The Curse of Living in Interesting Times

by Samia Serageldin

When my mother didn’t visit me right after she died, I thought I knew what she was waiting for. It had to do with a promise I had made ten years earlier. I was visiting her in Cairo when, one day on a whim, I unearthed the big boxes that contained the albums of family photos, in the closet where she kept her wedding dress, the three-meter-long white satin train carelessly folded—I suppose, when you have lost as much in your life as my mother had, you either learn to be careful of possessions, or the opposite. Among the albums I came across three slim, leather-bound notebooks I had never seen before: journals that she had kept, sporadically, over a period of twenty years, filled with her distinctive backward-slanting handwriting in English, remarkably unchanged from her late teens.

I hadn’t known she’d kept a diary. She took the journals out of my hands. “I’m thinking of destroying these. They’re private. I don’t want them falling into anyone’s hands and being read by the wrong person.” I promised her that if something ever happened to her, I would make sure they didn’t fall into anyone’s hands but mine, and that anything truly personal would stay private.

When she passed away, that promise was on my mind the entire long, bitter trip from North Carolina to Cairo. I was her only daughter, and although I took the first plane out when I heard she’d been hospitalized, I was too late to hold her hand. But I could at least keep my promise. First, though, there was the memorial service to get through. The burial itself had taken place the same day my mother passed away, as is the custom, and the date of the service was coordinated to allow me just enough time to arrive in Cairo, so I had not had time to shop for mourning clothes and had packed what I found in my wardrobe. For the service, on that hot, late September day in Cairo, I dressed in a cap-sleeved black sheath and sling-back kitten heels, vaguely aware that my mother would not have approved of either, under the circumstances.

That dress is too light as well as inappropriate, I heard her saying. The odd thing, of course, was that it was my mother’s voice from the time when she was still herself, her old critical voice that I remember from my teens onward, before she mellowed into benign vagueness in her last years. It was as if I knew that with death she had shed the debilitating mask of age and regained her old judgmental personality.

Have you put on weight? That skirt looks too tight.
No, Mummy, actually I lost a kilo since school started.
That’s why your face looks pinched. It doesn’t suit you, you shouldn’t diet.
But I thought you said the skirt looked tight?!
It was riding up your legs when you sat down—horrible sight! It’s too short.
All the girls in my class wear their skirts shorter.
Yes, well, we’re not everybody, we don’t have to be slaves to fashion.

My mother’s memorial service was very well attended; I knew she would find that gratifying, and it assuaged my sense of guilt. In her later years she used to complain that, as her only daughter, I didn’t pay visits of condolences or attend memorial services and that, as a result, no one would attend her own memorial service when the time came.

That night, I didn’t dream of my mother. That didn’t worry me too much, not yet. I had dreamed of my father three days after he died, and of my beloved maternal grandmother as soon, despite the fact that I was two continents away at the time. The dreams—I will call them that, although I experienced them as night visitations—had come as loving leave-taking, a welcome confirmation that their souls were at rest, a sense of closure. I craved a posthumous visit from my mother all the more, for the reassurance that she was at peace, not only with death but with me, for failing her at the end, for not being at her deathbed when she asked for me. Once I had found the journals, I believed, once I’d kept my promise, she would come.

Adapted from Samia Serageldin’s essay, The Curse of Living in Interesting Times, published in Mothers and Strangers: Essays on Motherhood From the New South edited by Samia Serageldin and Lee Smith. Copyright © 2019 by Samia Serageldin. Used by permission of the author and the University of North Carolina Press.

Samia Serageldin is the author of several books, including The Cairo House and Love Is Like Water, and is an editor of South Writ Large. She lives in Chapel Hill.