I asked my mother the other day if she remembers the only time a bee ever stung me. She looked at me and said, “Honey, that was about twelve years ago, during the war.” Then she turned back and started telling my grandparents the story about the time I got stung by a bee during the war and all the other memories she had of that war. I sat around, eagerly waiting for her to tell them about the pasta made in coffee pots, the late night card playing and all the things I still remember about that summer.
Like the big new house in the mountains, we had spent that summer in. The clean smell of fresh sheets, detergent, and coffee, lots of coffee. I can still hear the echo of silence in the living room when we first stepped in, the clatter of plates being stacked in empty cupboards, the chatter, the jokes and, most of all, I remember that summer was full of laughter.
I look at my grandfather sitting in front me, listening to my mom with a frail, faraway look in his eyes and my first memory is of him standing in-front of the grill early that summer, before we had to go to that mountain house. During our chaotic family barbecue, a halo of smoke dancing around him, swaying with the flick of his hand while the other held onto his precious cigarette. They leapt around him as he puffed out more smoke adding moves to their dance like a maestro, only his baton was a piece of cardboard instead.
I remember my own laughter, a little girl of seven, almost eight years. Big brown eyes looking up at everyone and everything, dark frizzy hair just short enough for a band to hold, and a complete set of teeth constantly put on display.
I remember my sister’s laughter, excitingly recalling to us how she got to take a sip of coffee, like grownups do, while laughing at all the jokes that my mother’s friend, aunty Nawal would tell her every morning as they sat on the balcony of the mountain house while everyone else was asleep. I also remember Walid, aunty Nawal’s son, and how he would get me candy every day from the supermarket down the street while our mothers cooked in the kitchen. He’d bend down and hold it out to me, saying “show me that smile of yours,” an only giving me my candy when my cheeks start to ache from smiling so much we’d both end up giggling.
A small smile escapes my lips at the thought and I look up to my mother, expecting her face to mirror mine as she recalls those memories as well. Instead, she has that same far-away look I witnessed on my grandfather as she starts telling them how we were so lucky when aunty Nawal’s husband had secured a house in the mountain and they told her they had room for us too. She told them about the long devastating ride we had to take to get to the mountain house. The bombs, the buildings, some shattered, others filled with holes like mouse-bites on rotten cheese, the empty streets like a broken whac-a-mole, the dust and the fear. The way she was terrified, driving with her four babies while a Warcraft followed above us suspecting the large vehicle to be transferring guns.
She told them how helpless she felt, not because she couldn’t save herself but because she had to save four souls, alone, with only God keeping her strong while she silently mumbled to herself verses from the Quran as they filled the car, floating around us, a soothing melody.
I couldn’t remember the things she said, only small snippets of that ride that never linger for more than a second. All I could think about were the times when my mother would boil some pasta in a coffee pot for my brother as a ‘midnight snack’ every night, for quite a while. Sometimes the others would get a sniff and pause their card games, ditch the cold coffee to boil some more pasta and we’d all end up having late ‘midnight snacks’ again.
But then she tells them about the times she had to stay up all night so she’d make sure my little sister could sleep peacefully, without waking up a victim to the mosquitos that craved and fed on her soft skin. How she drank so much coffee to be able to stay awake long enough to call my dad and reassure him that we were still alright, long enough to cry in the echoing living room when no one could hear her because she had to stay strong during the day. The times all we had to eat was pasta because we couldn’t get access to anything else, so she’d make us ‘pasta snacks’ late at night.
The more she unveiled her memories, the more mine blurred. But I still remember that small TV room with no TV, the one the beehive hung outside its window, so heavy it dangled from the thick branch of the old oak tree. It was one afternoon, when the house was quiet a little after lunch, my mom was busy trying to get my baby sister to sleep while my brother and I were playing a round of tic-tac-toe when the bee stung me. Walid’s dad had to take their home down, but I never remembered if he actually did or we just never opened that window again.
As I sat there with my mother waiting for her to confirm that the beehive is still there and the bees lived happily in their home, she turned to me with the smallest edge of a smile, telling me how she also remembered something happy, a memory she’ll never forget. She remembered the smile on our faces and the sound of our laughter as we ran around the house, playing with no care in the world. She had asked Walid to hide the TV that first day we got to the mountain house, so we’d never turn it on and see what was happening out there. So we’d always keep on laughing.
It got me thinking, how could a war have happened that summer, the same summer we spent at the mountain house where all we did was eat pasta, laugh and play cards. Weren’t they all laughing too? How brave could my mother have been to make my little self laugh, to laugh with me, then cry without me, only to come back and laugh again. How clueless was I to believe it, playing in the safety of the mountain house oblivious to the war around me? Better yet, how strong could my mother be to have made my only memory of war as being stung by a bee?
- Marwaa Zeitoun