Archive | December, 2012

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.

 

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.

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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, we play this.” 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 dumbfounded 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 benefited 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 incessantly begged them, or maybe they just didn’t see any harm. After all, if we barred all the so-called struggling people, 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 vice 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. 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 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 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. 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 parents’ 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 thin 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 soft couches splayed with orange and brown windmills and country estates. 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 butler 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, as if by some bizarre twist that would surprise me.

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, un-phased.

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. 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 ugly. 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 imagination, which was, after all, our sanctuary -Lilly and me.

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.