A few weeks ago, while visiting my grandson, he said, “Stay with me, Gramma. Don’t go to work tomorrow.”
“I have to go to work,” I replied. “I’d love to stay with you, but tomorrow is a work day, and I have to work tomorrow.”
“No! I don’t want you to go to work!” he cried, tears erupting from his eyes.
“I don’t want to go to work, either, Habibi, but I have to go.”
He pouted, with big, dreamy eyes and a poked out lip. “No more work,” he begged.
“I’m sorry, Hasan, but I have to go to work. That’s how I get my money. If I don’t work, I don’t get money. Without money, I can’t buy gas for my car, and I can’t come and see you, and I can’t take you places or buy toys for you.”
His eyebrows drew down as he thought about this. “Buy me toys?”
“Yes,” I replied, relieved that I’d touched a spot that would help him let me go.
He brightened. “OK! You can go to work tomorrow!”
This morning, Hasan phoned me and asked, “Gramma, do you have to go to work today?”
“Yes, Sweetheart, I’m sorry. I have to go to work today.”
“No! I don’t want you to go to work!”
“I don’t want to go, either. I’d rather spend the day with you, but I need to get more money.”
“Why do you need money?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, suddenly feeling the weight of work and the need for money, “I need money to pay for my food, my clothing, my electricity, my car… and to buy you toys! Remember? I need money to buy you toys.”
“Gramma,” he said slowly, “I don’t need any more toys.”
As true as it is that I need to work, and as true as it is that thousands of people are now out of work and cannot earn money even for their basic needs, I felt resentful that I cannot spend the day with this lovely boy, this dear boy who is getting his first lesson in the necessity for work, and isn’t liking it.
On second thought, I could have given him a more positive lesson. I should have said something about contributing to society, making myself useful to others by means of work, fulfilling my need to do productve activity, etc., but that would have been false, and he would have known it.
For me, work is nothing more than a means to make money, and I work no more than absolutely necessary to earn the absolute minimum needed to live comfortably. Ironically, my work was the sole reason I ended up in Riyadh, and that was an experience I wouldn’t have traded for anything.
Many of us grew up celebrating Christmas, and some of us still celebrate. I often wonder how people feel about Christmas, once they have discovered its antithesis– loss, despair, alienation, anxiety, and grief. Yesterday my family celebrated Christmas without our dear patriarch, our leader, husband, and dear Papa. I was lucky. I got violently ill, with a severe flu, which put me in bed for forty-eight hours, thus exempting me from the affair.
Everyone knows that I ceased celebrating the religious aspect of Christmas twenty years ago, but I continued to enjoy the family gift exchange on Christmas Eve. None of us needs gifts at this stage in our lives, but the tradition evokes nostalgic memories of childhood, when Santa Claus came every year, wiggled down our chimney, quietly laid an abundance of gifts around the tree, and climbed back up the chimney so quietly that we never woke up to catch him in the act. If I could bring back any single day of my childhood, it would be Christmas morning.
We never knew anything of hunger, economic deprivation, abuse, crime or natural disaster in those days. We were blessed even more richly than we knew.
This year, I announced that I would no longer participate in the gift exchange.
My father loved Christmas. He would sing Christmas carols; his joy in the season inspired everyone to join in the song. Volume meant more than melody; we wailed out the ancient tunes, ending up in tears of happiness and gratitude for another year that had passed with all of us still alive and well. My father was not religious, in the Christian sense of the word. Christmas for him, as for me, was an exercise in family bonding more than anything else, and it worked. It was a time for putting away problems, overlooking faults, and giving thanks for our blessings. It was a time for indulging the sweet tooth, for baking special cookies and rich breads. It was a time for adding sparkle and color to our home, with ribbons and wreaths and candles and cookies.
Choosing a Christmas present for someone in those days required a process of elimination, rather than a search for needle in a haystack. We all knew what each other wanted or needed. We didn’t have enough money to satisfy every desire all year round, so at Christmas time, our gift giving sounded like this:
Me: Mom really wants a new sweater for Christmas, but she won’t say so.
Sister: She’s been wanting a new blender for months.
Me: What about a purse? I know she’s been looking at purses lately.
Sister: OK, you buy the purse, and I’ll buy the blender. We’ll ask Pop to buy the sweater.
Now days, any one of us can buy anything anyone wants, and buy it better than anyone else. Now days, all the women are working, and no one has time for shopping, even though the selection and sales are better and better each year, such that one becomes dizzy from looking here and there, trying to take it all in. Christmas has become a time of stress and excess. For some of us, Christmas pokes at wounds that never fully heal. Christmas emphasizes our holes, where it once emphasized our unity.
It’s time to turn the clock way back on Christmas, back to indifference, back to the oblivion of infancy. This year I did it.
First Father’s Day Without my Papa
Since I can no longer express my love and appreciation for him directly to him, I’ll do it here.
The following poem epitomizes my father’s lifelong attitude, a guiding principle that he applied to his own life and taught to everyone he mentored. We made remembrance cards, with his photo on one side, and the poem on the other side, and gave them out at his funeral.
When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit
Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.
Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow–
You may succeed with another blow.
Success is failure turned inside out–
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are.
It may be near when it seems so far;
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit–
It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.