My mother’s name is the Arabic word for “princess”, and it fits her, skimming over her edges like a forgiving gown. Her sharp words lie beneath multitudinous folds of tulle and taffeta. Everybody loves smiling Amira, but I’ve seen her coffee-stained, silver-filled teeth up close, framed in taut lips, forming ugly words like “disgusting”. Nobody’s mouth looks pretty when saying that word. She taught 7th-grade French, married a doctor, birthed three children and moved to America. Idealistic. Fanciful. The stuff of dreams, people in Katana, Syria might say. They might wish for her charmed life.
She asks me who else knows, because other people’s opinions are imperative to forming her own. Come with us to church, she implores my sister Sandra, and worries and worries and worries and worries when her oldest daughter does not draw any truth from the message, worries when the congregation sees her firstborn’s closed mouth during the hymns, worries when her lost lamb is outraged at the hypocrisy of our community.
She sighs heavily instead of hugging me.
She prays daily to the Jesus hung on her wall. It’s the first thing that guests see: a soft oil painting of the son, heart circled with thorns, scarred hands extended, and eyes like earth in a patch of sunlight. She touches him gently as she passes, gleaning strength she cannot find inside orange prescription bottles. Guests come and sit and offer to help but she always declines, instead filling herself up with dishwater and adrenaline while her living room fills up with people who fill up on my mother’s tart homemade yogurt, personal spinach pies, rice topped with poached chicken and butter-toasted pine nuts, salad seasoned with sumac, hummus in bulk. She scoops more food onto half-full plates instead of finding one of her own. When the guests tell me I am Amira’s daughter, I take it as a compliment. This Syrian amira rules with petite grace, songbird voice, constant smile, endless charm.
She did not smile when she asked me to reconsider, to change my mind, to consider my future. She grimaced as she spoke. She cheated me out of time. She did not smile. She did not help. She stared at the carpet as I spoke. She did not hear me. She did not touch me. She stared at me as I answered her, sun-spotted chin tilted down in shame, regal eyes lined in delicate skin, plucked brown brows meeting in the middle, mouth set in her ways, set in white plaster, set in history and culture and goodness and sodom and gomorrah and who knows about you and what do you mean and what kind of church is this and think about your future and I will pray for you, the lines perpendicular to her pursed lips as markers, beads on a rosary.