When I was sitting on the sofa with Zahra last month, I knew it was probably the last time. She died last Wednesday.
If you fall in love with someone from another country, another religion and culture, you worry about being accepted by his family. I met Zahra and my father-in-law only once before my husband and I became engaged. They were kind and polite and the meeting went well, as such meetings go, but still I worried. And when we went to Lebanon to be married, my insecurity was at high pitch.
I am not sure how much that registered with Zahra, and how much she attributed to bridal nerves. She was throwing together a huge wedding in the space of two months. My assignment was to show up with two wedding dresses and my sister and learn my Arabic version of "I do." Zahra took care of everything else. She intimidated me--her beauty, her three languages, her chic, the way she could make a few phone calls and have the world snap into order.
We arrived in Lebanon in June 2000, just after the Israelis pulled out their last troops. Driving from Beirut to Tyre, in the south, was a short journey made much longer by what seemed liked a dozen military checkpoints along the way. In those pre-9/11 days the concept of being stopped by armed men was alien to this New Yorker, and I kept asking dumb questions.
"How do you tell if it's a Syrian checkpoint?" I asked. My future brother-in-law replied, deadpan, "See that huge picture of Bashar Assad? That's your tipoff."
"And," chimed in my future husband, "if they're ignoring everyone and talking on their cellphones, it's the Lebanese Army."
"But they just wave us through. How do they pick who they'll stop?"
"Oh," said Zahra, who was driving--she was the best driver in the family--"it's like everywhere else. They stop you if you look Arab." Both her sons laughed and laughed, and I thought, I need to vet my questions more carefully.
After we were married, we'd go to Paris, we'd visit my brother-in-law, or Zahra and my father-in-law would visit us. Zahra would arrive with two or three suitcases. One was always labeled "OVERWEIGHT." In it would be gifts for everyone, and food. My god, the food, pounds of it, stuffed in every corner of the suitcase. Zahra had spent a lifetime perfecting Lebanese cooking and she always brought French cheese, chocolate, foie gras. She tried to show me how to prepare things, but I was a beginning cook and a slow learner. Besides, her perfectionism was so complete I gave up immediately on emulating it. "I don't care what she says," I said to my husband when she was out of earshot. "I'm not making my own yogurt."
To go food shopping with Zahra was equal parts education and terror. My sister accompanied her to the Union Square Whole Foods and pulled me aside as soon as they returned. "I really like her," laughed my sister. "But man, she's tough. She was demanding that the guy at the poultry counter tell her how old the chicken was."
"What did he say?"
"He said, 'I don't know, ma'am. We weren't personally acquainted.' Zahra said that meant it was probably too old but we'd take it anyway."
Zahra's instructions worked better with other members of my family. I called my mother shortly after she had met Zahra, and Mom ended with, "I have to go finish the hummus."
When I got engaged I worried that not being Muslim would matter to my husband's Shi'a family. It didn't, not to any of them, least of all Zahra. "She just didn't want me to marry a fanatic. Any kind of fanatic," said my husband. I learned how true that was on my second trip to Lebanon.
Their apartment in Tyre was on the ninth floor of a building overlooking a local mosque. Day and night a muezzin sang from a minaret. I thought it was colorful and kind of charming. Zahra did not. One night after supper was cleared the muezzin was in full cry and I asked if that was the call to prayer. "It is NOT time to pray," snapped Zahra.
My husband explained that you could get a special prayer broadcast for you. "It's a recording. And he's singing, 'Blessings on Abu Hamid, he is a good man, a pious man, he prays, he has made the hajj. Blessings on his wife Hala, his sons, his daughters--we're up to the grandchildren now."
"It doesn't end, this man's family," groaned Zahra, who was pacing the living room. "And if you say to someone, 'Excuse me, but really I would prefer to spend my evening in peace without hearing about your prayers and your relatives,' they say to you, 'Oh. so you are not religious.' Meaning, oh, so you are a bad person." She checked her stride and shot an Arabic sentence in the direction of the minaret.
"What did she just say?"
"She said," replied my husband pleasantly, "that she hopes Abu Hamid gets scarlet fever." Zahra looked at him and said something else. "And now," he added, "she says I have to stop translating."
I gave birth to twins in May 2003. Zahra and my father-in-law arrived with a present for me, an antique gold necklace of traditional Arab design, so breathtaking I snapped the box shut after one look because it was too much. I was a wreck. The pregnancy was difficult and the birth was worse. I hemorrhaged and came within drops of needing a transfusion. Loss of blood made breastfeeding basically impossible. I thought if I was going to start my babies on formula I was already ruining their lives. My mother came, cared for me, but had to leave. My father-in-law left. My husband went back to work. Zahra stayed, monitoring the babies' every ounce of formula, getting up at night to give them bottles, feeding me spinach every way you could prepare spinach and trying to coax me to eat liver, to help counter a killer case of anemia.
Like many women, I had textbook postpartum depression, and like many women, I decided that couldn't be it. Obviously it was normal to cry each day from three to five pm while the babies napped. Depression was banal, and I was interesting. I was incompetent.
And how was I going to become competent if Zahra was doing everything? As the weeks turtled by, my resentment grew. She was interfering. She was controlling. She was trying to show me up and take over. I picked squabbles again and again. I half-listened to what she said and made an MGM production number out of doing the opposite.
Oh, I wasn't a complete ingrate. My own mother had raised me too well for that. I expressed thanks from time to time and told her I appreciated her staying so long to help me out. But when she left, I was relieved. Now I could care for my children in my own way. I could go to the damn grocery store and buy some yogurt.
I wish I could say I quickly owned up to my behavior, but it took an accretion of small things: Zahra insisting that my husband and I go out to dinner while she took care of the babies. Zahra treating my daughter's diaper rash with a weird concoction of rose water and cornstarch. Zahra scouring Paris outlets to buy stacks of clothes for the kids, then playing with them for hours.
By the time my third child arrived, I was listening, and she began to tell me stories of making homes in Ivory Coast, in Yemen, in Sweden. ("Our car was stolen the first week. Can you imagine? In Stockholm? No one stole our car in Beirut!") She told me about struggling when her first son was born. I stuffed grape leaves with her and we watched bits of old Egyptian movies. She, in turn, learned to let me do things even if I did them badly. Instead of jumping up to take over, she would let me chop the onions, though she watched the knife and my fingers as if waiting for Freddie Krueger to strike.
We became friends.
One day when we were visiting Paris I went shopping for a wedding gift for a friend. Zahra's gifts had continued--more jewelry, a Cartier scarf, a silver lace top, a silk shawl, a 1920s-style dress. I tried to reciprocate but she had so much already that everything felt like a near miss. I went into a store in the Marais that specialized in antique French linens. As I selected something for my friend, it occurred to me that this was the sort of thing Zahra might like. I picked out a lace table covering, had it wrapped and took it back to the apartment, convinced I'd found the perfect item at last.
When I returned, Zahra was alone; my husband had taken the kids to the park. I proudly gave her the present, she unwrapped it and exclaimed over its beauty. Then, because she was Zahra and everything was always orderly in her house, she went to put it away. I followed her into the dining room and watched as she swung open a door in the bottom of the china cabinet. And for the first time I saw she had a huge stash of antique linens stored there. The pile must have been a foot high. She took out a bunch of them so she could stack the tablecloth in the correct size order, and I gaped at the superfluity of my gift. I realized Zahra was hugging me.
"Farran," she said, "I love you, dear. I do. You are my family." She was crying. I began crying. I told her I loved her too, that I was so sorry for being a brat after the twins were born. She said she understood. And we stood for a bit, hugging and crying over the tablecloths.
Zahra was diagnosed with cancer in January 2009. It had metastasized. But I deceived myself almost to the end. Less than a year into the Lebanese civil war, this woman had crossed the Green Line in Beirut to get to the airport and get her sons to Paris. In Saudi Arabia she had gone into the markets without hijab, asserting her right as a foreign national to keep her head uncovered. "They waited on me," she told me, "but they were horribly rude." Zahra was, as my sister had said, tough. She couldn't be cured, but surely she could hold out for a long time.
All those years I would listen to Zahra give advice on the phone, or hear of how she visited people who needed help. Now the members of her huge, far-flung family came to the apartment in Paris, one after the other, to stay a week or a month. "It's our turn," said my sister-in-law.
My turn came too, several times. I wasn't much good at it. I melted the handle on her casserole because I forgot to cover it before I put the dish in the oven. My twins battled over who got Boardwalk in Monopoly, and after I imposed a truce I saw the laundry I had abandoned was folded neatly on top of the dryer. I would snatch some time to write on the family computer, and when I got up I would see that the cups I had left in the sink were washed and put away. The youngest would have an accident, and I would find the kitchen floor had been swept while I was cleaning him up.
"Zahra," I pleaded when I found her in the kitchen, scrubbing at the bottom of a pan to remove a scorch mark I had been too lazy to clean off. "I know I'm slow. But I'll get to things, I swear. If you just sit down, I will take care of it."
"I know you're working hard dear," she told me. Indeed, she always had. "But I can't just leave things that need to be done. And I can't just sit. I need to do something."
From the time my twins were babies up to our last visit, Zahra would coo the same thing each time she embraced my children--"toa'brini, toa'brini insh'allah." It means, "May you bury me."
Children are meant to bury their parents. A daughter-in-law one day may bury the woman who raised her husband. English has no such blunt endearments, but then again, I don't know the Arabic for "not now."