One early summer morning, my mom and I shared an espresso while she finely minced the leaves of melokhiya, the leafy green vegetable also called nalta jute, and talked about my mother’s younger days and her family. “What was the most beautiful day in your life?” I asked her. My question was drowned out by the buzzy sound of drones hovering at close range. I tried again. “What was the most beautiful day in your life?” I asked, louder this time.
She stopped what she was doing and looked at me in surprise, as if the question were unexpected. After a pause, she said, “It was a half-day.”
Then she resumed mincing the leaves. My mom appeared to be on the verge of tears. I gazed into her sparkling eyes and asked whether she felt okay telling me the story. “I’d be indebted in a big way,” I said. Mom took a deep breath, wiped her hands on her apron, and said, “Sure, dear.
“My dad was a resistance fighter,” she began slowly, “who battled against Israeli colonial rule, you know. When I was three years old, he was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges that included helping resistance fighters by providing them with suitable weapons to fight against the colonial occupation.”
“How did my grandfather’s absence affect your childhood, mom?” I asked her.
“Unlike my peers, I was prevented from feeling the warmth of greeting my father with a hug or even a handshake when I returned home from school. I was deprived of going out for a picnic with him.” She shook drops of water from the melokheya’s leaves. “When I was a little kid,” she continued, her voice falling, “I never got to celebrate my birthday with my dad.”
I felt a prick in my heart. I took one of her hands tightly and kissed it. She raised her other hand and ran her fingers gently through a lock of my hair.
“How often were you able to visit grandfather?” I asked. “Could you touch him, hug him?”
“I was only able to see him behind bars, when visiting him with your grandma in Negev prison. Those visits took place every three or four months. I would tell him all the stories from my school and my exciting adventures with my friends. But glimpsing my dad from afar made me burst into tears.
“‘The visit is over!’ When the Israeli soldier said those four words in his harsh and piercing tone, it was like an evil presence robbing me of the pleasure of finally realizing my pleasant dream, like a stranger had stolen the doll dearest to my heart. The short period of happiness I felt vanished. I kept asking myself how my dad could endure such terrible humiliating conditions in an Israeli jail. That preoccupied me all the time.”
The half-empty espresso cup slipped from her hand, spilling some onto the table, but Mom seemed not to notice. I wiped up the brown liquid and righted the cup.
“My Mom kept track of the days and nights. She could not contain her impatience as she waited for my father to return home. She would tell my sisters and me the story of how she met and married him. There was a picture of him hanging in the main living room of the home. My mother used to kiss it first in the morning and add cologne to it. She protected his belongings, including his clothes and things that he enjoyed, until the day that they could be reunited.
“Days, weeks, months, and years passed. The eight-year prison sentence finally ended, and my father became free. It was time to unite with his family again, the family he had always loved the most. By that time, I was 11. Prison administrators told my mother that my father would be deported to Lebanon. My mother was determined that this would not happen. She spoke to lawyers, who assured her that the decision about deportation was not confirmed, and my father would return to Gaza.
“Wearing the traditional jinneh-u-nar, the intricately embroidered “heaven and hell” dress, my mother prepared herself like a bride on her wedding day to welcome my father the moment he returned from the Israeli prison. At our home in Beach Camp, she decorated every corner of the house. She covered the floor with thick patterned carpet and placed pillows and rattan mattresses around the living room.
“She also prepared a traditional and beloved dish for my grandpa, Gazan fatteh served with kid meat and saj bread. The Arabian dallah coffee and brass tumblers were readied to provide the guests. Then she left to bring my father home.
“The house was full of relatives, neighbors, and friends. My aunties and their children came to welcome my father. All of them waited eagerly, looking at the street from time to time.
“I danced joyfully, like a bee in a garden. I could finally hug and kiss my dad like other kids could. He would be able to celebrate my birthday and give me gifts. No more time talking to each other with bars between us.
“Then my mother appeared in the distance. She was getting closer and closer, but alone. Her steps were heavy, her face pale, and her back stooped. She looked very old that day. At that moment, we were all trying to believe that my mother preceded my father, that my father was walking behind her.
“But my mother indeed arrived alone. She broke the news to everyone in a tone of deep sorrow that my father would be deported to Lebanon. A moment of silence filled the place. People made efforts to comfort and support my mother, my sisters, and me. They told us, ‘Praise Allah that your dad is still alive and not murdered by the occupation.’
“The atmosphere was gloomy. My mother was speechless for days. Mom’s heart and mind were heavy; her nightly fantasies turned out never to be realized. The sound of joy gradually faded away. People in Beach Camp grieved when they learned what had happened.
“A new sad chapter in life started. Hopes were exhausted. My mother was forced to take on the roles of both father and mother. She took sole responsibility for the situation. She taught us kindness, honesty, integrity, and gratitude. She provided for our education up until the time we married and encouraged us to study. She would even visit our schools to follow our progress.”
Mom lifted the bowl of melokhiya off the table and got to her feet. She looked tired. Her beautiful pale face was not happy.
“I grew up, got married, and traveled to the UAE. I didn’t see my dad all those years, until 1998. You know the story of meeting your grandpa, Ghada?” Mom asked. “Your older siblings do remember their grandpa very well. You were still a little kid. However, he loved you so much. In 1998, we made a visit to Gaza. And there, I finally saw my father in our beautiful home. I hugged him tightly, and I told him how much I’d missed him. Tears of joy filled my eyes. He kissed my hands and my forehead and said, ‘You will remain my beautiful child.’”
I stood near Mom, watching her carefully. I kissed her soft rosy cheeks. “Mom, I’m very grateful that you took the time to share your story with me,” I said. She gave me a calm smile and replied, “I am the one who should thank you. I am truly glad you liked it, sweetie.”