Sunday, September 19, 2010

Zahra

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."

42 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

My heartfelt condolences.

Death, particularly when it arrives "after a long illness"
(as it's so "delicately put" far too often) can be as devestating as the "sudden" kind.

Something is out of our life that can't really be repleaced. All wec an do is hope to fill it with the inevitable onrush of time.

Sarah said...

Oh, Siren. I've been lurking around your blog for months now, but this is what kicked me out of the closet. I'm so sorry for your loss, so grateful for your ability to capture in words things that shouldn't be forgotten.

Dan Callahan said...

I got a little teary at this, and that doesn't happen very often. Thanks so much for writing and sharing this woman and this experience.

The best tribute you can make to someone who was important to you, I think, is to be as specific as possible about them, and this is beautifully specific.

Noel Vera said...

Condolences, Farran. I think you did her justice. She sounds like a magnificent woman. Like my grandmother, actually.

"They stop you if you look Arab"

Love their sense of humor. And love it that they never had anyone bother their car in Beirut.

Dan Leo said...

What a beautiful tribute, Farran.

I'm very sorry for your trouble.

Nora said...

Thank you. Your beautiful post is more than a tribute. You have allowed us to share with you some wonderful memories of a special woman. No words may comfort you now, but keep writing about Zahra and her world, if only for your children. They may be too young to understand, but one day they will treasure what you have written.

Cynthia said...

Beautifully, poignantly, and truthfully written.

KC said...

She sounds like a beautiful woman. How lucky you were to have known her. Thanks for sharing her with us in such a tender way. My condolences.

Gabrielle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gabrielle said...

Thank you. This was beautiful.

Vanwall said...

Your grace and style are unmatched, even when writing one of he best mementos I've ever read. I was tearing up little, even. My condolences, for all of your family.

My mother-in-law, a little Polish-Swedish-Serb cum French lass, who grew up into a woman so very similar to Zahra in many ways, has been battling cancer herself and is on a voicebox now, her wonderfully cultured voice only a memory, and fingers are crossed, even tho it's a matter of time for her.

When we lost her mother, our Babushka, a little bit of light went out of our world, as you have lost that in yours. But I remember now all the funny things about her, her ability to look down while walking and see money, loose change, or a perhaps a twenty dollar bill floating past, it was uncanny. She too, always visited with unbelievably heavy luggage, tiny as she was, with those goodies for us and the boys in them - my brother foolishly decided to offer help at LAX once, poor chap.

Thanks for sharing.

Operator_99 said...

So sorry for your loss. Her celebration of life will be with you always and pop to mind in many wonderful and endearing ways. This heartfelt tribute echoes it already.

Matthew said...

My condolences on the loss of an extraordinary woman.

Greg said...

My condolences as well. And to echo several other sentiments here, this is a beautiful tribute.

gmoke said...

It's a hard thing to be good at eulogies.

Sorry for your family's loss. Thanks for remembering Zahra to us and for us all.

"toa'brini, toa'brini insh'allah."

Laura said...

My sincere condolences on your family's great loss. Thank you for sharing your lovely tribute.

Best wishes,
Laura

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

A beautiful tribute. Your ability to convey the deeper, truer feelings is unmatched. I'm very sorry for your family's loss.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren,

Thank you for sharing so much of your life and your memories of Zahra in this beautiful and moving tribute.

Marilyn said...

Your elegant and heartfelt tribute to Zahra makes me wish I had known her. But even not knowing her, I mourn her loss. The world was better for having her in it. My sincere condolences to you and Zahra's loved ones on her passing.

Avalon76 said...

My sincerest condolences on the lost of your beloved Zahra. She sounded like a truly marvelous woman. *hugs*

swhitty said...

What a sad and sweet and honest and, yes, lovely piece.

And here I had been wondering, churlishly, why you'd been so long between posts. And now I go back and read the previous one, and feel even sadder.

Honestly, my sympathies to you and your family. But if it's any small consolation, what you had seems like such a full and accepting relationship.

It's so much harder, I think, to lose someone when issues haven't been resolived -- like, as a friend who lost his father told me, "It's as if we were in the middle of an argument we're never going to finish."

My thoughts are with you all.

Michael said...

Farran, everyone else has said it better, but I did want to let you know that I think you've written a lovely and moving tribute. I hope you wear some of her lovely gifts for a special party for her. And if you would care to share her hummus recipe, I'd be honored to put it on my blog and link to this. I love remembering people--even those I've only read about--with food.
Tinky
http://www.ourgrandmotherskitchens.com

Annieytown said...

This was a lovely tribute F.
I am so sorry.

))))F((((

PS: I hope that one day I am lucky enough to have such a magnificent mother-in-law!

I know she was blessed with a fabulous daughter-in-law who gave her the most beautiful grandchildren on earth!

Yojimboen said...

"Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass,
of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind."

rudyfan1926 said...

What a beautiful tribute, so heartfelt and so terribly sorry for your loss of such a wonderful sounding woman. This post had me in tears.

Trish said...

In the midst of sadness, a beautiful confessional. I am so sorry for your loss, Farran.

Bob Westal said...

My condolences on your loss. A really beautiful tribute.

This perhaps especially moved me as my own 82 year-old mother is going through a rough health situation at the moment, though perhaps improving. She's nothing like Zahra superficially and, from the sound of it, our families couldn't be a whole lot more different, but great ladies come in all shapes and sizes.

The Siren said...

Thank you all so much, my friends. I am not up to my usual attempt to respond individually, and hope you understand. But I am reading and re-reading each comment, and each one is a comfort.

Arthur S. said...

I remember when my grandfather died and with him, we weren't close in the few years we knew him and I was younger as well. But after he died, I found out a whole bunch of stuff about him that I never knew and would have loved to talk to him about. I wish I had a more meaningful connection with him when he was alive as you did with your mother-in-law.

My condolences.

Tonio Kruger said...

My sincere condolences, Siren.

I am sorry for your loss, too.

If you're always this eloquent when you lost a loved one, then I hope for your sake you never have to use that type of eloquence again for a long time to come. Preferably a century or two.

hamletta said...

Oh, I'm so sorry. Especially for your husband. Losing your mama is a special kind of pain, especially for a man.

The bond between mothers and sons is elemental, on some other wavelength.

jim emerson said...

My thoughts are with you. Thank you so much for writing this.

Hazel said...

I'm sorry for your loss.

What a beautiful tribute to an amazing woman. This was a classic example of "show, don't tell".

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

So sorry to hear about your second loss in such a short time, Siren. This is a wonderful tribute to your mother-in-law. Loosing a mother or father-in-law can be really devastating since they often take on the role of our second mother or father (especially if we've already lost our own parents). I wish you and your family the best. Take care!

Rebecca said...

This is beautiful. Zahra was an amazing person, and I will miss her.

Belvoir said...

Marvellous reminiscence, of an exceptional lady. Feeling a little teary after reading it. What a lovely portrait you've painted of Zahra.

Buttermilk Sky said...

A beautiful eulogy. How fortunate you were to have Zahra in your life.

THE FUTURIST! said...

THE FUTURIST! sends his condolences. HAving sufferd through the death of a parent, THE FUTURIST! knows that saying that one understands how another feels in these type of circumstances is not really appropriate. Each one of us is affected in so many strange and wonderful ways by the loss of a loved one. THE FUTURIST! cites 'wonderful' in the prior sentence because the loss brings the positive of such warm memories tinged with sadness. Some memories were thought lost forever, but arise fresh from the garden of memory watered by melancholy.

Stay well, Siren.

THE FUTURIST! said...

THE FUTURIST! sends his condolences. HAving sufferd through the death of a parent, THE FUTURIST! knows that saying that one understands how another feels in these type of circumstances is not really appropriate. Each one of us is affected in so many strange and wonderful ways by the loss of a loved one. THE FUTURIST! cites 'wonderful' in the prior sentence because the loss brings the positive of such warm memories tinged with sadness. Some memories were thought lost forever, but arise fresh from the garden of memory watered by melancholy.

Stay well, Siren.

SteveHL said...

I hadn't seen your blog for a couple of weeks, but I just read this and the previous entry. As everyone has said, this is a wonderful and moving tribute. I am sorry for your and your family's loss.

joel hanes said...

nothing cures like time and love

cgeye said...

Miss Siren, my deepest condolences.

You and your children came along in time to know her, and are blessed.