Small Acts of Love
The first memory I have of my grandma is the briefest of moments. I was swinging in the backyard, maybe three years old, and was stung by a bee. Falling out of my swing and crying, she came to my rescue. It wasn’t the hurried, bent run that mothers make when their child appears injured. It was slower, but her arms were open, her eyes safe.
Ikbal Khadiga Arslan Sharawi was her name, but to me, she was Grandma SueSue. Her hair was feisty red and always perfectly styled thanks to her soft-roller ritual every night. When Carly & I would have sleepovers at her place, we always thought this was so much fun. We’d order a large spinach Alfredo pizza from CiCi’s, watch the Nick at Night summer block party (I Love Lucy, anyone?), and roll our hair. Another favorite activity during these sleepovers was rummaging through her stuff, which she completely encouraged. She had all these little trinkets from Egypt we found completely fascinating. She had a set of old, beautifully decorated glass perfume bottles. They were empty, but I would pretend I was a painter and use the glass wand to paint the decorated bottle. She told us stories of her all girls’ Catholic school and always having an escort when in the presence of males. It all sounded like a fairytale to me. She had long gloves and short gloves we would try on and dresses, too. Even her nightgowns were lovely. We never packed pajamas because we always wore hers.
It wasn’t until I was older that I began to piece together her life and realized it may have not been as much of a fairytale as I’d like to believe. At least for a little while. When my dad was eight and his brother sixteen, they had to pack up as much of their lives as would fit on a boat and make their way to the United States. Leadership had changed in Egypt, and it was for the best that they join my great uncle in making a new life in Texas. My grandfather, grandma, and their two sons went from Cairo, Egypt to Garland, Texas in the 1960’s. Different much? When they arrived in Texas, my grandma didn’t know how to cook or drive—she’d never had to before.
She was always putting on a feast for us no matter the occasion. When we stayed the night, mornings always smelled either of cheesy crescent rolls or cherry turnovers. Both of these items were due to Pillsbury, but we didn’t care—she knew what we loved and was always stocked just for us.
For a while, Carly & I had music lessons every Tuesday, so after school, Mom would pick us up and take us to Grandma’s for an after school snack before our lesson. When you think of after school snack, what comes to your mind? Cookies? An apple? Well, not at Grandma’s house. We would walk in her door every week to find her tea set brewing some Earl Grey, egg salad sandwiches, mango tarts (thank you, frozen dessert aisle), and her signature trademark of which I am most grateful—Pepperidge Farm cookies. I could write poetry about these cookies. And with hot tea? Oh, I’m smitten just thinking about it.
Christmas Eve dinner was her big moment. My dad, mom, sister, & I would go to her apartment to find the most perfect, intimate setup. On the glass coffee table would be a large bowl of peeled shrimp with cocktail sauce, a warm, golden baked Brie with tiny melba toast, and a marble cheeseboard with equal parts butter and pâté. I don’t even remember what the main course was. This was the part I loved. All of us just sitting and enjoying each other and the good food. Except my grandma was rarely sitting. She’d be up and about trying to make sure everything was perfect, sure there was always something she should be doing, and us trying to talk her into sitting down. This was her offering. She served us well with her constant feeding and asking if we needed anything else. Even on brief drop-ins to say hi, I don’t think I ever left without at least a chocolate. It was her way of taking care of me, of letting me know she loved me and I was important to her.
Time had passed. She had gone from the first apartment I knew to be hers, the one she moved into after making the permanent move from Egypt in 1994, to the one she moved to in order to be close to us when our family moved. This apartment brought many good memories, but probably the most humorous was a specific memory when I was in high school. When I’m not forced, I jog about once every six months at best. A friend and I had picked a summer morning to jog a trail, and we somehow managed to get lost. Not only were we getting tired, but it was hot and also, our steep water intake had had nowhere to go. And then lo and behold, there was her apartment. She was never happier to save the day. Then it was an independent living facility, which seemed quite nice to me. It was right behind an Italian restaurant we often went to for lunch. But I know she missed driving.
Then it was an assisted living facility, and while going there was a bit more depressing, the women were phenomenal. I went back there for a service project just a few years ago with my students, and they recalled not only her name but sweet stories about her when I mentioned our relationship. She was here a portion of my college days, and I loved visiting her when I came home. She had mentioned craving french fries on one of our phone calls, so on a visit, I drove through somewhere and picked up a small french fry order for her. It was such a small token, but it was my way of taking care of her this time. It was my way of showing her she was important to me. I guess food was always our thing. When I got to her room, she was sleeping, so I set the fries on a small table near her bed with a note. And then I just sat in the chair in the room and watched her and prayed for her. I begged Jesus to become real to her. To show His face in a way that got her attention. She was such a beautiful woman, so full of grace and goodness. I knew He had to be near her for her to possess all those qualities.When you’re a kid, things can sometimes be blown out of proportion because of your own size, and while I think that may have been the case here, I like remembering it the way I do. I was probably six or seven, and I can’t remember if we had friends over or our cousins, but there were a few of us. We were all huddled in the room my grandma stayed in when she had visited from Egypt, and there was candy. In my mind, it was giant bags upon bags of candy. I remember sitting on the floor next to her with a big bag of dubble bubble, the gumdrop shaped bubble gum in the twisted yellow and blue wrapper. I would chew and chew on a piece until I had sucked all the sugar out, spit it into its wrapper, and start chewing on another piece. My jaw hurts a little thinking about it, but it’s embedded in my mind because it was simple, and there was much laughter.
My sister & I had a play-dough room, or rather, a closet that had been converted into our art/messy/crafty room when we were little. One day, we decided it would be hilarious to flatten out a bunch of yellow play-dough and cut out shapes with cookie cutters. We then put the shapes onto a plate and took it to my grandma and told her we had made her cookies. She picked one up, a bunny, I believe, and took a bite. We died laughing as she ran to spit it out, laughing with her mouth full of play-dough.
She was never shy to give her opinions, though. Oh no, she told it to you straight. One afternoon when I was in college and she was living in her assisted living apartment, I stopped by to visit before going to a friend’s wedding. I had straightened my hair although thanks to East Texas humidity, I had needed to pin part of it back so I didn’t look like I was intentionally sporting an Afro. I was wearing a cocktail-style dress I had just bought at Dillard’s. I was probably wearing flats or sandals. After visiting for a few minutes, my grandma said I should probably go get ready for the wedding. I told her I was ready for the wedding, and she said, “Oh……it’s a casual wedding.” I was rarely if ever offended by her. Everything she said was honest. She was never one for passive aggressive jabs, which gives me hope for the rest of the female population. It’s all about perspective anyway. This was a woman who had attended masquerades and worn ball gowns. Her own wedding dress looked like it had been passed down from royalty, and I guarantee the people attending her wedding wore better than BCBG. Unless spending the night together, I never saw her without makeup on, hair fixed, a few pieces of classy jewelry, and a well put together outfit.
We want to remember people for the lives they lived, not the struggle in the end. Sometimes though, even in these moments, there are important things worth remembering. I just happened to be coming home from college for the weekend. I remember being extremely excited about passing a practice test (it was not my first attempt), and I was ready to celebrate. My friends’ wedding shower was the following evening, and Blake would be in town, so life was looking good. I was just driving into Tyler when I called Carly, and she told me Grandma wasn’t doing very well.
Her eyes were closed, and she was mumbling in pain. I had to be close to her, so I crawled into her tiny twin bed, and began whispering to her. I had not prepared. Having no idea if she could even hear me, I just began whispering, It’s okay, Grandma. You can let go. You can relax. Tell Jesus you’re ready to come home. Tell Him you’re ready. It’s okay. And I just repeated those words, slipping in an I love you every now and then. And then it felt like my own tiny miracle when she whispered back, I love you, too.
The peace I felt after that conversation was Jesus and nothing else. It was possibly the strongest rush of peace I’ve ever experienced. My heart had been so tightly coiled, scared my grandma would never know the love of Jesus, and then there it was—this release and pumping of oxygen back inside– & I knew she felt Him, His Spirit, and death was no longer something for me to fear for her.
A couple of weeks ago marked five years since she left us. Her name remained in my “Favorites” under my contacts in my phone until recently when I got a new one. Last week, I was cleaning out a few closets and managed to collect all of the linens she had left for me. There are tablecloths, cloth napkins, handkerchiefs, and lace slips. I leave the bags closed hoping they preserve her scent, and as I opened them this time, I breathed her in as a fresh wave of memories flooded my mind. Inside one of the bags, I found a dress of hers I didn’t know I had. It’s black, three quarter length sleeves, just past the knee, with a waist tie, and a lovely vintage design over the body. I slipped it on, and it fit. Just then, Collins wanted to be picked up, and as she hugged my shoulder, we both breathed her in, our cheeks touching as I let the dress sway around my legs.