The plan -my plan- was perfect if the gardener’s daughters had not insisted on dragging their spoiled little brother along with them. If he had not come with us, their mother Jamila would not have freaked out and run to our house at lunchtime. I have no memory of Jamila ever coming to our house before. Her husband worked occasionally in our garden, when our own gardener was sick or away or there was too much work for him to handle on his own. Her daughters Ruya and Mina often came to play with us but Jamila herself never showed up at our place. She stayed at home taking care of the young son, Murad, the brat who spoiled my perfect plan. He was the third child of the family, who finally arrived after the two girls; the long awaited; the most precious; the one who would carry on the lineage: The boy!
“We have to take him with us” said the girls when we showed up at Old Lady’s house. “Mom is cleaning Old Lady’s house and we are supposed to baby-sit him. This is the only way.”
I knew right away that there was no other way. Still I wanted to give them a headache.
“Then you are not coming with us. We can’t go with a baby along. He can’t swim anyway.”
I saw Mina’s eyes growing bigger and darker with disappointment. Ruya, the calmer and more sensible one of the two, who turned out to be a genius and was later accepted to some Ivy League school’s genetic engineering department with full scholarship, glimpsed at the fancy swimming devices we had brought along and gulped.
But we needed them for the plan to work. I knew it and so did they. Still they kept their mouths shut. They lived on Old Lady’s property, which went all the way down to the beach. We needed the beach access. In fact access to the beach was key to my plan. We needed them badly. I hated it.
Old Lady was a famous painter who lived all alone in a huge mansion with her mean black dog. She had never married, had no kids. She was not as old as Nene but much older than my mom and my aunt. She wasn’t pretty like them but there was a different kind of allure in the way she held her lean body. She had a sharp chin, tight lips and light brown straight hair, cut very short, a hairstyle I had never seen in other women. I not only found her haircut bizarre but was also amazed by the tight pants, tiny vests and the hats she wore.
Even though she was a friend of grandma’s and visited us a few times during the summer, she rarely talked to us kids and when she spoke to Nene, her tone was so low that I never knew what she sounded like. She never laughed and when she smiled she looked so uncomfortable, as if her lips were forced to do an extraordinary exercise.
We never saw any visitors at her place. Nene had mentioned a sister of hers whom she –Old Lady- hadn’t talked to for more than a decade. When I inquired about this Nene gently scolded me for snooping into the conversations of the grown ups. However I knew that it would not take very much to convince her to give me some more details. Our grandma loved telling stories.
The two sisters, both very talented artists, had loved each other very much once upon a time and were inseparable. After finishing university –where they had met my grandparents- they went to Paris for more studies and started their painting careers. They were very charming and made many friends, both men and women. At this point Nene would always lower her voice before going on with her story of “a little too bohemian choices” of the two sisters. And sometimes she’d pause to focus all her energy into kneading the raw minced meat mixed with bread, onion and parsley. Her hands would be deep into the bowl all the way down to her forearms or she would be busy cooking other delectable dishes.
But “why, why, why?” I insisted this one time. “Why are they not talking to each other anymore?” “Oh well” said Nene as she dried the sweat on her forehead with a cotton cloth she always carried in her apron pocket. She was preparing meatballs, kofte, with parsley and the kitchen was getting hot. I was sitting on the marble kitchen counter with my legs dangling and was sneaking small pieces of raw meat into my mouth.
“Upon their return, the young one –Old Lady- got more famous than the other and the older one got jealous so they had a big fight and they stopped talking. And you should stop eating the raw meat. Worms will grow in your tummy.”
“Oh come on Nene”! Not even an 8 year old would believe in a story like this. Of course there was some jealousy and some romance and some men, even maybe some women…I knew from prior eavesdropping sessions that there was a fiancé in the picture. Not Old Lady’s but her sister’s fiancé who might have fallen in love with the younger sister. But then there were rumors that the older sister liked women more than men. So why was she engaged in the first place? And the French fiancé if he was so much in love with our Old Lady, why didn’t he marry her?
I had all these questions in my head, but when we reached this point in the story, no matter how much I begged or tried to trick her into further details, Nene’s only comment was, “Don’tcome on your Nene. Grandmas are not to be comeoned.”
Instead of satisfying my curiosity with further details, she used the opportunity to give me advice and switch her story telling tone –which I loved- into her advice tone –which I found boring. Giving advice was her other favorite thing to do.
“Do you see how lonely she is up there? An old woman all alone in a huge house? No children, no grandchildren, no husband…If you don’t settle with a decent man when you are still young and pretty that’s what happens to a woman. A little too much fun and a lifetime of loneliness. No man wants a woman who had too much fun in her past. You will remember that, will you not my dear smart girl? ”
Ruya and Mina’s father took care of Old Lady’s infinite gardens. In return, Old Lady provided them with housing and food. It was Old Lady who later discovered Ruya’s genius and paid for her schooling until the day she was admitted to college.
Their house was more or less a hut hidden somewhere in Old Lady’s gigantic property. They all slept in one single room that lacked fresh air desperately and smelled of dirty socks all the time. Parents and the boy slept on the only bed and the girls slept on the floor on some pads. The room was packed with rolled mattresses, blankets, and a couple of wooden chests that contained the whole family’s clothes. There was no room to walk in it, so they went in there only for sleeping.
Their old style kitchen was big though, and a big wood stove stood in the middle. I often daydreamed of the evenings in that kitchen during winter. Huddled together by the stove, girls doing their homework on the kitchen table, Jamila cooking dinner and saving the best piece for Murad or maybe for her husband. I wondered what it would feel like to be in that kitchen with them on winter evenings when darkness falls so early, and what it would look like when they would turn the lights on. It must have felt so different compared to the long summer days.
Summer was the only time we saw each other. During the long afternoons we spent lying around in their front porch and reading books, I often asked them to tell me about the island in the winter. Was it so empty when all the summer people were gone back to town? Were there many children in their school? How did it look when it snowed? Would they ever go to our garden to play with the swings? No, they said the swings were taken down in winter, so their wood would not swell when it rained.
Even though I read more books than they did, they knew so much more than I did. When a new children’s book arrived at the only bookstore on the island, I was the first one to know. The second person was Ruya who patiently waited for her turn to read it. I knew she wanted to keep the books to read again and again in the winter, but they didn’t have space in their house, so she returned them to me usually the day after she borrowed them. The sight of her reading always reminded me of a hungry tiger gulping down his prey.
Yet they did not think winter on the island was at all interesting. They thought they could come up with nothing to impress me. How could they? I must have been having a fantastic time in the City, going to a private school and seeing movies, buying toys, making friends, going to their birthday parties…No? “Sure, it is fun” I used to mumble, distracted. In truth their questions always touched that sour spot of loneliness of the winter nights. A winter spent all alone in my bedroom with the faint sound of TV coming from the living room and the never-ending “discussions” of my parents. “We are not fighting sweetness, we are only discussing” my mom would say when I asked them to please stop fighting. There was never enough homework to keep me busy until the evening and television programs were boring even for the grown-ups. No, the girls would have never believed me if I told them I’d rather spend the entire winter in their kitchen by the stove.
But it was summer then. The winter was so far away that it was hard to believe that it would eventually come and we would have to decide what coat to put on before leaving home.
(To be continued)