me feel like the earth might not be trembling after all.

I asked my very Arab husband who is from a small town in Morocco, how adults spoke to him about death. He told me that growing up when folks died, the funeral procession would have to take its course on foot over the hard-packed dirt paved alley in front of his home. As children, they’d peer from the second floor window perch, say a litany, and acknowledge, within themselves, that humans die, just as their farm animals do. They understood that one day they would die as well, along with their mothers, fathers and all their loved ones. Everyone is born and dies.

“Did anyone ever talk to you about this…topic?” I asked.

“Death?” He said effortlessly.

“Yes, death?” I repeated.

“What would they have said?” He asked earnestly.

{What would they have said?!} I could think of a dozen things! As a natural talker of all trades, I can always think of at least a dozen things. No one said any of them?!!

That didn’t cut it for me. I’d have to say at least three of these dozen things. I’d have to solicit my children’s’ responses and surgically analyze them in my private moments. It’s a heavy subject; it seemed that his people dealt with it…errrr….callously.

And, yet, I pondered it’s not a callous people by any stretch. People from my husband’s town, Oued-Zem, are some of the most sincere, hug you by the neck and never let go people. They are so affectionate with each other, you find two people walking in pairs engaged arm and arm, or attached to one another even if only by the thread of intertwined pinky fingers. Even alpha males will hold onto one another when they walk. Their display of outward affection, when compared to even Collard Green folks, known for their gregariousness, is more apparent and uninhibited. Children are less often seen fidgeting in strollers and more often slung on their mother’s backs or hoisted over their father’s shoulders, or that of their uncles, or maybe just the neighbor five doors down. If a child howls for as much as a piece of candy, it is not uncommon for a perfect stranger to assuage the wailing boy or girl.

Upon further reflection, I surmised that it’s not a matter of dealing with death unceremoniously or without deep reflection; rather, it is  because on the whole my husband’s people have a shared understanding of what happens upon death; they’ve conveyed that understanding from generation to generation, through recitation of the Qur’an. Muslims believe that the children of Adam and Eve die, and then they are questioned about whether they were obstinate disbelievers. They are shown their final end -whether heaven or hell. In preparation, they pray for the deceased feverishly during this time and repeat after his/her name- Allah yurhamuhoo(a) { Allah, have mercy on him (her)}.

The sorting out is not for the living who still have the opportunity to repent and seek the Mercy of God; the intense focus, rather, is concentrated on the deceased who cannot return to shed any remaining traces of what separated them from God – their ego’s excruciating pull, and with it, their ambivalence about the finite substance of life.

Muslims believe that the deceased are aware of everything happening around them until they are buried. So, they speak soft, loving words, and facilitate recitation of the Qur’an in beautiful, soothing voices. Not to prolong the deceased experience of this mourning period, and in accordance with Islamic law, they bury the body within 24-hours. They do not delay the proceedings for make-up sessions or to make flights for eulogizers.

Days after talking to my friend, I was at the mosque for Friday prayers with my children. My eldest son was on the men’s side alone because his father was attending prayers at a mosque closer to his office. After the sermon and prayer, the imaam announced that a member of the community had died the night before. “Please stand up,” he instructed us to pray the janaza (funeral) prayer. And so, it was…my son alone. He watched them bring the closed coffin out and set it down, and with the rest of the congregation he prayed.

Afterward we met in the atrium of the mosque before heading out into the parking lot. Of course, the first thing my son asked was: “Why did that man die? Who was it? How old was he?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?! Can you ask someone?,” he pleaded with me.

I looked around; it was a large congregation, people were flying by us left and right trying to make it back to work as they’d likely used their lunch break to attend Friday prayers. I didn’t see any familiar faces. By this time we were well into the path of swerving cars in the crammed parking lot. I clutched both of my smaller children by the hand.

“I can’t ask anyone, we have to go,” I said, as my son trailed beside us trying to keep up.

“Pray for him,” I said making my voice audible over the traffic and strepent voices. “Pray to Allah to forgive his sins!” I called out, weaving my way between two parked cars, into an opening to pass into another lane. “He’s dead. That was the appointed time for him and now his life is over.” My son heeled on my footsteps, while I pressed on. “He can’t go back. No one can be at peace but by Allah’s mercy and His name is All-Merciful.”

We snaked our foot-path between more cars, until finally emptying into the outer-bound hilly, grassy area where I parked. My son spotted two friends from his homeschool co-op. “Hey!,he called out smiling. Are you done with school for the day?!”

“Yeah,” his friend bragged. “I’m always done at 1:00. “But not him,” he chided, nudging his little brother, “He’ll drag it out until 5:00.”  The younger brother looked down and smiled sheepishly as if to convey that he was half annoyed and half pleased with himself.

Alright, see ya’ later,” the older brother tipped his hand

O.K. bro, bye,” my son replied, which is the pre-teen boy version of stately.

I haven’t made up my mind about how best to talk to our children about death when they face it head on. Like most things ‘child-rearing’ - I sigh and grovel at the thought that I’ll figure it all out in retrospect. At least the grandchildren will profit, if our brood ever warm up to the idea of me as sagely; and then, I’d also have to reckon with that notion myself.

All I know now is that the principal died.

Sara Al-Dalou, and 10 of her family members died.

The unknown man at the Friday prayer died.

One day I will die, my husband will die, and our children as well.

Knowing that scathes, and yet, mercifully refreshes the entire outlook for today.

No Use Crying

11 Nov

Our friends left and I don’t suspect they’ll ever return. We have their teapot and their book which are lovely, but will never be as lovely as they were.

Our sons are best friends. Because I’m {that} kind of mama, when my son left his email open, of course, I read it! Their last words to each other before the flight:

May Allah always guide you to the right path! (My son).

May Allah accept all of your duaas (prayers)! (Her son).

I took my boy out for ice cream after they left, but it didn’t even taste sweet.

I picked up their book and read it to my children to pass the hour before bedtime.

‘Come, there’s no use in crying like that! …I advise you to leave off this minute.’ She [Alice in Wonderland] generally gave herself very good advice (though she seldom followed it).”

How I wish, this time, that I were not exactly like Alice. If only there were no rabbit holes for friends to slide down- to places we cannot reach. I wish there were no keys to open doors and magic potions to make friends shrink down well enough to walk through; so far that we cannot even see them in the distance. Gone, gone….

We took a long walk, but we did not find them. The berries we ate in summer and the greenery that surrounded us have vanished. Autumn hung by a thread, with only specks of color.

Seasons turn familiar ground into new territory. Change is the only constant, which doesn’t sullen the mood of some who know.

But not me and not him – not today, anyway.

These are the days of vexing thorns and longing for what can never be {again}.

Oh Lord! Oh Compassionate and Merciful. Oh Most Kind and All-Sufficient….suffice us.

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