Chafica El Khoury Badr was my mother-in-law. She died on April 7, 2022, after fighting leukemia. So, I keep thinking about why has it taken me so long to write something about her? I’ve started this post a few times but never got far. I’ve approached this as an assignment rather than something to honor her and ease my sadness. I think my subconscious has just pushed it aside. Finally, it’s 3 months later, and I think it’s time to write something down.
We’ve all experienced death (especially in the last 2 years). Still, the loss of certain people hit differently for each of us. Without question, Samer is the most important person in my life, and Chafica was the most important person in his life. Her final days were agonizing and proof that few get the end they deserve, but it did give him time to say goodbye, spend some time, and acknowledge that the end was what she wanted.
Chafica didn’t speak English, so many of the stories I know were translated by Samer. I would ask questions, he was annoyed he had to ask them, and she was annoyed to answer them. However, she liked to tell stories, so her annoyance was mainly performative, and she usually would answer my questions.
She was born into a Greek-Catholic family in the village of Saghbine, Lebanon, in 1948. Her father was Habib, and her mother was Haniney. Her mother died when she was very young. Her father was a local farmer who wore a fez. She had 8 brothers and sisters. Three died very early, and few in the family remember them. Her father owned orchards and harvested silk. When she was young, the river near her village was dammed, and Lake Qaraoun was created. She had a dog named Rex.
It’s hard to describe how clever she was any minute of the day. In the U.S., we’d likely say she had a New York wit. She was sharp with her insults, sarcastic by nature, and unwilling to be wrong. She raised 2 brilliant and successful children that she was incredibly proud of and challenged them to be better every day of their lives.
At her funeral, the priest focused on how strong of a woman she was, which is not always a promoted female quality in the middle east, but it was utterly undeniable. She was a natural leader and fiercely independent. I once asked her about dating sometime after her husband died. She responded, “I don’t need someone pestering me.” She enjoyed a whiskey cocktail, steak, and pepperoni pizza, so she and I found dining together in Philadelphia quite easily as our tastes were often aligned. (We both found the $14 roasted half carrot at Vedge comically absurd.)
Before Samer and I lived together, I remember sitting at my desk in downtown Philadelphia and getting a call from his sister. Chafica was at Burlington Coat Factory with many purchases, and her credit card was declined. Could I bail her out? I jumped on my bike and found her at the third-floor register, patiently hanging out with many bags. I swiped my card and offered to help her carry things. She declined the offer to help with the bags, said thank you, and made her way to the train.
This memory sticks out to me because of its simplicity. There was no grand gesture from Chafica, no over-the-top display of gratitude; she said thanks, and I did what was expected of me. For me, it was a moment of proof that she had already identified me as something more than a friend to her family. I did what any family member would do, help her out, and get on with my day.
It is hard to overstate what a big deal it was for her to support Samer and I’s relationship. It’s illegal to be gay in Lebanon. Discrimination against gay people is where the idiotic religious warlords can find common ground, so it speaks of her thoughtfulness and love of her son to wade through that cultural morass quicker than many.
Of course, it’s his story to tell, so I will not get into the details, but it didn’t take long for her and me to figure out our rhythm after he told her about us. Afterward, she would come to Philadelphia twice a year for about a month for shopping and vacationing. It worked because our language barrier saved us from inane small talk and preserved me from hearing the political musings of an elder.
I have a lot of memories with her that I should write down because my memory is not as good as hers, and I will slowly lose them, but one that brings a smile to my face is about lunch without Samer. One day, I was working from the house and heard a “Josh” from the first floor. I came down to discover she made us pasta bolognese for lunch. She knew I loved pasta, and bolognese is one of my favorites. It reminds me of a similar dish my grandma Dot made often. We ate, I complimented, she added salt, and we turned to our Ipads to ignore each other for the rest of the meal. Cooking was undoubtedly one of her love languages, and we were comfortable enough with one another that we could eat in absolute silence. It’s a kind and cozy memory I have with her that I do not share with anyone else, and that’s why it is so special to me.
Mothers-in-law are the punchline in some of the dumbest jokes in existence. They are dated, cliché, and rooted in the heteronormative relationships of the 1950s. Chafica El Khoury Badr was undoubtedly not a cliché, and I am incredibly grateful we met and developed a relationship. But, of course, I will miss her. Her wit, directness, and cooking were incredible, but I’ll miss most the look she’d give me at times. She’d have that glancing look of judgment when her son poured her too minuscule of a drink, or some Lebanese man was talking too much, or an American showed up underdressed. Meryl Streep and Maggie Smith have spent careers perfecting that look that wordlessly communicates entire thoughts. Still, Chafica had it perfectly from the first day I met her.
You were the best mother-in-law I could have asked for. I’ll miss you, and thank you for raising and supporting the best person I know. Chafica El Khoury Badr. ¡Presente!
Yesterday, we saw Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror at the Philadelphia Art Museum. I was excited to see this exhibit because I frankly do not love his work. I’ve never quite got it, but if I was going to appreciate it, I thought this would be the place to develop that muscle.
Whether or not I like Jasper Johns is irrelevant. He may be the most famous American artist of the 20th century, and some amateur art appreciator’s opinions are helpful to no one. Today the New York Times has a great multimedia piece called How a Gray Painting Can Break Your Heart by Jason Farago that genuinely demonstrated how powerful this work can be for the right audience.
I am not the right audience.
I just don’t care for Johns’ work, mostly because I do not quite get it. The quintessential early Johns is the piece called Flag, and I don’t care about it. Listen, I know it implicitly poses the question of “Is this a flag or a painting of a flag?” which is supposed to set off a debate within me about the lines between art and reality, but it doesn’t. When I see it, I see a flag and those are everywhere.
I want to appreciate Jasper Johns. Not out of patriotism, but every intelligent art lover seems to appreciate him. My lack of care for him is a critique of my own eye and understanding. I know I have a preference for the masters. I elevate precision and demonstration of skill over art challenging art’s own status quo, so the movement in the 20th century to reject ‘what is’ and turn art on its heads does very little for me. It always feels like it could be a smokescreen for some charlatan to earn the title of artist. It’s the same reason I don’t care for Pollock and struggle with Rothko. Maybe that is more of a reflection of my relationship to my sterility in art creation.
One gallery, Trial and Working Proofs, was my favorite space in the exhibit. There are 8 large pieces of printmaking that I thought was quite interesting. Their size and complexity gave me something to explore and compare to one another.
Did I like the exhibit? Not really, but that should not stop you from going to check it out. Seeing art in the real world is great, and you should do it. You may not love what you see, but hopefully, you’ll be near someone who does. There is nothing better than watching art reach out and touch someone.