Tag Archives: family

My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears

Poetry Foundation (publisher of Poetry Magazine) has a really great app for iPhone and Android. You can search, save things to favorites, or just spin for random selections. That’s how I came across this great poem by Mohja Kahf about cultural divides and generational experience.

I’m recording all the poems I post this month. Click the title of the poem to listen.

My Grandmother Washes her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears

My grandmother puts her feet in the sink
       of the bathroom at Sears
to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,
because she has to pray in the store or miss
the mandatory prayer time for Muslims
She does it with great poise, balancing
herself with one plump matronly arm
against the automated hot-air hand dryer,
after having removed her support knee-highs
and laid them aside, folded in thirds,
and given me her purse and her packages to hold
so she can accomplish this august ritual
and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares
Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown
as they notice what my grandmother is doing,
an affront to American porcelain,
a contamination of American Standards
by something foreign and unhygienic
requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray
They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see
a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom

My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world’s ancient irrigation systems
I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus
over painted bowls imported from China
among the best families of Aleppo
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you’d make wider washbins, anyway
My grandmother knows one culture – the right one,

as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them,
my grandmother might as well have been squatting
in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor,
Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn’t matter which,
when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.

“You can’t do that,” one of the women protests,
turning to me, “Tell her she can’t do that.”
“We wash our feet five times a day,”
my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.
“My feet are cleaner than their sink.
Worried about their sink, are they? I
should worry about my feet!”
My grandmother nudges me, “Go on, tell them.”

Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see
at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers,
all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent
in cleanliness, grooming and decorum
Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed,
is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse
For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps
that match her purse, I think in case someone
from one of the best families of Aleppo
should run into her – here, in front of the Kenmore display

I smile at the midwestern women
as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them
and shrug at my grandmother as if they
had just apologized through me
No one is fooled, but I

hold the door open for everyone
and we all emerge on the sales floor
and lose ourselves in the great common ground
of housewares on markdown.

by Mohja Kahf from Emails from Scheherazade 


And now it’s Thursday, and I’m dead tired and wracking my brain for something to say because it will not do to miss three days in a row. It’s not like they were uneventful days. Stuff happened. I went places. Things got done. Fun was had.

Still, I’m having trouble marshaling any of it into what might be called a narrative. So I’m going to fall back on a standard and relate something my niece said. Mainly because my parents really like getting to hear this stuff. Think of me as the family archivist. (Also think of me as flawed, for a number of reasons, but here because I may not have remembered her whole spiel accurately. It’s representative. The bit about the cup is right, though.)



“I want to travel with you on a train or in a cup with milk and then we fly and go down a slide and it says ‘mew, mew’ and I take Orange Kitty!”

“Please never stop talking.”


My niece has been playing little narrative games by herself for the last several weeks. It’s fascinating to listen to her structure a world and have conversations and give directions to the toys she’s playing with, or just the imaginary playmates in her head. As I stood at the printer this morning, I heard this snippet:

“I’m a big sister!”

“Whoa. You are giant.”


My grandmother passed away today – my father’s mother. I’ve written about her here before, and in the next few weeks I’ll be writing about her some more. Today all I really want to say is how fortunate I’ve been to have all of my grandparents in my life well into my adulthood. She was the last; but I had four wonderful grandparents, and I had a good long time with all of them. My relationship with each one was unique, and I’m so grateful to have had them for so long. I realized today that I have talismans from each one that are special to me – things I wear or use or keep out where I can see them. I’ve been so lucky to know them, and I’m lucky to have them still.


When my parents came to visit last September, my dad brought me a portable typewriter that Grandma wanted to get rid of. It had been a retirement gift to my great grandfather in the mid-60’s, and after his death she added it into her rotation of machines. She stopped using typewriters some time ago, but still had several in the house. This one still works well, and even arrived here with a couple of extra ribbons. I like its tidy compactness  and dark green keys. The Underwood logo fills me with delight. So far the life of this typewriter seems to be about the end of things. I’m interested to see if I can start something with it.