The privilege of an old age does not come without a broken heart.
Fez, Morocco, 1951
It had to be late if the melodious chanting of the Muezzin called the followers for the last prayer of the day. Gazing outside from the arched living room window, I could only catch a glimpse of the Mosque’s bell-tower, but the Muezzin’s deep voice, as he read the adhan, distracted my worries for a brief moment. Sometimes, when Mama was too busy attending little Sima, I climbed on top of the roof so I could have a better view of the Kairaouine Mosque, which everyone said was the most beautiful Mosque in the whole world. If I could only peek inside to where the deep voice came from, but non-Muslims weren’t allowed to enter. And anyway, I couldn’t shame Mama and Papa to that extent.
“We’re not religious, but we’re not secular either, or God forbid, Muslims.” Mama said when she caught me once repeating the Muezzin.
I’ve never done it again.The moment the Muezzin stopped its calling, the grey concrete streetlights flicked to life. Darkness had fallen on our street. I turned from the window to look at Mama, and a profound pain, a kind I had never felt before, pinched deep into my heart. I felt small and lost. Mama’s shoulders shifted lightly beneath the blankets. When were they coming? Hours had passed since I sent Aziza to fetch help, but no one had come. I kept thinking the echoes of the neighbors’ doors were the servants coming back to take care of Mama, but I was still waiting. I wrapped my arms around my chest. The ill silence scared me. What could I do? I had never been interested in the art of medicine, herbs, or my grandmother’s potions for illness and pain. I watched Mama weakening day by day but I didn’t even know what was wrong with her. Mama kept reassuring me that everything was fine.
“You’re losing your sixth sense, Tamar L’aziza,” she said. “It’s true I tire more easily, but, then again, I am thirty-six.” She sighed and turned her face. “You need to stop worrying.” Mama wasn’t telling the truth; otherwise she wouldn’t have become sick so fast.
I looked at her peaceful face and guilt washed over me. At sixteen, life was inviting and challenging, and Papa had just promised me that I could choose any profession I wished to study. None of my best friends would further their education, and at eighteen, they’d be matched with their father’s chosen man. They could refuse the match of course, after all, these were modern days, but eventually they’d have to agree to one match or another. But Papa was different, and I knew how fortunate I was. I was different too. I would conquer the world. People would remember my name.
To Mama’s dismay, as well as Papa’s business companions, my father took me everywhere he went on his business trips. It wasn’t a common matter, particularly with daughters, but I was often confused for a boy. Still, too often, I heard Papa’s businesspartners exclaim that children shouldn’t be involved in adult matters, particularly not daughters, God forbid. Nevertheless, no one was bold enough to try and change my father’s mind. He was the man with the money.Shimon Ben Zaken, my father, was a rich, shrewd businessman. Following grandfather’s steps, he traded every possible nut and seed one could imagine. He sold hazelnuts, walnuts, salted and roasted peanuts, peeled peanuts and coated peanuts. He also offered a rich choice of seeds: pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, roasted and white sunflower seeds. When Papa took over the business after Peppe grew old, it was a thriving business already. Papa traded with the nearby port town of Safi, where he imported and distributed the seeds and nuts. Exclusive in the nuts business in Safi, Papa kept expanding into the nearby cities. Yes,business was good.
With Papa gone most of the time, I betrayed my mother. I was too occupied with my own life and dreams, neglecting to notice how bad Mama had gotten. Other girls my age were mostly at home, folding the laundry, helping with dinner, or bathing their brothers and sisters. I obeyed my mother as well, but there wasn’t much to do. The servants were efficient, and by the time I returned from school, there wasn’t much left to do, aside from playing with my new baby sister and helping my younger brothers with their homework.
“Teach them well.” Mama insisted. “They’ll grow up to be the main providers of their own families one day.” But Mama never quite understood why I had to be the smartest girl in the class. “It doesn’t take much brain to raise kids and learn how to sew,” she said. But I never planned to sew or knit like her.
A chilly finger traced a line down my spine. Outside, the dim streetlights had turned bright, but inside the house, it was black. I went to the fireplace and tried to get the sparks that still flamed to light the wood. Where are the servants? Aziza left to fetch the family doctor hours ago, and Abdul went to find Papa, but where was the new cook for God’s sake? I lifted a heavy log and placed it inside the fireplace. I watched Papa and Abdul do this many times. I was determined to keep Mama warm until the doctor showed up. Within minutes, I watched the glowing flames rise inside the fireplace. I went to Mama and bent my head to catch her breath. Mama had remained motionless for the past half hour. I touched her forehead but she didn’thave a fever. My heart sank. She was cold. I pulled the blankets higher, tucking the edges of the sides and swaddling her like a baby.
This past month, the doctor came every morning, his plumped face stretching when he smiled at me, but his eyes avoided meeting mine. I chewed on my nails until the flesh turned raw, and as soon as he left, I leaped upstairs, skipping a couple of stairs at a time. Mama always met my eyes with a smile. She tried very hard to wear a usual face, but the chatter didn’t fit her character. And every day she came up with a different excuse, prattling about the nice doctor and how everything was just fine. I wasn’t a fool. I knew something was wrong. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything I could do. Even Papa lacked the key to solve the problem, and the doctor was as clueless as the rest of us. Mama insisted on staying in her own bed.
“I’m not leaving my baby girl, and you are blowing the situation out of proportion,” she said.
But in spite of her excuses, I overheard the nice doctor whisper to Papa that the painkillers didn’t influence her at all. Mama insisted they worked just fine. Yet, here I was, towering over Mama who was still like one of the French statues I saw in my French history books. I climbed upstairs to fetch my Tehilim and when I found it, I began reading the first page. At first, I read slowly, capturing every letter and sound of the old prayer book. Gradually, I read faster and faster until the words didn’t make any more sense. Tradition saidthat reading the entire book of Tehilim at the bedside of the ill, reached God’s ears. I prayed to God, promising him all kinds of pledges and taking the oaths to fulfill them, if he, God, would heal y mother. I didn’t want to lose hope because Mama always said that hope is the only thing we humans had.
“Mama…” I whispered.
“Can you give me a sign? You’re scaring me.”
I knew today was different, because the house was quiet when I woke up. I didn’t hear my brothers stamp on the wooden floors. I didn’t hear little Sima cry or gurgle. I didn’t smell the hard-boiled eggs or hear the potatoes sizzle in the kitchen. I found Mama lying on the brand new sofa that Papa had bought her on his recent trip to Casablanca. It cost him five times the sofa’s price to ship over to Fez, but he knew it would make her happy. Mama liked the sofa, but not as much as Papa thought shewould. I watched his face fall when Mama didn’t even sit on it for the first few days. Yet, I knew how thrilled she was because she kissed him ever so lightly on his cheek, a gesture I had never seen before.
“It’s not proper showing that type of affection between a man and a woman,” Mama said. “Not even in the privacy of our home. A physical affection should be left inside the protected walls of the bedroom.” That is how I knew Mama was thrilled, and I could swear Papa blushed under his dark skin.
This morning, she sat propped up on the orange sofa. Dressed up in her pale yellow dress, the one she wore on our Shabbat strolls. She looked beautiful. But her fragile body left no mistakes. She had lost a lot of weight and her wavy yellow dress needed tightening.
“Yes. I’m just resting.” She lowered her eyes to brush an unseen fleck of dust from the new orange sofa. “I sent the boys to school earlier. Little Sima is staying with Mazal, my sister, for the day.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
"Tamar, sit. I need to talk to you,” she said.
“I know.” Somehow, my voice came out stronger than I felt, but my legs felt soft. I remained standing.
Mama looked down. “I thought it would go away,” she said. “I’m very ill.”
“Are you dying?” I stumbled next to her, startling her submerged state. Mama turned to look at me.“I need you to be the mother that I would never be,” she said.
“You’re only sixteen, but you’re the oldest. Papa can’t be a mother to your brothers and sister,” she said.
For a moment, her fragility was gone and she looked like I always remembered her.
“This isn’t a choice, it is God’s will. I’ve had a good life and so did you, but sometimes, unexpected events happen. We have to act accordingly. Do you understand me?” I didn’t say a word. “Sima will be taken care of by Aziza and of course, my sister Mazal. She’s too young to remember or understand any of this. She won’t miss me.” Her eyes dropped to the floor. “Your brothers are going to be very upset. I need you to take care of them.”
“And me?” My voice was barely above a whisper.
Mama grabbed my hands. “You’ll be fine. I’m counting on you to be. You dared everything since you were a child. You still do. I think I taught you well. Not as much as I wanted, but enough.” I looked at her and my eyes burned. “I’m very tired now. Could you bring my pillow and a blanket?” she asked.
I complied wordlessly, and when I returned, she was sound asleep. I lifted her head and gently tucked the pillow under her head. I waited by her side. Sometime later, Aziza returned, but when she saw Mama, she rushed to put her coat back on. She said something in Arabic about Allah, and headed toward the door. I nodded.
When my eyes snapped open, my head was resting on Mama’s chest. I had fallen asleep while reading and praying. I straightened swiftly, and the holy prayer book fell to the ground. I looked at Mama and knew that she didn’t feel a thing. Mama wasn’tsleeping anymore.
A piercing scream, like a wounded animal, left my throat. My legs didn’t hold anymore. Mama had died without a single man by her side to read the Shemah prayer at her deathbed.
I shouted the familiar prayer aloud, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one."
I never noticed the house door open. I don’t remember who pulled me away. I missed it when they picked up my mother’s corpse, and I missed my father’s reaction to my mother’s death. I missed kissing her one last time. I never said goodbye. But I rememberher still face. Death was not mistaken. That’s how I’ve always remembered my mother. Sleeping. forever.
Adhan: The Muslim call for the prayer.
Thilim: The Hebrew name for the book of Psalms.
Shema: A commonly used Jewish prayer