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April 29, 2022

I was just 30 the other evening

The other evening the clock turned back. Suddenly I was 30 years old and sitting on my marriage bed, straight as the letter “i,” with the night’s black cheeks observing my movements through the bedroom’s only window. On my lap was a children’s bible, printed in large lettering, on which four lined school sheets were waiting to receive all my sorrows. I hesitated. I was afraid, fearful of the angry husband who insisted until he was blue in the face that women were not meant to write. He hated it when I pulled paragraphs out of my head that he could neither read or understand. As a precaution, I hid my writing, my pens and any pencil that was not part of the kids’ school supplies.

Thirteen years of marriage and three young children had taught me to maintain the peace at home. I kept quiet, cooked, cleaned, loved my babies and obeyed the master of the house. Remotely guided by some angel, whose name I didn’t know, I entertained my little ones by reading the Bible to them. Washed, combed and perfumed with talcum powder, the three of them sat around me on the living room carpet. They often interrupted me, asking me a thousand questions about the lives of the first apostles and the parables of Jesus. I particularly remember the story of poor Lazarus, who died and was buried, only to be resurrected. At that time I had no idea that one day I too would rise from my unhappy tomb.

To soften my fate, I tried to be kinder than kindness itself at times. My husband only scolded me more in return. He would try to subdue me, to bend me to his authority. But my docile attitude made him furious and I never resisted. The Dalai Lama would have been proud of me if he too had seen me through the bedroom window.

Even if I was the only one of the three daughters-in-law to write to the mother-in-law in her own language, the husband still quibbled. He wanted to know what I was writing. Was I complaining?

Often in the afternoon I would sit on the small third-floor balcony. I would try to think about my life, but everything would get jumbled up in my head. Each time, my tangled hopes and sorrows disappeared in the deafening noise of the city traffic. Sometimes I implored the city birds to transport my messages to imaginary friends. Once, a squirrel jumped onto my balcony out of nowhere. I reached out to pet it, but its teeth dug deep into my thumb. Apart from my young children, it was easy for me to conclude that I was unlovable in the eyes of this foreign world.

Just like in the Cinderella story, the cantankerous daughters-in-law rejoiced at my misfortunes. “What an idea, marrying a foreigner,” they yammered to anyone who would listen. “Sure, she speaks our language, she cooks our food, but what does she really know about us?”

In the Greek neighbourhood in the central north area of Montreal, life ground on, and one day, the mother-in-law arrived from Greece. Insisting on living with her new daughter-in-law, I prepared for my daily discomfort to climb a few notches on the Richter scale. The butter on the table upset her, the amount of chamomile in her teacup, the way the grape leaves were folded, the overly mushy orzo, the overcooked lamb… She grumbled about every detail to her favourite child, my husband.

Yet occasionally I helped her wash her huge body, sitting on a stool in the small bathroom of the house. I still remember how I had to soap the creases in her neck, her cavernous ears and broad shoulders. I held her heavy breasts in my hand, rubbed her big belly, thick thighs and long legs, down which the soapy lather ran and settled in between her toes. Her body nice and dry, I untangled and combed her long, still-black hair and smeared her face with an anti-wrinkle cream that came in the luggage from Thessaloniki.

In those rare moments of intimacy, I often felt that my miserable life was nothing compared to what this woman had endured. I knew her story and strangely enough, I loved her. I loved her resilient heart despite the many unbearable experiences she had endured: the loss of three husbands, her abduction by rebel soldiers, the sexual violence, estrangement from her children and the long years of misery until finally being reunited with her three sons in Canada, a land of new beginnings.

All this to say, before throwing stones, it’s good to learn a bit about a person’s life to discover in which marinade they have soaked.