A Shawl From My Mother

My mother, Kawkab, and me

As I furiously shuffle through the abundance of dresses, I try to ignore my mom’s pleading, but irritated look. I focus on the feeling of lace, silk, and chiffon on my hand to keep from crying, drowning out my mom’s voice with my thoughts of pity for myself and rage at her inability to understand me. Why couldn’t she comprehend what it was like to dress shop with someone who’d buy me an outfit more suited for a convent than my homecoming dance?  Didn’t she know what it was like to have parents who never understood, who never learned to consider that they were raising a daughter in America?

As she reminds me that we promised that we’d try to understand each other during this painful process, I think of all the things I’d rather be doing than coming out of the dressing room in one “distasteful” dress after another and hearing, “try it with a shawl” or “if it were longer, then that’d be perfect.” The list goes on as long as the dress my mother would just love to stick me in.

After the initial snap, I am completely unresponsive to my mom. As she holds up a dress in suggestion, I roll my eyes as if to say, “Could you find a more disgusting piece of garbage?” My mom is no longer my mom. She’s my nemesis, trying to take the joy out of homecoming.  Exasperatedly, she exclaims that if I’m not going to cooperate, then I don’t need to go to homecoming. We stomp off to the car and sit in silence for the half hour trip from Fox Valley Mall to our home.

When we arrive, I start to rush out of the car. As I turn to grab my purse, I see a disappointed look on my mom’s face.  Taken aback, I head up to my bedroom. Why wasn’t she mad, like I was?

I walk past her bedroom door and hear my mom’s shaky, cheerless voice describe to my dad our excruciating experience. As I eavesdrop, my fury begins to subside. The insensitive person I have in mind fades into who my mom really is: someone who wanted to have a good time dress shopping for her daughter’s first big dance, who promised herself that she’d help her daughter understand that living in America didn’t mean that their ideals changed. She was just as frustrated as I was. She wanted me to see that she was trying to please me, but also instill the morals of our culture — modesty and self-respect.

In western Beirut, modesty was the way for my mother to walk down the street holding her head high. Through her dress, she demanded to be taken seriously and gave no one a reason to write her off as disposable. While my mother knew no woman should have to earn equality, safety, or respect, she also knew that what should or should not be wouldn’t get her some safely at night. She learned to deal with what was.

My mom wasn’t fighting against me. She was fighting for me to realize the same freedom from objectification and belittlement that she enjoyed. She knew the cultural ideals that freed her could free me, too.

Who was this process more painful for?

I slowly enter the room, and as her eyes meet mine, I can tell she knows I’ve been listening. She sees I understand. I hand her the keys and she knows where we’re heading. Two hours later, I come out of Fox Valley Mall with a beautiful, raspberry colored dress– and a shawl. I wore it proudly.

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