On Thanksgiving, Sayed Kashua Feels American for the First Time

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua
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An illustration showing Sayed Kashua driving his mom.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

I think that this week I felt like an American for the first time, or at least successfully faked the feeling, and with the help of one little sentence I was able to project patriotism and a sense of shared destiny with the nation in whose midst I am living: “My mother is coming to visit for Thanksgiving.” I said it to everyone, especially to those who didn’t really want to hear it; in fact, no one really wants to hear it – that much I’ve found out by now – but that didn’t stop me from even answering the Walmart saleswoman who is contractually obligated to ask, “How are you today, sir?”

“I’m really excited, ma’am, my mother is coming for Thanksgiving.”

“That’ll be $75.89, sir.”

For the visit I bought an inflatable mattress – not for my mother, heaven forbid: She’ll sleep in the children’s room, and maybe one of the boys will use the mattress. I bought a double mattress; it’s the holiday season, after all. At the checkout counter, I discovered that the mattress cost twice the price that appeared on a sign below it, with the promise of a 50-percent holiday discount.

“No, sorry,” the cashier said, “the discount must be for a different item.”

“But the price appeared right under this mattress,” I insisted, in complete contradiction to my usual behavior.

The cashier didn’t even try to hide her displeasure. Her face contorted with anger and she pressed a button that lit a flashing light above her station, summoning the manager. I was insulted to the depths of my soul. With all I’d heard about the quality of service in America, about the politeness of the sales personnel and about how America pays obeisance to the slogan that "the customer is always right" – I could only attribute her behavior to my accent. Still, I wasn’t sure how to say mizron mitnape’ah (inflatable mattress) in English. “Fine,” I said to the saleswoman without waiting for the manager, “I’ll take it.” Okay, there, let her know that just because I’m a foreigner that doesn’t mean I haven’t got money.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” she said as she handed me the receipt.

I wanted so badly to get a good night’s sleep before my mother arrived in the United States – I had a long day ahead of me, with a drive all the way to Chicago and back. I had to be fresh, I needed at least eight hours of sleep.

No way. At 4 A.M. on the day of her arrival, I was wide awake, checking the flight route from Tel Aviv to Amsterdam and from there to Chicago. The flights were on time. I hope she won’t suffer too much, that she’ll manage to get a little sleep on the flights, that they won’t hassle her too much at passport control, she with her nonexistent English and her head covering. I only hope she listened to me and didn’t bring a package of za’atar. I warned her a million times not to bring that seasoning or anything else.

My mother cried silently for a long time when she emerged into the arrivals hall of the airport.

“Stop, you’re ruining the holiday atmosphere,” I told her.

“I brought za’atar,” she said, drying her tears. “A good thing I didn’t listen to you.”

“They didn’t make any problems?”

“Nothing,” she said as we proceeded to the parking area. “They didn’t say a thing. I also brought baklawa and ma’amul, and now I’m sorry I didn’t bring cheese, too.”

“On the way out of Israel did anyone say anything to you?”

“Nothing,” she said. “Everything went fast and smoothly.”

The sky was clear. The season’s first snow, which fell on the weekend, was already disappearing. “Are you cold?”

“A lot less than what I thought I'd be from your warnings.”

“I hope it won’t snow while you’re here,” I said.

“I’ll be happy if it does,” my mother said as we started the drive home. “I want to see snow falling very much.”

I so much wanted to impress my mother. I’m already 40. My mother knows very well what I do, but even so. I felt like I used to when my parents came to the boarding school or dorms for a visit – the need to tidy up the room, hide the dirt, banish the smell of cigarettes, make the sadness disappear, project a feeling that all is well and the studies are fine, the grades good. That I don’t lack for anything.

“So how are you? How is your wife? How are the kids?”

“Everything's fine, Mom,” I replied, and a yellow warning light came on in the monstrous American vehicle. “Low air pressure,” the screen said. I drove to the next gas station and got out of the car.

“I’ll buy some water,” I told my mother, because I didn’t want to tell her there was a problem with the car. “You need to drink a lot because of the jet lag.”

I circled the car. The tires looked okay. I kicked them and they felt fine. I bought water and continued driving. It must be because of the cold, I said to myself, and hoped that the light would disappear from the screen by itself.

The radio reported that a white policeman had been indicted for firing 16 bullets into a young black man in Chicago. The video of the surveillance camera that documented the murder had made its way into the media; in Chicago people were demonstrating and blocking streets.

“If things are good for you here, that’s best,” my mother said. “The situation in Israel is really very hard; it’s unbearable. I miss you very much, but I can understand you.”

“Yes, Mom, things are very, very good for us here,” I told her, and turned down the reports on the radio, which she didn’t understand. They were now reporting saying that certain countries are against taking in refugees from the war in Syria, even orphans.

“The most important thing is the children’s future,” my mother said.

“Here,” I announced after a drive of two-and-a-half hours. “We’ve arrived.” I signaled, and left the expressway for the road into town. The noise left no doubt: One of the tires was done for. I slowed down and stopped by the side of the road at the entrance to town.

I gave my mother a smile as though this were the commonest thing in America. “Okay, there’s a small flat. Listen, I don’t want you to wait, so I’m calling you a taxi,” I said as I called Uber and was told that a driver would be there in four minutes.

“No, I’ll wait with you – what kind of taxi now?”

“Please,” I implored her, making an effort to smile. “Five minutes and you’re at the house. They’re waiting for you. You won’t have to do anything, it’s all paid for. The driver knows where to take you, it’s all in the app,” I said to my mother, who insisted on taking her suitcase. “I should come to the kids without presents?”

I had no idea where the spare tire is in this big vehicle; it’s not in the trunk. Anyway, I knew I had no chance: I’ve never been good at these sort of things, and the tire with the hole was on the left side, with traffic going by nonstop. I checked with the insurance company. They said I was covered for towing; it would take an hour to an hour and a half to get to me.

It gets dark very early this time of the year, and the temperature left me no choice but to take refuge in the car and turn on the heater. The radio reported that Donald Trump had declared that thousands of Arabs in New Jersey had celebrated when the Twin Towers came down. He insisted he’d seen it on the news, like everyone, even though the reporters made a point of saying that nothing like that had appeared in the news. His voters believe in him wholeheartedly, and the Republican candidate who’s second in the polls, Bill Carson, also believes that Trump is right: He too witnessed the Muslims celebrating in the United States on 9/11.

Oh, God, I found myself saying out loud in order to release the intracranial pressure that threatened to explode. Oh, God, I leaned with my whole body on the steering wheel. What in the blazes am I doing here? Why now, of all times? When was the last time I had a flat tire? I don’t remember it ever happening to me, I don’t remember ever changing a tire.

I looked at my watch. A mere 10 minutes had passed, though it felt like an eternity. I won’t cry now. I lowered the window a little and lit a cigarette. A vehicle appeared behind me on the roadside, warning lights flashing. The Uber driver who had taken my mother came up to the window. “Is everything alright?” I asked him, frightened.

“Yes,” he replied. “I thought maybe you needed help.”

“No,” I said, “it’s really nice of you, but”

“No ‘buts,’ man,” he said, bending down to make sure the spare tire under the SUV was in good shape. “I have a professional jack in the car. Five minutes and we’re done, man.”

The driver didn’t wait and went off to bring the equipment.

“But”

“I told you, no ‘buts,’ man. Cheer up, man, your mother came all this way to be with you on Thanksgiving.”

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