Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Shall we have an espresso, mama?

Our embroidery

There is a small coffee shop in the middle of a department store.  Whenever mama and I passed by it, she would say, "Shall we have an espresso, hokiss*?"  And we would.  She'd save us a table in the corner and I would come with the coffee and perhaps a pastry. We'd share it, sometimes chatting, often quiet, just sitting there being together.
Mama had a tough life.  There were relocations, separation from her own family, wars, struggles, illnesses and deaths, but she always thought she was blessed.  She had her five children around her.  She had love.  My father was not an easy man.  He had his own ghosts that haunted him.  Thinking back, I wish I was there for him, I asked him more, I hugged him more... but that's another story.   Mama made it balance for us; she was the calm in the turmoil, she was the safe place to go when we were afraid.  I think she had a way of accepting whatever the day brought with calm dignity, something I'm only just learning.  I don't know why I don't remember any harsh or angry words from her.  She must have been mad at me sometimes, specially during my early college days...but there were none.  There were gentle talks, stories, and sometimes "the look", the "you should know better" look.  Oh mama, looking at me with your beautiful, blue eyes full of love and pride, I never wanted  to see disappointment in them.
She liked teaching with stories.  Either she made them up or she had read them somewhere. One that stands out was the princess who was always sulking because she thought her sisters were prettier.  The king sent her to the forest where she became very happy among the trees, animals, flowers and butterflies.  One day she saw her reflection in the stream and gasped because she looked so lovely. The ugly princess had become beautiful once she had learned to love, smile and feel joy.  Oh mama, I was that princess, wasn't I?  Even at ten, I knew I was the princess.  
I was quite needy there for a short period of time, feeling "different" from the blue eyed, golden haired sisters, so mama made me her baking assistant.  We made the most delicious pies and cakes - apple pie, walnut/raisin pie, chocolate cake and of course my brother's favorite lemon cake.  She let me stir the batter and, yes, even lick the wooden spoon.  Then we sang...
Mama was a music teacher before her children took over her life.  She knew songs in many different languages and sang them in her beautiful angelic voice.  Sometimes, my father would accompany her on the mandolin and we'd have a mini concert right there in the living room.  Years later when I met some of her brothers and her sister, I found out they all had beautiful voices, they all sang.  How she must have missed them...

Were you happy, mama, in those days when I was growing up?  Thinking of her days... she would be shopping for fresh produce from the street vendors, hanging laundry on the line on the roof, cooking the main meal for lunch, sewing with patterns from her favorite Burda magazine, visiting the neighbor ladies for some coffee and gossip perhaps, reading her precious Readers Digest, and then us... always us, feeding us, dressing us, waking us with a cup of Nescafe in her hands, bringing snacks in the wee hours when we were studying for exams, tucking us in.  On Sundays, there was church choir.  In the summers, there was canning and jelly making, and there were quiet hours of sitting together on the balcony in the village house, watching the stars and fireflies.

Mama was about 50 years old when I left home;  I had to go, it was safer for me to go, they loved me enough to let me go.  She didn't say much.  I was lying on the sofa when she came and sat next to me; she cradled my head in her lap and stroked my hair for a long time.  She might have been singing quietly. It felt like I was in a cocoon of love, warmth and pure goodness.  She let me know with her touch.  How I missed that touch later on when for months I didn't know if she was all right, if my family was all right.  But that's another story.

The November before she died, mama came to visit me and stayed the entire month.  That was her last gift to me.  We spent the days together doing what I used to do in those days.  She taught me new recipes; she taught me that a broken sugar bowl is not worth any anger.  "May you have long life instead", she said.   Now that my father was gone, she wanted to travel more around the country to visit her children. So we went shopping for suitcases and "outfits" as she called them.  Mama had style.  She must have sensed something in me, perhaps fear? Hesitation? Indecision?  "Do you want those little plates with  pretty pictures of fruits on them?  Can you afford them?" she asked.  "Well then, just buy them, you don't need permission" she whispered.  When did that happen mama?  She calmly stood her ground.  Looking my husband straight in the eye, she said, "My daughter likes this embroidery and she deserves to have it.  It'll take time to choose the colored threads, but we're going to do that now, no matter how late we are for dinner.  So please be patient".  And he was. Patient.  When did that happen, mama?  What you didn't do for yourself, you could do for me.  I was halfway done with that embroidery when she died, I finished it with my tears.
In the evenings, she sang songs to my sons, then we sat together, she with her knitting, I with my cross-stitch, and we talked.  That's when I got to know mama.  Of course I knew her as my mother all my life, but I got to know her as a friend, as a woman, as a human being.  Did you know she always wanted to be a doctor?  I found piles of health magazines by her bedside after her death, along with some poems and prayers. She told me about her youth, the courtship with father, the difficult years when her family left and she stayed behind as a newlywed.  It wasn't enough, mama, I have more questions, I wish we had more time to talk.  

But we ran out of time, she had to go back home.  I took her to the airport.  Mama walked down the corridor to the plane, in her fashionable trench-coat,  with her colorful scarf around her neck. She stopped at the corner, turned around and waved to me, her arm in the air, her hand waving right, left, right in slow motion.... Then she was gone. Five weeks later she was really gone.

I have visions of mama's hands; brushing my hair, stroking my face, cleaning, cooking, offering food, knitting, praying, hitting her knees when father died, holding my sons, waving goodbye, folded neatly together in the coffin...  tired, soft, holy hands... I kiss her hands.

The pain was indescribable at first.  I collapsed at the foot of my bed, rocking back and forth, sobbing.  No!  This did not happen! No! Don't let them cut her!  No!  Mama? Mama!  Mamaaaaaa!!!  We went to Maryland to bury here next to my father. The skies were not happy, they were so angry they sent a blizzard, they cried No! with me... 
Now, fifteen years later, the pain is less severe, it's more of  a longing.  After all she's right here with me in my heart. Are you here, mama?  Do you see your grandsons?  Are you proud?  I wish we could talk now  from this new place that I am...

Sometimes, I pass by our coffee shop in the department store, I look at the corner, and there's mama sitting at our table smiling at me.  I smile back. Shall we have an espresso, hokiss, next time we meet?

*hokiss = term of endearment in the Armenian language.  Meaning "my soul"


  1. I wasn't going to read this because I didn't want to cry. But I read it. And I cried. Your mom sounds like she was a beautiful spirit. How you must miss her.

  2. A beautiful tribute, Swanny. Your mother sounds wonderful. You reflect her warmth.

  3. Your mother's love comes across here, and in your daily tweets. Your spirit is often light and reflective; her gift to you.

    And, you ARE a writer.