Posts Tagged memories
There was nowhere the cat could go but under the sofa. This was tremendous progress in its character. The pool man’s pole was so high and creepy thin the cat was convinced it was going to get it. It had been lying down on its favorite chair when the giant pole began to rise and dip itself into the mysteries of the blue water. It was a lot of restraint for the cat not to rush inside and to wait it out under a nearby sofa. And that amazing feat of courage paid off. The pole monster didn’t go much farther; it soon retreated. And the cat, forty-five minutes later, began to relax again, and the fur on its arched back and tail began to lay back in place, reverting the cat to its original size.
The cat had intellect and it was using it. The balance between instinct and intellect in its little head got the upper hand. Danger subsided. All was alright.
She’d been dreaming of this all her life. Since the age of sixteen she decided that she wanted to learn Italian. Because she was not the one paying for the lessons, her father insisted that she learned Spanish instead, said he would only pay for Spanish, and Spanish it was. She enjoyed it nevertheless but it didn’t seem to satisfy the thirst for linguistic music inside her head. In her mind she could speak and understand every word. She could read it well. When she was old enough to pay for her own Italian classes she couldn’t keep them up. She allowed work and politics and “faithful sisters” to define her life’s purpose. Suddenly, rallying for bearded men who spoke shiny words became more important to her than speaking Italian. And she let the years go by.
Then one day she woke up from her slumber and decided it was time to get her life back. What was that language she so wanted to speak? She thought with a smile in her head. The moment finally came for her final stretch with it. She sat in front of the teacher, dumbfounded. Words were racing each other inside her head but none of them were the ones she wanted to use. Everything came up to her throat and choked in there while her teacher looked at her with a compassionate smile. The silence was murderous. But she would not let it kill her dream. She was listening to Italian, the teacher was promising her Italian, and all was alright.
She was in white, standing in a crowd of eager women from different parts of the world. There was a wall separating them from a destination they had traveled thousands of miles to reach. It was now only a few short steps away once the door opens through that wall. The talking and the chattering echoed in the vastness of the mosque. White marble pillars stood eternally around them, cloaked in gold carvings, perfumed with Oud – the time old Arabian incense. The coolness of the powerful air conditioners and the lingering scent of Oud elevated her. The crowd was suddenly a part of the divine experience. All those women, barred from his blessed presence by the misogynistic sheikhs that have come to take his place despite their false claims to be his humble followers. All those women, standing patiently, waiting for the male ego to subside so that they could be with him at last, and tell him how the men have broken their promise to him to treat them well.
Then all at once the door opened and the women flooded into the forbidden quarters of the grand mosque. Joy filled them as some of them began to ululate, allowing their instinct to challenge the sin-minded conservatism of the men around them. Tears began to stream down her face as she rushed towards the shrine of the prophet. She walked into the sunlit platform where she used to chase the pigeons when she was only seven as her mother sat quietly in a corner and prayed. Back then women were allowed this proximity to the prophet at all times. Back then the entire mosque was her playground. She kept walking, enjoying the sound of the pigeons’ fluttering wings, stepping once again into her childhood, until she finally reached him. She stood there with a smile on her face, and all was alright.
She stared longingly at the wedding cake. She had been to a wedding in that hotel before and she knew how well they made those cakes. Most people she knew were chocolate cravers, she never was. Chocolate always came in handy to her on difficult times, but she was never a chocolate seeker. To her, the whiter the cake the stronger the lure, and if frosting was included her mouth would fill with saliva no matter what important event she was in. The wedding was coming to an end and she was worried they might forget to cut up the cake for the guests. Soon everyone began to leave and her heart began to sink when suddenly, her aunt came to her with a piece of the cake. She grinned and held it like an archaeologist would hold an ancient treasure. She took the first bite and peace drifted into her veins. And the world disappeared. And all was alright.
Wow! I just walked out of my kitchen with some very scary realizations about myself. I’ve had this strong desire to hold time standing still for so long I’m starting to see what my life really looks like inside my head. I’m in one of those gloomy, sorry weeks and I haven’t been clearing anything I use in the kitchen. Coffee mug used? Right where I left it. Next day other coffee mug used? Still there. Tray out? Right where I left it with its corner sticking out the edge of the table. Spoon used? Yes, right next to her sisters in the sink. Day after day with mug after mug and spoon after spoon, and before I’m aware of it I have a disgusting kitchen with piles of ridiculously dismissed items that hadn’t really needed more than a quick rinse to begin with. Now if I try to look for a clean spoon I wouldn’t find one. All would be used.
That is precisely what I do with the life I have outside my kitchen. I hold on to everything, good or bad. Each bad experience, no matter how small or big, comes in, carves something in my gut and sits right there, and I do nothing to clear it. I leave those experiences intact instead of picking them up and working out where they need to be stacked so they could be more useful and less painful. Needless to say, I dig into my brain for one creative thought and can’t find any; all are too busy twirling around old experiences, keeping them alive and simmering.
My kitchen is the perfect visual representation of my mind. And I can’t count the number of times I was advised by close people to let go. Somehow I find this to be the single most challenging uphill task I have to take. Everything around me seems to be screaming at me to get over myself. I see it in that bored look my cat gives me whenever I start to space out and stare emptily at the TV, in the janitor’s snicker when I fuss over the lit cigarettes in front of the elevator, and now it’s crept into my dreams.
Yep, my dreams. Now as I write this the dream I had last night is actually falling into place. I dreamed that my sister and I were waiting for our mother to show up in some mall and she didn’t. I got worried about her but my sister didn’t seem to be as concerned as I was. I checked with my aunt and she didn’t seem concerned either. I was so frustrated that no one was worried, but when I checked with a friend of mine and she seemed to conceal something, I kept pressing her until she walked into a room and came out with my mother. I rushed to her and hugged her, but she didn’t hug me back. Her body was cold, but it wasn’t the kind of cold that works its way through the skin from the weather while the core is still warm; it was that inner, lifeless cold that crept its way out through the skin and to the hand that’s touching it.
My mother was forever gone, and no amount of persistence brought her back to me. I was the only one holding on to something that was no longer there, unlike my sister and my aunt, who had accepted the fact that she was gone and simply let go–or so it seemed in my dream. Holding on to the memory of my mother’s presence in my life has been like taking a deep, satisfying breath of fresh, salty sea air. But because it’s just a memory, the air soon becomes a burden and nothing can relieve me except a powerful exhale. That’s what letting go is like; it’s like a much needed relief of a burden ripping at your chest, and I’ve been living my life with just an inhale.
But seriously now, I’m not sure what this is, to be honest. So before I conclude this particularly pointless post I’m going to go ahead and blame it on Cairo, as I always do with everything that annoys me. So maybe it’s a Cairo thing? Because I look around me at Cairo’s streets and whoa! That is one big grimy, slimy old kitchen that hasn’t been cleared up since the Mamluks. Cairo has layer after layer of history, and on a less romantic note, layer after layer of garbage and abandoned junk either crowding backyards of buildings or creeping into their service stairs, making them nice little hubs for rodents and reptiles. Many people have grown so accustomed to the mess around here that they no longer take notice of it. They’re aware of it, but they just accept it as the sorry reality that is their home city. It creeps into their subconscious and puts them in a bad mood each time they hit the streets, which could explain the road rage and the street fights and the honks. So yeah, Cairo has crept into my subconscious and given me this messy kitchen. And yes of course you’re reading this messy post, because how can I be creative with a mind as overloaded and messy as that kitchen, or as Cairo?
A few days ago I was clearing some old junk in the house and I found a large file with old documents. My father rarely threw away any papers, in fact he used to make dozens of copies of each document he deemed important and put a copy in every drawer and shelf. That way he eliminated the need to search and, of course, he assured quick accessibility in case he ever needed to refer to a certain document for whatever reason. I came across legal documents and slips of old payments made to him or by him, things that dated back to the 1960s and onwards, and in the midst of the piles of paper I found a copy of two letters mailed to us by my granduncle. One letter was for ten pages and the other for five pages and included attachments. Yep. There were legal documents stapled to it, clearly referred to throughout the letter.
The minute I held the letters in my hands flashes of memory came rushing back to me. I remembered myself opening the door and receiving one of those thick, fat envelopes that contained one of the many letters he used to send to us, I remembered the compassionate smile on my father’s face as he read through it (actually in my last memory of such letters my father merely skimmed through the pages), I remembered my grandmother’s face whenever my granduncle was mentioned to her even in passing, and I also remembered that nothing steered her out of a bad mood except a certain anecdote about him which my uncles used every now and then to cheer her up.
My granduncle held a grudge against my father and my uncles for so many years and died before he ever got over it. I never fully understood what the problem was, it had started long before I was born and I grew up merely overhearing conversations about it with repetitive references to certain people – clearly villains – that I had never met and curses to others I knew for something appalling they had apparently said at some unfortunate hour. Near the last years of his life that problem was clearly all he could think about. So he bombarded my father with lengthy phone calls and fortified them with those meticulously detailed, highlighted, subtitled, page numbered and cross-referenced letters.
I held the copy in my hand and studied the handwriting; it was neat but also very shaken. Based on the dates I could tell that he was in his late eighties when he wrote them. That is about a time in which he didn’t always recognize close people, yet he could certainly remember in detail what happened 20 years earlier. I tried to make sense of what I was reading, but since I hadn’t been in on the origin of the problem, the letters, to me, were at an advanced level; there was no way I could understand what he was talking about without sufficient background information. In fact, reading on, I could tell that there was more than one problem, things that had to do with a house, with a cemetery, and lots, lots of conspiracies. There were stories inside stories and there were cows and buffalos involved:
My mother became very ill and she had three requests from me:
1. That I should not bury her in the village but instead bury her in the city with the Gizans [residents of Giza, a suburb of Cairo]. 2. She had a share with in a buffalo with Abo Hammad’s children, that I should give the buffalo to Hamdy [my uncle] because he was a student of medicine and administered her shots. 3. She shared a cow with Haj Hindy, that I should give the cow to my sister Saniya because she was poor … I did what she asked and sold the cow … and gave the buffalo to Hamdy…
I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed as hard as I did when I read that paragraph. To me, the entire letter, despite how organized it was, made absolutely no sense. I knew that there was some well structured logic in there, but no one could possibly decipher it except those who were physically present around the time all those things happened.
What puzzled me, however, was the fact that my father actually got out of his way to make a copy of those letters. What on earth was he thinking? But each time I remember my grandmother laughing at that anecdote I can’t help concluding that the copies were probably intended to travel to my four uncles and three aunts. For discussion, you think? Of course not. Probably just for laughs. I know that he eventually became a major source of entertainment for the family.
My granduncle was a very athletic English teacher who always took pride in the fact that he participated in the 1936 Berlin olympics. He also boasted – sometimes condescendingly – that he was the one who introduced my father to my mother, whom he referred to as a Saudi princess (she was the daughter of a school principal in Medina, but who was checking?)
Sadly, my granduncle’s daughters grew apart from us, but recently we’ve been making efforts to communicate. The only thing that makes me think about him and my father with peace is that my father was right there holding his hand when he was on his deathbed, and that his daughters never stopped checking in on my father during his illness, and that he was elated when he saw them just a few days before he passed away himself.
And this is in spite of what my granduncle had written in one of the two letters classifying major wars, subtitling it “The Longest War”:
The First World War (1914-1918) lasted for four years and was among world countries
The Second World War (1939-1945) lasted for five years and was also among world countries
The Gulf War between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988) lasted for eight years
But the war between the Abdel Fattah family and their cousins began ten years ago and hasn’t ended until now …
As wise and foreseeing as the elderly can be, I’m glad that my granduncle was wrong about that last war he mentioned. Those who remain among us from the old, turbulent days, my cousins and my father’s cousins have nothing but laughter and loving, endearing thoughts about my granduncle, his grudge and of course his letters!
Do you wake up on certain mornings wondering what in the world you’re still doing here? I do. Certain days and nights go by slowly no matter how busy they are. There’s unseen weight pulling you down, almost literally, and it’s like a smile and a word or two to another person is so much work. I walk around on certain days with a cloud of gloom hovering above me. I call it the memory engine. All this cloud does is shoot down memories of a better past I once had. And the more familiar the places I walk in the more powerful the memories and the thicker the cloud.
With the illness and death of my father my growing up threw itself on me with a sigh of relief after a long wait at the door. I’d been holding it back and hiding in the protective island my father put me in. Only with him gone did I realize that I had to start doing my own worrying and to start my own thinking of tomorrow. In his last days I was feeling thankful that I had him. I was sorry that he wouldn’t be there for the rest of my days but that at least I had him for some generous time. I was prepared to the idea of losing him, but I wasn’t quite ready to lose him. I now realize that I could never have been and never will be.
But I was neither ready nor prepared for the idea of losing my mother. I wasn’t aware of this until her absence became an actual reality, not just a passing nightmare that wakes me up horrified in the middle of the night and then slips away smoothly in the morning when I hear her preparing her breakfast in the kitchen. With my mother’s sudden death adulthood slapped me in the face. You see, to me there’s a big difference between growing up and adulthood. Growing up is learning to deal with your own problems and facing them on your own, adulthood is practicing it–with all of its dirt–and dealing alone with the scars that never stop marking your eyes, your smile, your heart, and your very soul (That dark dot gets bigger each time you get a strong urge to grab certain people, force them to the ground, and stomp on them repeatedly) until you no longer recognize yourself, or you don’t see the person you expected to become when you were young.
When the two makers and shakers of my life disappeared they left behind a ripping silence. I’ve kept everything in the house just the way they left it as if deep inside me some sorry self thought they might surprise me with a come back and be proud to find everything just the way they liked it. Or maybe somehow, subconsciously, it felt like a betrayal to their memory to change anything. Or maybe it was just my way of staying in their protection, as close as I could get to their physical presence which I still crave. But now I realize how much I’ve suffocated myself with this empty house. The silence and the unchanging place have rendered the absence stark. The morning silence of the kitchen, the couches, the chairs, the arranged picture frames all scream at me day and night that their rightful owners are no longer there, that I’m alone in a house large enough to fit a family, a big happy family. It’s like I’ve created my own memory cage.
I thought that with time this would be over but I was so wrong. All that happened with time is that the pain left my body and mind and hovered above me like a cloud, ready to shoot down memories and sorrow with the slightest provocation; like each time I look to my right side on the couch and not find my mother, or each time I visit a restaurant she liked, or drove down a street my father drove me through a thousand times when I was a child, or hug my uncle and feel my father’s shoulders in his. At times it’s simply whenever my car gives me a hard time; that nasty cloud reminds me that I have to deal with it. On my own.
I don’t know what this is. It’s either making my adulthood more difficult to endure or is, by itself, adulthood’s way of forcing me to let go and move on just to survive.
I wrote about losing my mother a few months after she was gone. Nothing about that feeling has changed, but the reason why I find myself writing this now, after almost four years of her death, is that I think the moment has come for me to let go of everything that’s ever pained me. I’m in a phase in my life now where all the memories and the pain and the losses have somehow turned into a roaring fire inside me. I can’t bear it and I can’t put it out, but I think I can turn it into something good, maybe even great. I think that each one of us can turn our agonies into a positive energy that pushes us forward towards a better life for ourselves, or others, whichever we’re best at. For example, I’ve learned all the wisdom my parents have tried to pass down to me in their life but were only met with my casual dismissal. Somehow everything they used to say now makes all the perfect sense. And you know what else? I lost my art teacher so suddenly only a month after he told me he would make an artist out of me. I never quite believed him when he said it and I whined and complained about how damn hard drawing was. I never sharpened my pencils like he advised. Yet somehow, miraculously, my grief over him produced some work that I know he would be very proud of. And yes I’ve learned to sharpen my pencils. I started doing it with some obsessive religious vigor.
Those two ironies opened my eyes to the good that can come out of loss, or perhaps it was my firsthand experience with how real life works. So I realized that if I continue to lock myself up in an empty space loaded with memories, or tried to hold on to a past long gone as if trying to make time stand still, that fire would burn me up and leave nothing but ashes. There’s no putting it out except by embracing it and using it to move forward. Maybe that’s what all the annoying cliché talk about looking at the full side of the glass or finding the good in everything could actually mean. This isn’t about standing in the middle of tears and forcing a ridiculous, unfelt smile; this is about using the bad to create the good, the ugly to create the beautiful. I’ve decided to let the cloud thicken and hover as it may and to turn its shots into bouts of energy. Somehow, ironically, I’ve realized that it can be a very soothing process.