Saturday 3 March 2012

Women’s Day tribute to “my second mom”

Modern day Klayaa (Photo from
I thought I would acknowledge this year's International Women's Day (March 8) with a special tribute to "my second mom."
“Imm” or “Umm” means “the mother of” in Arabic.
Imm Nelly, née Maryam Sirhan, was a young woman when my maternal grandparents employed her as their housekeeper.
She came from Klayaa, a Christian Maronite village in South Lebanon adjoining the bustling town of Jdeidet Marjeyoun.
Snowbound Marjeyoun in 2008 (Photo from
Maryam married a young man from her village and got pregnant when she was in her late teens. Halfway through her pregnancy, Maryam’s husband decided to migrate to Latin America, most probably Brazil, where he hoped to earn a living and support his wife and the child she was expecting.  She never heard from him again in her lifetime. But as soon as she gave birth to a daughter, Nelly, Maryam’s name changed to Imm Nelly.
She got to work for my grandparents as a single mother desperate to raise the apple of her eye, Nelly. Some years later, when my mother tied the knot and left my grandparents’ home, Imm Nelly followed her. “I came with your mother’s dowry,” she reminded me without fail.
Whatever money she earned throughout the 40-odd years of her working life with us went straight to Nelly. And after Nelly got married, she kept supporting her and her husband and their four offspring – two boys and two girls. As the household’s matriarch, she named the lot, one after the other. She called the eldest male “Hashem” and named her three other grandchildren after my mom, my younger sister and I.
When I asked her years later why she chose to give her first grandson a mainly Moslem name, “Hashem,” she simply said, “Because I like King Hussein and the Hashemites.”
The archetype of a hardworking, unfailingly honest, outspoken, strong-minded, God-fearing and devout mountain Maronite, Imm Nelly was deeply religious but not exactly a churchgoer. She sufficed with making the Sign of the Cross and invoking the Virgin Mary and St. Maron at all times. Her deep respect for the Moslem faith was because Islam regards Mary as one of the most righteous women. Also, she is cited more often in the Quran than in the entire New Testament.
I was in full-time employment but still working on my thesis for the Masters degree when Imm Nelly said one day it was high time she gave up work and retired in Klayaa. She also said she was yearning for a one-room annex or extension to her daughter’s modest home “where I can have my privacy and breathing space.” I helped realize her dream.
My sister and I cried our eyes out when she left. We felt we were parting with our second mom.
Some 12 years into her retirement, I sent after her to Beirut to see my three little boys, visit my office and chat with my staff. Though car drives never agreed with her (“they make me dizzy’), she showed up as planned. She kissed and cuddled my little boys, said they were lovely and shed a few tears. Then I asked her on our way to the office, “Imm Nelly, aren’t they beautiful?” Her curt response: “Nothing like you.”
I told my mainly female staff that I was bringing Imm Nelly along to the office. They were ready and received her with open arms. More tears. We then sat in a big circle in the conference room and I started telling her a word or two about each of the staff members in turn. She kept nodding without uttering a word – until I introduced my vivacious PA Leila Baroody, who was sporting a micro mini-skirt. Imm Nelly smiled and whispered lovingly in her ear: “Habibti (Darling), since we assembled in this room, you’ve been wriggling on your chair and pulling on your skirt to cover your thighs. Try lengthening the skirt when you get home.” (Leila is now happily married to a U.S. diplomat).
Imm Nelly snippets
  • She had a mixed bag of old folk cures for common ailments. For headaches, she suggested applying a tad of tiger balm ointment to the forehead and temples and then using a good-sized handkerchief to tie firmly around the head. Her recommendation was also to avoid glaring sun in daytime and dim the lights at night. For constipation, she proposed downing either half a dozen fresh figs on an empty stomach first thing in the morning or five tablespoons of carob molasses blended with a bit of tahini. For tummy ache, she proposed a magic potion of three tablespoons of Arak diluted in a cup of tea with no sugar added. To stop bleeding, she applied ground coffee directly to the wound.

  • When she pampered me, especially at a young age, she would look me in the face and say tongue in cheek: “What lovely blond hair and blue eyes! Pity you were born a Moslem.”
  • To tease her, my father often recounted a joke about an unchaste monk. And each time he said “monk” she interjected the word “qadi.”  Then one day my father slipped while taking a shower and bruised his leg. Moments later, she told him, “God warned you this time. If you don’t desist from repeating ‘that’ joke he is bound to punish you. “
  • She appreciated my attendance of elective catechism classes in my Secondary years but made no comment on news of my sister’s marriage to a Maronite.
  • She believed the liturgical calendar of the Greek Orthodox is “unfailingly accurate” and that Lebanon’s Greek Orthodox and Moslems are “cousins.”

  • Her sympathy for France outlasted the end of the French mandate of Lebanon in 1943. Fourteen years later, she was furious when I came home from university one day soaked in water. Riot police hosed scores of students trying to break out from the American University of Beirut’s Medical Gate to protest the arrest by French troops of Algerian Revolution icon Jamila Bouhired. “Who is Jamila Bouhired to you?” she growled. “Don’t you know that she took up arms against France?”
  • She was lethargic to internal Lebanese politics. She had a one-line cliché reaction each time she heard of any local, parliamentary, or presidential election results in Lebanon: “Exit the satiated (government official), enter the famished,” she always said.