Nena came to visit in the early to mid-nineties, around the time Kurt Cobain died. We grew up in the Valley, not just the Valley but deep in the Valley where they used to shoot John Wayne films, in a house built in the fifties. The three of us and our parents. I was the only girl, sandwiched between two brothers by almost exactly a year and a half each. We were all practically the same age anyway. The house was built on a fault, so when the earthquake hit in ’94 we needed a new house. Or to remodel, which is what we eventually did. This is when Nena, my father’s mother, was visiting from Iraq. The only time she ever visited us. We called her Nena because my dad did, even though we should have called her Bibi. My dad was working in New York at the time, so Mama was taking care of us all when the earthquake hit.
My mother was in charge of Earthquake Preparedness at our school, so we had all the things in case of an emergency down to the NASA-designed insulating mylar blankets that looked like tin foil. She seemed to know just how to handle everything. Nena, of course, was stubborn, Allah yarhamha, and she kept yelling something about this not being a big deal, that she’s been through worse! I think this was some kind of dig at my mother but I’m not sure for what exactly. It took a lot to move her to safety because she kept saying it wasn’t a big deal. My mother kept trying to convince her that there would be a series of aftershocks and Nena would remind her that she’s been through war!
I shared my room with Nena during those months she visited. Once, she asked me to clip her bra for her, and being too shy to help she yelled at me. My brothers shared the other room, down the hall. We each had our own waterbeds that were, naturally, the coolest things that could happen to children of the nineties; and, quite possibly the coolest thing to happen during an earthquake. Hasen, of course, stayed sound asleep during the entirety of the ordeal. Alowie, on the other hand, went through an entire lifetime in those moments. His bed was by the window, and he had got it into his head that the window would shatter on top of him and that, in order to save his very life, he needed to flee the scene. In simultaneous fight and flight mode, he both struggled and managed to escape the waterbed trap, unsteadily attempting to stand on the bed, wobbling around, tripping over himself in a panic. When he got to the floor, the drawers started shooting out at him, or so he says, and he had to dodge those in order to get to the door. That’s when he kept getting caught in laundry baskets and stepping on Ninja Turtles and other things that were almost exaggeratedly in his way. When the shaking and rocking stopped, he looked over at my brother, who was, of course, sound asleep; and then over at his bed, that was, actually, a perfectly safe spot, the windows having stayed entirely intact.
My mother was really irritated that her jars of pickled garlic, the ones that had been a part of the house itself, pickled for possibly decades, black from the pickling, and always present since she believed pickled garlic cured all things, all crashed down in a messy pile of glass and vinegar on the kitchen floor. Maybe my memory is an exaggeration, but it almost completely covered the entire kitchen floor. Instead of cleaning it up, she packed us all in the car and drove us to Dana Point, to the beach, where we had the keys to a friend’s summer townhouse. We all met there, Bill and his kids, too, and had this really fun week, like our Fourth of July summers, not having to go to school because the schools were badly damaged.
Of that whole time, I can’t remember much about Nena, and it was my only time with her, really.
I do remember her laughter, though. One time, my younger brother, Ali, we call him Alowie, and I were making our then ritual birthday cake for my mother. Mama’s birthday is the day after Halloween, so Alowie and I would squish all our chocolate trick-or-treat candy bars together in a giant mass of goo and then microwave it all to make one giant disaster. It was completely inedible, and, if I remember correctly, hardened by the over-microwaving. It was the Snickers bars that would burn instead of melt and I still remember that smell of trouble. And Nena would just watch us, through the whole process, calmly sitting in her chair, not saying a word, and just laughing and laughing.