When we sat down on that bench along the boulevard, weary from hauling our backpacks around all day, my roommate and I didn’t imagine that the elderly lady who sat down next to us would become anything more than the elderly lady who sat down next to us.
But I smiled and said, “Peace be upon you.”
“And upon you.”
“Are you from here?”
It didn’t take long to find out that she was proud of her Berber heritage. Her opinionated brusqueness appealed to me. There were no fluffy, flattering words. No acting like we were movie stars. Just an invitation to tea the next day.
At tea, she spoke clearly and explained the words I didn’t understand. She understood that I was from a different culture and a different religion without treating me as if I were ignorant. And the way that she told stories inspired me to one day be like her.
In the months that followed, she told more stories, including part of her own story… a disappointing trail of heartache with oases of happiness. Whether I visited her with my roommate or alone, I always felt at rest. She didn’t pressure me to stay when I needed to go, or pressure me to eat when I was full. It was like she welcomed the relationship with no expectations. And she liked me for being me and not what I could do for her or who I might one day become.
One day, we went to visit her when she was ill. But she didn’t answer her door. After knocking and calling, I was concerned. Was she in the hospital? Was she too ill to come to the door?
We knocked on the neighbor’s door and were welcomed into the life of the next door family. They fed us, helped me with my homework, and chatted with that same element of acceptance. They were, in short, delightful. And Khadija was fine after all; just late with running errands.
She invited my family for tea when they visited North Africa. She admired pictures of my nephew and showed me her grandchildren. Her broken family had broken her heart. But after quickly wiping away her tears, she seemed content with the good people in her life. And her yearly pilgrimage to Mecca gave her an element of peace that she was doing what was right.
During one of my visits, I was sipping tea with her and the lady next door when Khadija switched the TV channel to sumo wrestling. I was repulsed until I realized I was living one of those moments that I would never be able to relive. How many times would I recline on the sofa, sipping sweet mint tea, and watching sumo wrestling with two 70-year-old ladies?
That was the same visit that she brought me a traditional robe to put on over my clothes. When she left to start the coffee, the neighbor lady patted my arm, “Now you are really her daughter. She is treating you like a daughter.”