Over the past 4 years, every Sunday night after the family dinner, I see her light up a Cartier cigarette and sip on hot, bitter Turkish coffee with a look of daze in her eyes. As her grandchildren run around the house playing and watching movies, I often wonder what my mother in law, Hiyam, is thinking about as she stares off at a painting of a small village on her kitchen wall.
On that particular Sunday night, as we all gathered around the big oblong table in Hiyam’s kitchen, I stared at the painting wondering what it was that captured her thoughts so deeply. It was the painting of a small village surrounded by green mountains enveloping small houses with brick red roof tops. On the far right hand side of the painting, children were playing with an apple that resembles a ball.
I had seen this painting for four years and for the first time that night, I noticed these details that I had never paid attention to before. Surely, it wasn’t the beauty of the painting that she admired every night, but what seemed to be a much deeper vision.
My daughter and her cousins were once again arguing over the same puzzle, until Hiyam broke it up by taking it away and popping in a Barney DVD. She then returned to her same spot on the table and continued sipping on her Turkish coffee.
I poured myself a cup, lit a cigarette and sat across form Hiyam on the oblong table. I could still smell the lingering odors from our lamb chops and stuffed grape leaves. The smell of Turkish coffee mixed with the smoke from both our cigarettes lingered around the kitchen table. As it got darker outside, I noticed the orange and purple Halloween lights flickering through the window. My mother- in- law always decorated her house for the grandchildren for every occasion, even if it wasn’t one of her observed holidays. Although Hiyam was a very strict mother, she had somehow loosened up after her grandchildren were born. She always had a serious look on her face that even intimidated me when I had met her for the first time, but after getting to know her, I could tell that she only had love to offer everyone. With sounds of “Barney” fading in and out, it was time to start the interview.
Hiyam was born in 1944 in the old town of Jerusalem, by a midwife-to a family of five. Her father was a carpenter and her mother a housewife, and up until the age of four, they lived a peaceful life governed by the British Mandate. The country was then called “Palestine.” In 1948, however, the British Mandate had come to an end and the beginning of the creation of the Jewish state had begun. It was the end of “Palestine” and the end of the freedom her family had always known.
I wanted to know how this 1948 war affected her life as a child. “I witnessed a lot of massacre,” and “heartache” of the war she said, this was all she could recall. As tears filled her eyes, she went on to explain how the resistance began, the massacres that occurred and how most of her friends and neighbors were kicked out of their homes. Others fled from the area with nothing but keys to their homes. One of her most blurred memories was that of “women wearing all black dresses and veils yelling and crying,” on the day they learned her uncle was shot by the Israelis. Her family had been lucky enough to return to their homes after hiding in a nearby village for three months.
“That is why you have to teach your children to be strong,” she explained as she glanced over at her three granddaughters. “My family encouraged us to stay strong and to get the best education because that was the fighting weapon.” I never intended for my interview to bring back so many painful memories, but I could tell that she wanted to keep talking.
Hiyam graduated from high school in 1962 with honors and a full scholarship which she later declined. Instead, she decided to work with the UN in refugee camps as a teacher to help those in need in her own country. There, she really learned about the hardships of war. The refugee camps were crammed with tin homes, no running water or electricity and all this “thanks to the creation of a country that was never supposed to be,” she said angrily.
Three months after she got married and moved to the US, the 1967 war had started. Hiyam was already struggling with the language, the culture, having no family around, and worst of all, a month later she lost her youngest brother in that war.
I never knew that she had lost a brother. He was four years old and was the light of her life. She told me the story and wanted to let out the pain. Her three brothers were nine, seven and four years old at the time. They were playing outside like normal children do, and started playing with a ball they had found in the yard. After tossing it around for a while, it blew up, and at that moment, they realized that what they thought was a ball was really grenade! “It was implanted by the army,” she explained. As she continued to describe her painful memory, I could only imagine the grief she felt being so far away.
“Life”, she said, “is a precious gift.” No one should ever take it for granted. She had left a big family behind to start a new life of her own, only to find out that the free country she had come to would be lonelier than the grieving country she had left behind. She told me to “appreciate the small things in life.” She started a family of her own in the U.S. raising her five children. This was the only way to bring the light back to her dark life. Her goal was to give them the life she never had as a child. The opportunities they would have here are “those others would only wish for.” She made me think about my own daughter and how easy our lives are these days. “First appreciate good health,” she said, then “thank God for your family and never forget how lucky you are to live in a free country.” The loss of her youngest brother changed her life forever. Hiyam focused on raising her children with courage, love and most importantly she made sure they all had a good education.
As I ended the interview with my mother in law, it all finally made sense to me. The picture on the wall was probably the image of the life she once struggled through. It was the image of the town where she grew up and the children she remembers playing in their yards. I suddenly had a new found respect for her. Her look of sadness was now understood, and the constant advice she gives us would all mean so much more to me. I was so glad I chose Hiyam to interview because I not only learned more about her life, but now I will make sure that I help my family and children appreciate the smaller things in life and the “precious gift” that we take for granted. I will appreciate the little things in life and work hard to achieve the goals I have set so long as the opportunities are widely available.