By Lena Zaghmouri
What struck me most about Mom’s family was how their pictures looked so different from what Mom told me they were actually like. They looked so put together and all-American, untouched by any troubles. Just two white married parents and one cute kid that always stood in front of them in pictures with a big smile and her arms open, embracing the world and the photo that would capture that emotion forever.
In reality, though, Mom’s parents were divorced, and Mom said Grandma’s main concern was finding her next boyfriend or husband, Grandpa’s the new family he inherited from marrying his second wife, which was soon after he divorced Grandma.
Grandma looked sweet and virginal with blond hair and light brown eyes, but she had countless affairs since Mom could remember.
Grandpa looked kind with dark blue eyes, thin brown hair, a soft manly smile, but Mom told me he would become irritable and beat her for the smallest mistake when he was angry with Grandma. Mom had a collection of bruises on her arms and back that she showed me to prove it. He would let plenty of things slide if things were going well with her Grandma, but that was rare. He was easier to be around once her parents divorced during Mom’s early teens, but then he never wanted to be around her anymore either. Mom was part of his past life, the one he claimed was driven by anger. He needed to minimize contact with that as much as possible.
But Mom having a child out of wedlock with a Palestinian reawakened Grandpa’s latent anger. He called her a shameful slut and washed his hands of her and was unwilling to meet me, his olive-skinned granddaughter with a weird name like Isra, one he probably couldn’t even pronounce right.
Grandma came to visit on rare occasions; the first time I remember was when I was five. She was upset that Mom had a child out of wedlock, but she was more forgiving. She was between marriages, and Mom had just kicked Baba out for good. Mom would complain about what a deadbeat Baba was to Grandma sometimes.
“Honestly, Carol, I’ve always told you if you just lost fifteen or twenty pounds, you could get yourself a decent man,” Grandma told Mom.
She visited once or twice a year, usually during the holidays; she would bring me a new Barbie or something as a Christmas gift. Grandma ignored me and vented her frustrations with the world and the men in her life to Mom.
But now, three years later, Mom had cancer, and Grandma went back and forth on whether or not she would take me after Mom passed away. Sometimes she said it would be nice to have someone to live with, someone to help out and spend time with her, but then Grandma would say the last thing she wanted to do was take in an eight-year-old at her age, especially one with a father like mine.
Mom didn’t trust her, though. “She’ll want you when she’s alone, and as soon as she gets a man, Grandma’ll find a way to get rid of you.”
Mom told more positive stories about her family when she put together the photo album for me, her hands newly thin and lined with pale blue veins. She didn’t have energy to put it together before, and once in a while she said there was no point in it because what did all those pictures mean? Most of the people in them I had never met and probably never would.
Still, we sat in the full size bed we slept on at Baba’s place while she put it together. Mom explained who and what was in each picture before she pressed it down on the sticky surface. “Well, hopefully, Isra, your grandma will visit when you live only with Baba,” she said. “Maybe this will make her turn around.”
Mom went into the hospice the next day, and Baba picked me up after school every day so we could go there and see Mom. Sometimes Baba would be in the room alone with her, but usually they kept me there to alleviate the tension between them. We had been living at Baba’s, but I was sure my parents weren’t together, and they wouldn’t have even spoken to each other if Mom wasn’t dying.
Every time Mom said she was tired and needed to rest in the hospice, I was sure that she was going to die then, and I would cry inconsolably, even though Mom assured me she wasn’t leaving yet. Baba would take me out of the room and try to comfort me for a little bit, but he would soon become angry and tell me to be strong. Plenty of people had gone through much worse back home in Palestine, so my pain now didn’t matter.
Grandma came soon after Mom went into the hospice. She would take me to see Mom for the week or so that she was still awake and not drugged beyond comprehension.
And suddenly I wasn’t invisible to Grandma anymore.
Grandma now picked me to vent her frustrations about the man she was in the process of divorcing and Grandpa as well. “I talked to Carol’s father, and you know what he told me? He can’t get the time off work! Can you believe that?” She sighed and clenched her teeth together. “‘This is your child,’ I said to him. ‘Can you just pull your dick out of your wife’s pussy for two seconds and remember you have a daughter?’ You know those kids his wife has aren’t his. She had them with the guy before. I don’t see what’s so great about her. She’s as plain as wood.”
Grandma took me out for ice cream once Mom slipped from consciousness, and she said she couldn’t stand to see her daughter suffering to death and that her granddaughter didn’t need to see it either, so Baba let her.
Though I loved ice cream, I wasn’t excited about getting some that day. Most of it melted on the back of my hand and dripped on the table, and Grandma had to take me to the bathroom to clean up. I could tell she was irritated I saw her roll her eyes in the mirror, and she told me that I had to eat like a civilized girl.
We went to the hotel she was staying in—she would spend the night at Mom’s apartment whenever she came before, but she hated Baba and his apartment—and she put cartoons on for me while she criticized all the men she had had in her life, reserving the worst for Grandpa. “I swear once I married that guy he became such a drag,” she said. “We were so young, and all he wanted to do was stay in and drink beer. Even convincing him to go out to the movies was like asking him to drink cyanide.” Grandma cringed at the thought of him. She moved on to her three other husbands: the second was too mean; the third had affairs; the fourth, the one she was in the middle of divorcing, was a drag like Grandpa, but it was more understandable because he was almost a senior citizen.
I didn’t say anything. My lack of response must have been made her sad; Mom always had some kind of commentary for Grandma, even if it was negative like telling her she should grow up or learn what monogamy was all about. “I’m not even sixty years old, and my daughter is dying. You’re not supposed to bury your child; it’s the other way around. Of course, it’s no picnic to lose your mother at your age.” She wiped a couple of tears that came from her overfilled brown eyes. “You know things are going to be different, right?”
Everyone used that phrase—“things are going to be different”—though they already were different. I hated spending time with Baba, having him prepare my food or ask him questions. He never knew the answers, and he would get irritated by them. “Don’t ask dumb questions,” he always said to me.
Baba was scary, too. Most nights I could hear him crying out in his sleep. When Mom was there she told that it was just because Baba had been through some terrible things since he was even younger than me, and he remembered them in his dreams, but I was sure that he was possessed. It was worse without having Mom there to tell me to go back to sleep.
I had to live without my mother.
At school everyone had a mother that I knew of. A few lived with their grandmothers or someone else, but they at least visited their mothers sometimes. And their grandmothers liked them a lot more than Grandma liked me. They didn’t talk about men all the time, and they didn’t tell their daughters that if they lost weight, they could find a decent man.
But I had a feeling that Grandma was feeling sorrier for herself. She was losing her daughter, the one she could turn to between men. She also started to put on a little bit of weight, especially in the middle. She probably would never be able to find another husband, at least not a decent one.
Though it was almost my bedtime, Grandma had no plans to take me back to Baba’s or call him to ask if I could spend the night with her. “Who cares what he thinks?” she told me when I asked if I was allowed to stay. “He isn’t worth a shit anyway.” She took me to the store and bought me some pajamas and a night light, though I stopped using one over a year before. “What about a toy or something?”
“No, I don’t want to play.”
“You sure are a mellow child.”
After I took a bath and changed into the new pajamas, Grandma talked more about how the man she was currently divorcing was trying to hide his assets and get out of paying her as much alimony. “It’s not like I’ll be getting much. We were only married for a year and a half,” she said. “Couldn’t stand him any longer than that.”
Baba pounded on the Grandma’s hotel door so hard I thought he must have bruised his knuckles, shouting at Grandma to open the door or he’d call the police.
Grandma didn’t hold out for long, but she wouldn’t let me go without letting Baba know that she thought he was a worthless Arab.
“You don’t deserve a say in the matter!” Grandma said. “You haven’t been there for most of her life, and all you’ll do is lock her in the house until she gets married!”
Baba told her at least I wouldn’t learn to be a whore like she was and charged past her and pulled me by the hand. “My daughter comes home with me!” he yelled as he brushed her aside to leave.
He left me in the pajamas Grandma got me, and he talked to me for over an hour, which he never did before. “She is a sharmoota, a slut. Do not act as she does, Isra. You do not want to live as her.” He told me that he couldn’t believe that a woman could act that way. His mother, my sitti, he said, would have never spoken to a son-in-law the way she had. Well, he wasn’t really a son-in-law. He never married Mom, but it should be the same thing to these Americans because they didn’t believe in marriage the way Palestinians did, so Grandma should think of him as her son-in-law. And Sitti definitely wouldn’t have carried on that way, marrying all kinds of men for money or whatever the hell she believed she would get.
Baba woke me up in the middle of the night and told me to put my shoes on. Mom had died, and we were going to see her one last time before she went to the crematory. I was still tired, but my heart was thundering in my chest, so it was easy for me to stay awake.
Grandma was at the hospice before we were, her face red and streaked with tears. Mom lied on the bed, no oxygen tube connected to her, pale and gaunt, her hair a darker brown than what it was before, her lips still red. I cried, and my chest felt so light that I wondered if the center of my body was still there. For over a week now, Mom had been unconscious, and the only way I could tell she was still alive was that she sometimes made a soft grunt when she was in pain. Then a nurse came in and gave her some more drugs to keep her quiet and comfortable.
Baba picked me up and carried me out of the room. People hadn’t picked me up for years on a regular basis, and by then, I was only five or six inches shorter than him, but I guess he still thought I was four. He said we should go back home and let them take Mom away.
Grandma held the memorial service at a small banquet hall. I spent most of the time sitting at one of the middle tables next to my father, chewing on one of the black cloth napkins, my dripping saliva warming the back of my hand. I watched my mother’s relatives, trying to see if I could remember them from the photos, and if I could recall their names or if Mom had ever spoken of them. But I couldn’t place most of them, and they were just as distant from me in real life as they were in the pictures. They seemed uncomfortable around me and my father and gave us short, awkward condolences. They spoke amongst themselves, telling their stories about Mom, what she was like as a child and a teenager.
That day they all had had a close relationship with her when she was alive.
I slipped out and sat under a tree in the picnic area, crushing some of the dried leaves, mildly enjoying the slight pricks in my palm. Grandma found me out there and kneeled down as far as she could to speak to me. She was reconciling with her husband. “I might as well,” she said, tearing up. She always wiped her tears daintily. “Who else will have me at my age? And I can’t live off alimony. I should just pack it in and face reality.” She wished me luck with my father, though she doubted he would be a good one. “I hope he doesn’t send you back to his country, but what can you do?”