We passed through the glass doors beneath the red exit sign and stood
on the brink of the city in the pea-green darkness. I hailed a bearded
man in a dark suit who professed to speak English but had trouble understanding
us. "Taxi! Taxi?" I called to him, only to watch him shrug and wander away.
My mother and I were often thrown together like this, I thought. A couple
abandoned against the elements. Since my fatherís death, I found myself
on my own with my mother repeatedly, even though by now she had remarried,
and I was married with a daughter of my own.
The initiative for this trip to
Egypt had originated with her. She proposed combining work (at a conference
on the environment) with pleasure (sightseeing on the Nile), and she invited
me to join her. Our underlying agenda was a special journey in memory of
the deceased: my father had often claimed that Cairo had been his favorite
Soon three men approached
us from out of nowhere. The first introduced himself as a driver. I looked
over his shoulder at the bearded man who had ignored us before; now he
was smiling and nodding. Ah, I thought, he understood after all. The taxi
driver handed our baggage over to the other two men in long robes, and
my heart sank as I watched us heave all our belongings for the trip into
the trunk of the cab. Thousands of miles from home, I mused, and at the
mercy of the male preconception that women need an entourage of assistants.
The taxi carried us through
the streets of the city under the cover of a thick velvet darkness. I grasped
the belly of my hand bag and breathed a sigh of relief once I felt the
hard edge of her book inside. I had imagined it on the plane, left behind
and forgotten. The volume of Egyptian folklore described the darkness as
the arched body of the goddess Nut, her feet at one edge of the horizon
and her hands at the other, who bent over the land and swallowed the sun
every evening, causing night, only to give birth to it again every morning,
creating day. I was not consoled by the continuity of this myth. The reference
to pregnancy was enough to awaken pangs of anxiety in my mind, where birth,
separation, and death were all wrenching passages to recall from beginning
to end, leaving the individual battered and spent at every step of the
Traveling with my mother
in a foreign country, I sometimes felt like a climber clinging white-knuckled
to the side of a cliff. It seemed that old distances were widening between
us, requiring new ground rules to maintain comfortable intimacies. In the
back of the taxi, my mother sat upright like a formidable queen. Her white
hair and pale features, her skin that was seldom tanned in her later years,
glowed with a luminous beauty. She was clearly in command of her own life.
Her gray eyes beneath pale lashes were fixed on the next frontier. She
would ride with composure to the gallows, I thought wryly.
"Who was Semiramis?" My
mother asked the cab driver. He turned and regarded us.
"A goddess," he said simply.
Later he broke the silence to announce, "There is the local mosque." We
turned our heads and strained our necks to see the place of worship, visible
through the window for a matter of seconds as we flew through the city.
Climbing out of the taxi
at the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel, we argued about who would give
how much to tip the driver before we pushed our luggage through the heavy
doors. I couldnít help but notice that my mother was the vision of health.
Attractive and capable and headstrong as ever, she insisted on carrying
her own bags, pulling the larger one on its own tiny wheels that tripped
and jumped and rocked off balance at every change in the floorís surface.
Yet her self-assurance, displayed as she announced our arrival to the impeccably
dressed man behind the hotel desk, seemed tinged with an unfamiliar frailty.
I saw it in the manís eyes, kind behind his glasses, and I felt it in my
Once our duties at the conference
had ended, my mother and I were free for twenty-four hours to explore the
city before joining our party of Americans on the Nile, where an old steamer
would take us sightseeing to Upper Egypt and back. We set out on our own
for the Egyptian Museum right after breakfast. As we walked past the life-sized
figure of Santa Claus astride a camel in the hotel lobby and moved beyond
range of the Christmas jingles broadcast continually over the intercom,
I was plagued with speculations. Aside from her advancing age, my motherís
self-confidence caused me to clench my jaw. In this exotic city, my mother
was beautiful in an unadorned way. She was a vibrant woman in the prime
of life who expressed her delight overtly; yet, in this city of fundamentalists,
her manner would be seen as irreverent, even immoral. That was what worried
I scanned the face of the
maitre díhotel for signs of disapproval. He warned us about the traffic,
summarizing all accounts we had heard about the Egyptian style of driving:
lots of instinct, no rules, few traffic lights, the exhilaration of manning
the steering wheel. At first I found the chaos on the city street amusing.
But after standing on the street corner for minutes while an unmitigated
stream of traffic flowed by, I reconsidered my motherís health, her age,
and a daughterís duty, and thought that perhaps we should put this excursion
off till after lunch.
"Donít cross there," a man
warned us. "Follow me. Down this way. Here, let me take your hand."
He was about five foot five,
with dark brown skin and a physique based on roundness. His head seemed
perfectly round, his torso a protruding globe. He wore a light gray wool
suit. His shoes resembled flat mules, triangular toed and backless like
slippers, making him scuffle when he walked. His arms moved with a buoyant
I saw with horror that my
mother was quite taken with him. She responded amiably while I tagged along
behind, sinking into a meditation on suspicion. He said he was from Nubia,
in upper Egypt, raised in a family of nine children. But now, married himself,
he had only five children. "Five is enough," he said. "Any more is too
much. Too expensive." He rubbed his thumb against his fore fingers. My
mother remarked that she had two daughters, one of them at her side.
He exclaimed, "Really? And
you are so young! I thought you must be sisters!"
"With my white hair?" my
mother laughed. "Iím almost sixty-eight."
"Sixty-eight! No! It could
not be true! This one is the youngest? The oldest! You both are so young!"
He then offered two camels and four goats for my hand in marriage. "Just
joking," he said.
When we told him we were
on our way to the museum, he looked at his watch and said, "So early? It
does not open till eleven. Donít you know that Tuesdays and Fridays are
holy days? Everything is closed in the early mornings for prayer." I was
perplexed and wondered why no one at the hotel had told us of this.
He showed us how to cross
the center of Cairo underground, safely away from cars. As we walked with
him, or rather, followed him, he asked us where we were from, what we did.
He drew a quick breath at my motherís response. "Institute!" he said. He
himself was a manager of a shop owned by his father. They grew flowers,
dahlias and lotus, then made scents from them.
As soon as I realized that
we were being escorted to his shop, I stopped in my tracks and said we
werenít interested. But my mother deferred to him. "These experiences donít
come along everyday," she whispered to me over her shoulder. "I think we
should follow through." She walked quickly behind the jubilant man. My
concerns about my mother were replaced by a new foreboding.
Turning off the main square
into a short alley, we entered the shop. The experience had all the magic
and charm of passing through a threshold between different worlds. I was
sure I could hear tinkling cymbals and feel the lifting of veils as we
walked into a room of mirrors and glass shelving, displaying a menagerie
of small colorful bottles. Some were like small flasks, with long necks
and broad bowls; others were cylindrical and decorated with hand painted
flowers and curlicues. We met the father and proprietor of the shop, a
man bigger and taller than his son. His hair, kinky and gray, was receding
and revealed an oblong callous on his forehead from regular worship at
We sat on a broad misshapen
sofa and drank small glasses of sugary mint tea. The son set out litre
bottles full of yellowish and murky green oil. "These never change color,"
he said, opening a phial and then spreading the liquid on our wrists with
a glass pipette. "This one is from lotus blossoms, this from the jasmine.
Here is one called Christmas night," he said smiling to me. "It will make
your husband love you!"
Soon he was readying to
measure the scents into bottles; I suggested the smallest ones. "How many
would you like? Six? This size usually costs twenty pounds," he said. "But
I will give you a good price."
I knew my mother seldom
wore perfume at all. I offered, "Three for twenty." His face fell. "You
have a good daughter, madame." He sighed. "For three? But one is worth
Soon prices were flying
back and forth, and we were settling on four kinds of scents, measured
into bottles with delicate glass stoppers and wrapped in cotton for the
journey home. We also chose six paintings individually designed on genuine
papyrus leaves, crushed into a small wad and then released to show our
authenticity, and a hematite necklace. I was nearly enjoying a position
of privilege, choosing and discarding, except for a sinking feeling at
the pit of my stomach. My heart gave when I saw my mother produce her credit
card. We spent over two hundred pounds on trifles.
I thought my mother must
be losing her mind. She never approved of acquiring things. Normally she
displayed a Quakerís deep-seated resistance to purchasing anything beyond
bare necessities. But now in Cairo she was cutting loose. I took another
look at her and saw a vivacious woman with a flushed face, exclaiming and
laughing, really enjoying herself. I had never known my mother to indulge
in such pleasure.
"I have a son in San Francisco,"
said our Nubian friend, who now guided us to the underground passageway
that would lead us to the museum. "When I come to America, I will come
to your house, and you can make me a cup of coffee."
We parted in a flurry of
smiles and niceties. His parting words of advice: donít buy the papyrus
on the streets, donít buy the green bananas, and donít pay for a guide
at the museum entrance.
We proceeded to the museum
through the clean well-traveled underground thoroughfare. We seemed to
be the only women out and about in a city populated by men.
It wasnít long before we
realized that of course, the museum had been open for hours and it was
not yet eleven oíclock. Once inside we were quickly exhausted after a quick
solitary run-through of King Tutís tomb and the mummies. Returning to the
courtyard, the low angle of the winter sun bore into our eyes, nearly blinding
On the way back, we did
not use the underground. I was sure I could see the hotel above the other
buildings and made my way through the parking lot straight for it. Every
hawker descended on my mother. Something about her, her looks, her manner,
her reluctance to be rude, her eagerness to take up the rope whenever conversation
went slack, egged them on. I was shocked to see something I had never detected
before in my mother, her eagerness to be liked. I found myself shouting
at the Egyptians as I wanted to shout at my mother, "No! No!" A thousand
times no. I had become the elder, my mother the younger.
A slim man with a black
mustache asked if we were staying at the Hotel Intercontinental. "Iíve
seen you there," he said. "I work in the arcade. And Iím on my way now.
Can I escort you?"
He asked what we had bought. Scents
and papyrus, the women said. How much for the scents? he asked. "And the
He grew stern and said we
had paid much too much. "You can get six of those for ten pounds," he said.
And we had spent, how much? One hundred? He said he owned a jewelry shop
nearby; would we like to come look at some silver? Our spirits low, we
easily dismissed him.
"Taken for a ride!" My mother
said as we entered the dim interior of the lobby. "Fed a line. And we fell
for it. The museum open at eleven, papyrus for ten pounds a piece, scents
for I donít know how much!"
In the hotel room, as I
took the perfumes out of the paper wrapping, I felt slightly nauseated.
The heavy, cloying smell that once seemed so weighted with exoticism was
"Itís the hypocrisy I canít
stand," My mother said. "All that baloney about us being sisters. Itís
such a line. Meaningless."
I consoled my mother by
considering a number of viewpoints, none terribly convincing. We had experienced
an initiation into a foreign culture; we made a connection with a man who
might contact us once we returned to the States; we had acquired personal
objects that might take on more meaning with time. We have to conclude,
I said, as Paul Fussell has, that, this being the end of the twentieth
century, we are not explorers in an undiscovered land but tourists on a
"Itís all meaningless," My mother
sighed. Suddenly she stood in front of me and looked into my eyes as through
the frame of a glass. "Tell me what you think," she queried me. "About
your father. Do you really believe that he is close to us, even after death?"
The question was so direct,
it left me speechless. "Well, yes," I said. "Or rather, no. I do feel his
presence sometimes, but I donít believe I know where he is. I envision
a space---" I was stumbling. "I pray to envision the space where he is
"Itís garbage," my mother
was saying. "Heís not anywhere. There is no life after death. I have known
that since Sunday school, when I decided never to go back. And I never
She was pouting. Nearly
seventy, my mother seemed on the verge of puberty. I took a hard look into
the future. Eventually, I know I will have to take charge, but when? I
wanted suddenly to secure my motherís protection. Isnít dying like passing
into a different culture? You surprise a hunger in yourself. As your ability
to reason dissolves, your last thoughts will be, "No, I never suspected
that it would be like this. Surely someone should have told me" and you
relinquish the familiar for a sudden entry, like a compulsion.
"Still, I believe there
is a reincarnation," my mother was saying. "Iím sure we come back as the
air we breathe!" She smiled at me like a child.
But I want to be there, I thought
with a sudden vehemence. I want to be the one to escort my mother to the
other side. No one else will understand her well enough. Understand what?
I nearly laughed out loud at my own thoughts. I could see how necessary
it would be to plead my motherís special case at the gates after death.
Still, I, could do it. I have the tenacity and forbearance to see my mother
through to the "right place." I can shut my eyes and imagine her into a
heaven of cool grasses and quiet plentiful streams.
At the Citadel, we walked
through the carpeted theater of the mosque with a female guide, an attractive
young woman with long dark hair. I listened to her description of the practice
of wearing the veil, the attitudes pro and con, and couldnít stop myself
from pursuing the issue. Was the reasoning to hide the lower half of the
face or the whole of the hair? How did this guide feel about it? Was it
only a religious practice? From what I had seen of Egyptian men, I felt
like throwing one on myself for a sense of protection, distance, and respect
while traveling in the Middle East. The more I wanted to know from this
woman, the more irritated I could see her become. Soon her brow was knotted
with disapproval and she looked over my head and beyond my gaze to take
her attentions away from what had become an imposing interrogation. I had
been trying to make her understand that I had read about the controversy
of the veil, that I knew what the topic was all about, but I was losing
ground. Soon, my mother was approaching and I held my breath, dreading
what would happen if she joined us.
I hoped nothing would be
said that I would have to explain or retract; I stared at the dust coating
the floor under my feet as I heard my mother asking about weather in the
summer. "Wind," the woman replied, smiling. "Horrible storms from the desert
bring in oceans of dust."
"Ah, the dust," my mother
said. "And who cleans all the dust in a cathedral like this?"
The woman laughed. "Yes,
that is quite a job! It takes many workers, men and women. There is no
end to all the dust in Egypt!"
My mother laughed along.
I was incredulous. What a coup! My mother was discussing housekeeping,
the activity she avoided adamantly for most of her waking life (although
she sometimes admitted that she did have nightmares about it). The truth
is, I mused, that I have been compensating for her aversion to housework
since I was seven. And so has my sister Anne. Our mother often chided
us, her conscientious daughters, for succumbing to the tyranny of the housekeeper,
whose goal in life is a perfectly clean house that no one wants to live
in. Still, if I learned anything from my mother, I thought, it was to cultivate
warmth and generosity in the face of overwhelming chaos, domestic and otherwise.
There is no housekeeper you can pay, and no service you can hire, who will
provide a genuine hospitality, my mother would say. Just as no known professional
can provide the attention of a loving, worrying mother, a love as broad
as the expanse of a warm blanket and narrow as the piercing vision of a
I looked at my mother standing
alongside the Egyptian female guide; she resembled a sage from another
epoch. The smooth plateaus between the wrinkles of her tanned skin glowed
like the worn alabaster columns that supported the dome above us, a forehead
worn smooth after centuries of exposure to weather and living. Certainly
she was in her element here. I took another look. I could see the guide
was quite taken with this woman, my mother, the wise American grandmother.
(Copyright © 1998 by Joyce Wilson.)
First appeared in Travelers' Tales: A Mother's World,