An ice cold stare.
The memory of a childhood controlled by eye movement. My mom has impossibly-blue eyes, from a German ancestry affording her a genetically electric blue hue that spoke to us, her kids. Or rather hissed at us.
Her eyes always intimidated me. On some level they still do. I have memories of her slashing me with a look when I was either out of line, loud, or obnoxious (behaviors I was engaging in more frequently than I would like to admit). Her eyes magnetically stopped us-my siblings and I- in our tracks. Like a Houdini or a parental David Copperfield, she would use her super power to transfix us in a spot, then the quick sideways nod with the blonde head would quickly follow to usher us into our room.
That was the way of my Mom. You only disobeyed once. No more was needed. The wrath of the German/American/Lebanese ancestry would fall on your head and splat you like a pancake begging for mercy. Warden/Seargant/executioner style. No kidding. Using only stares and unblinking eyeballs with mascara-darkened lashes.
My dad has always been the teddy bear. She was the bad cop and he could be nothing but the good cop. He is that soft spoken. “That’s what your mom wants” was his line. “Well then, rebel, do something, and let me go out” was my response-uttered to myself under my breath. “No ‘sarsoura'” would be his answer (‘Sarsoura’ was his nickname for me, I loved my nickname until I suddenly realized that he was calling me his cute cockroach).
My grandmothers were our allies in the family’s parent-child tug of war. We had a few of those grandmothers, not your usual two. My father’s Mom, my father’s aunt, my mother’s Mom, and my mother’s two aunts, they were all called ‘tayta’-Lebanese for Grandma. It was like an amish family structure where we had way too many relatives, aunts, cousins, and many many grandmothers. The Grandfathers were non-existent, duly buried by the grandmothers well before I was born. My grandmothers adored me. They would give me anything I ever wanted. Including coffee when I was six. “Your mother said you can’t drink coffee? Here, a drop won’t hurt you” and I would have a whole pot of the sticky black forbidden liquid often with Gandour biscuits dunked in it. My grandmothers used so much sugar that the combination of caffein and glucose meant that I was bouncing off the walls, literally.
One of the things that bugged me and marked my life as a kid, other than not being allowed to drink beer and coffee, is the jingle of the evening news bulletin. I believe it had something to do with the Bee Gees, percussion, lots of guitars and a mandatory march to bed. Even when it was still light outside. I hated the news. The news bulletin and anything connected to it-especially those smug anchors that announced nothing but more war and bad news were my enemies. I wished for the TV station to be bombed, to go up in smoke, for the news anchors to develop all kinds of horrible diseases, and for once not to have the cursed bulletin at 8 p.m. It was too early to go to bed at 8. I always wanted to know what my parents were talking about with their guests or with one of my grandmothers. There was a war raging in the Lebanon we found ourselves living in, and I wanted to hear all about the latest battle gossip, killings, kidnappings, the suppressed fear in my Dad’s voice, the panic in my Mom’s voice urging my dad to let her take the kids to the US. I so wanted to go discover the world where movies were made, America. But then I would miss out on all the juicy war gossip from the keyhole of the door connecting the bedrooms to the living room, with its smoky air and exciting conversations.
Another dictatorship-inspired rule of my childhood was no TV or music when someone dies-that’s if that someone is a relative, one of the grandmothers, a neighbor or someone we know in the village. “Disrespectful”. That’s the only explanation we got. “But they can’t hear the music, they’re dead” is what I would yell back, to be quickly accosted by an electric blue motherly glare and a nod to go to my room, even if it was early afternoon on the weekend; “who cares, I’m not allowed to watch TV anyway” would be my rebellious attitude. What was worse than the dead person being close to the family is when a dead person was someone important, like a president or a politician who was assassinated or forgot to breathe, then we would have classical music on all three TV stations and all radio stations for days. In war-time Lebanon-and to some extent at the present time- not many people like classical music, it was synonymous with death and collective punishment. A fun killer.
I grew up dreaming of the day when I would be allowed to stay up past 8. I also dreamt of the day when someone came on TV and announced the end of the war. Both events happened in a anti-climactic way. Quietly. Non-events. Nobody announced the end of the war, it sort of kept starting and stopping, and we are still in the throes of conflict to this day despite some respite from hostilities, yet no one event heralded an end to the war in Lebanon. It is lingering in our memories, in our consciousness, in our songs, in the angry eyes of people who still hate, in segregated religious schools, in ghettos, in communities fighting for the control of the tiny country, in my mom’s eyes when they cloud over when she remembers the war years. My mom’s eyes lost their sparkle. I see much sadness there that replaced the fiery energy that zapped us into shape. War does that to you. Protracted war and an uncertain future do that to you ten-fold.
I still have hope for Lebanon. Every time I go there, I see signs of good and the same old bad. But there is more good. I can see it in the new generation, the kids who will not take no for an answer when they want to stay up past 8. The news starts at 8.30 for starters, and their mothers mostly have brown eyes.