These women: A personal essay

Illustration of three figures with hearts
Ashley Zhang/File

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The loud ring of the landline filled the house each morning, each decibel reverberating off of the tiled countertops and up the high ceilings in my childhood home. The sound crept into my dreams, temporarily convincing my subconscious that I was a star buzzer-beater or game show champ. Like clockwork, the matriarchs of the family — my mother, aunt and grandma — always began their daily routine at just barely 7 a.m.: their morning phone calls to each other.

When we were younger, my cousins, siblings and I would groan at their consistency in the way that cranky, sleepy children often do: “Can’t we just have one day to sleep in without that alarm? What do you even have to talk about, the day hasn’t even started?” Thanks to the technological advancements of the cell phone, their calls have grown more discrete and our slumbers deeper. Still, their voices fill the rooms each morning as they recount the previous day’s experiences and the current day’s ambitions, code-switching seamlessly in and out of Arabic and English.

On the early calls, I would sneak quietly on the other line from my parents’ room, listening to the sweet hum of Grandma, instilling words of patience to my frustrated mother of three. My grandma has always had a way with words, emulating compassion with every syllable: “Take care of each other,” she repeatedly tells me and my sisters in her native tongue, her tone gentle yet earnest.  Her message to us never implies blood boundaries, rather, everyone is included in the construction of family.

When I’d spend the night, we would wake up together the next morning and sit curled in balls.

My grandma’s home has come to be my haven over the years. Her heating system being unreliable at best meant throws littered across the couches. Crocheted blankets hardly keep anyone warm; their faulty design allows the cool air to permeate. Yet, somehow her hand-knitted ones always did. When I’d spend the night, we would wake up together the next morning and sit curled in balls. On these mornings I experienced the calls from a new perspective, sitting perched on her loveseat before it was time for breakfast.

The smell alone of my grandma’s cooking eases any anxiety. Hands deep in meat and rice, her withered fingers work unceasingly preparing sustenance to calm me while I am away from home. My personal definition of soul food. It’s not long before I have depleted the food prepared especially for me, forcing me to turn to my own mechanisms of dinner, incomparable to her dishes.

As my roommate and I scramble around our 2-by-6 kitchen tossing miscellaneous veggies and assorted meats in a pan — our hectic rendition of preparing dinner — I turn to my mother for advice despite being 300 miles away at college: “How much seasoning do I add? Does this look like it’s finished cooking?” I flip the FaceTime camera to show her the contents of the pan. She patiently explains and assures me that the next time I make the dish it will be easier. Cooking is an art, and my kitchen experiments are proof of my lack of artistic ability, but she would never say so.

Her capacity to encourage others is something I have always envied. A cornerstone of her parenting philosophy, her faith continuously lies within her children. My confidant and best friend in one, she reminds me to believe in myself when I forget to. Sometimes, a relative will jab, “You’re just like your mother,” in reference to my occasional sarcastic delivery. After spending time trying to differentiate myself from her growing up, I have since realized the pieces of her within myself are my favorite parts, my sarcastic delivery included. When they compare me to her, the most selfless and devoted woman I have met, it is the highest praise of all to me.   

Inspired by even my mother’s side bangs, I once begged my aunt to help me execute my mission. “Look straight, head up,” she would say to me as she gathered my hair, scissors in hand. Perpetually fascinated by the technique hairdressers always use, I kept fidgeting in her hands trying to watch the way she cut with the shears vertical as opposed to horizontal. “My hair is going to look so good after!” I exclaimed, eager to see her creation. She combed through the finished product, proud of the work, “My haircut didn’t make you beautiful, you are beautiful all on your own.”

When they compare me to her, the most selfless and devoted woman I have met, it is the highest praise of all to me.

More recently, my aunt caught wind of my body art plans on one routine morning call. Shortly, she called to express her concern. Her voice full of fear transformed from an abstract frequency through the phone into a tangible needle, piercing my ears without the help of any technician. Her shock eventually subsided, “You are like my daughter,” she told me.

By association, the women have incorporated the children into their rituals of love, teaching us to ask about one another. I’ve grown accustomed to phone calls, inheriting and reciprocating this genuine love of hearing my family’s voices. As my evening class wraps up by 8 p.m., I look to my phone to see my mother calling to accompany me on the walk home from campus. Her presence, although only virtual, protects me from any potential danger. By the time I get back to my apartment to begin my own routine of studying into the night, my aunt checks that I am home and tells me goodnight, finding her own peace in my safe arrival. I find myself picking up the phone to talk to my grandma as I compose this unconventional love note.

An Arabic poem turned to song, the title of which translates to “My Mother,” holds a special place in my heart. In the first line of the melody, the artist laments, “I long for my mother’s bread, and my mother’s coffee, and my mother’s touch.” Overwhelmed with emotion, I burst into tears; these women won’t be with me forever.

At the ring of my phone, I return each call and, perhaps selfishly, end each conversation with “I love you.”

Contact Ashley Soliman at [email protected].

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