My host mom and host aunt, at first glance, are opposites. Helima, my mother, looks like a big babushka: her silk triangle head scarf is always tied under her double chin, her big belly sags between her legs when she sits at meals, and she drags her feet waddling from the kitchen to her spot in front of the TV. Her eyes, unable to see very well, are soft and inviting. Her smile is friendly and caring. Mina, her sister, sports a similar headscarf tied below the chin but she appears weak and frail. Her face is thin though her eyes just as bright. She wears fishnet socks, a flowered long sleeve fleece shirt and pink fleece pants. She tops off her outfit with a light blue robe and sits on the couch with a cigarette in hand.
I know very little about this family. Neither Mina nor Helima speak a word of English, and I barely speak Arabic, so we converse through pantomimes. Helima is a single mother, and I wonder where her husband is. What happened to him? When did he leave? The other day as we sat around the plastic dinner table, I learned that Mina once had a daughter. She died many years ago, and if she were still alive, she would be twenty-four, the same age as Mahjda, Helima’s daughter.
For some reason, this news shocked me and affected me more than I expected. From this point on I looked at Mina differently, overanalyzing her every move, especially her interactions with Mahjda, a niece who is the perfect example of what she might have had. How does Mina feel about this? Is she jealous that her sister has a beautiful and successful daughter? Does she hurt every day thinking of her lost child? Are the creases on her face from the pain of the past? I have so many questions I want to ask, yet I can’t ask any of them. With only a week left, it’s barely appropriate to pose such questions to my Mahjda, the only one in the family who speaks a little English.
I watch Mina from the opposite side of the room. She takes a drag from her cigarette, breathes the nicotine and tobacco deep into her lungs, and exhales. Her eyes are on the TV, but where are her thoughts? Mahjda comes home from work and goes over to Mina, kissing her once on the left cheek and one, two, three times on the right. Mahjda nestles onto the couch with Mina, leaving one arm around Mina’s frail shoulders while Mahjda’s free hand holds both of Mina’s. And then I realize that Mina sees Mahjda as her own child. She loves her as she would have loved her own. Mahjda, the hard working young Moroccan woman, has two mothers who both care for and love her deeply. When Helima tries to explain something in quick, incomprehensible Arabic, Mina steps in to try to help me understand. She is a mother, to me, to the previous students, and most of all to Mahjda; she adopts us as her own and opens a place in her heart for all of us.