A Woman Defined

Art & Culture by Mahvash Mossaed

An Autobiographical Sketch from My Memoir in Progress

November 11, 2013

I write as though in my old robe and old slippers, with my hair all in rollers and my mascara smeared — I am not wearing my fine party clothes for you. I am not hiding a thing, and let me tell you, I am completely petrified that the curtains will be pulled back and it will be me standing on the stage in my robe and rollers for all of you to examine! But this is also like my birth and my death, which I am destined to deal with all alone and singularly in order to tell you my story.

I have a complete and clear vision of my own birth. It was a cold and windy winter night. My mother’s small, delicate body lay on a narrow, metal single bed, covered with white linens. The room was square with white walls. In the silence that followed each of my mother’s screams of pain, one could feel the presence of God Himself in the room!

There was some whispering.  Then someone shouted “Hurry, hurry!”  Someone came into the room, and  someone ran out of the room. Then I came into this world! I saw many shadows on the empty white walls of the room. There were smells of fresh blood and heavy disinfectant. Everything in the room was floating in the clouds. My mother’s hair, long and dark, was tangled and wet and sticking to her neck and chest. Her skin was completely pale, and her cheeks were hollow, as though I had sucked all the blood out of her body.

When they placed me in her arms, her skin felt soft and moist, and her breath smelled of sweet, warm milk. Right then and there, she knew and I knew that I was she and she was I.

From the first moment that I was placed in her arms, my mother’s face became the face that I have engraved in my memories and in every object of my childhood – my childhood, which was a play that I produced single-handedly, purposefully making her the main character and the hero of my story. I have stored my memories of her like precious garments, folding them carefully and placing them in the chest of my memory so that sometimes I can go back, pull them out, and examine them like treasures. And every time, they bring a faint smile to my lips. My mother was my god, the god that I trusted, the god that was not afraid of going into a dark room alone. She gave me the feeling that I could follow her blindly just about anywhere and not be afraid of losing my way or falling.

My mother and my father and my two sisters — we all lived in a city near the desert, with rows and rows of palm trees and arched buildings. Our house was at the end of the street and had a large yard with trees heavy with fruit and trees full of flowers and nesting birds. Like every other house, it had a wall around it to keep out everything not beautiful. Our house had a paved brick courtyard with a blue-tiled pool and fountains.

The summer nights were extremely hot, and when we opened our eyes in the morning, our nightgowns would be heavy and moist with humidity. The air would be stale, hot, and wet. We would wash the courtyard down with buckets of water to help cool the air, and it would immediately turn to steam!  But at sunset, after exhausting everyone and being exhausted itself, the heat would step back and start to fade. The cool breeze would start blowing through the town, and the singing insects would come out from their hiding places and sing.

Everyone would sit around the pool in the summer chairs. In the middle of the courtyard, there would be a table filled with trays of fruit and little homemade cookies. You could hear a faint music coming from one of the rooms upstairs.

My sisters and I played with our favorite rag dolls, which our mother had made for us. She used a spoon covered with plain white fabric for their faces and painted heavy eyebrows, rosy cheeks, and small red lips for them. The rag dolls did not read the paper, they did not have bank accounts, they would not argue with you — they were just there to be happy and pretty. They reminded me of some of my mother’s friends who, like my rag dolls, were made up and looked very happy and content. They came with their husbands to visit, wearing their gold jewelry and flower-patterned dresses. They all used the same hairdresser and jeweler, so they all looked alike and even smelled of the same perfume! They gossiped amongst themselves and lived in a world of their own. The husbands seemed to always be in their three-piece suits, talking about politics and work and business. They all laughed too loudly and ate too much. And they were all older and uglier than their wives.

On summer evenings, we would sometimes go by the river to buy vanilla ice cream, which came sandwiched in the middle of plain round wafers. And we bought corn on the cob, barbecued and dipped in salt water, and walnuts, which had been soaked in water overnight and peeled. The city lights would be coming on, and the sky would be gray with spots of red and orange floating in it.  The sun already burned red and tired, would be sinking somewhere at the very end of the sky.  And we would watch the fishermen rowing their canoes and singing sad songs.

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