Letters linked his world to mine
Mohamed's handwritten Arabic never failed to move me when I'd open his letters.
I have scant storage space for old files, but I can't seem to part with certain records and memorabilia - enough to fill one unassailable file-cabinet drawer. After a time, I toss out old checks and bank statements, even personal letters, but my kindergarten and grammar-school grade booklets stay put among the sacrosanct keepsakes in that special drawer. They have greeted my nostalgic eye on a regular basis over several decades.
I have my high school records, too, but they are less evocative somehow, in part because ratings for "good citizenship," "health habits," and other nonacademic achievements no longer appeared in the dark-blue flourishes of a teacher's fountain pen. (Even the faintly critical "needs to improve" looks good on these cards.)
I realize now that some tangible trace of the deeply rooted happiness of my 1950s childhood lies pressed like a leaf in my old school folder - which is why I keep and reopen it now and again.
Another folder, especially poignant this last month, contains letters, drawings, and black-and- white photos of a boy called Mohamed, my "Foster Parents Plan" partner child for the 10-year span encompassing his young boyhood and adolescence in Cairo.
Mohamed was barely 7 when I wrote my first check to Foster Parents Plan in 1985; he was about the age my own son is now when he stopped corresponding in the mid-1990s. (Teenagers are like that, I now realize.) The agency had also lost touch with him and asked me to sponsor another child, but I was in a financially strapped period of my life, and could not.
I was glad for what I'd been able to share over the years with Mohamed and his family - the major events of our widely separated lives, from an earthquake to an adoption, as well as our day-to-day rhythms, interests, and hopes. Mohamed's handwritten Arabic (both exotic and deeply familiar as the tutored script of a schoolchild) never failed to move me when I'd open his letters.
After gazing for a while at his careful penmanship, I'd turn to the attached translation, typed in English. There were greetings, thanks for my last letters, and tidbits of news:
Hello, from our dearest land, Egypt ... I hope my letter finds you in good health and happiness. We are in summer, and our weather is very hot. Is your weather still cold? ... I've been to the aquarium, and we saw many colored and strange kinds of fish. I am in the second primary now ... and studying for end-year exams....
I like puzzles and I would like to be an engineer. I like to play with kites (made of paper). I like drawing and I'll send you one of my drawings.... From your letter, I know that you liked to play baseball when you were of my age. I'm promoted to the third primary....
I was glad when I received your nice letter and the enclosed beautiful photo of the baby Tim. We send you our congratulations on the new baby. He is really beautiful.... Two days ago, we celebrated our prophet Muhammad's nativity. On this day we eat sweets....
There is a market beside our house, and the costermongers sell all fresh vegetables and fruits. I like all vegetables and fruits....
A few days ago we celebrated Hegira, New Year's Day. On that day I watched a film on TV about the immigration of our prophet Muhammad from Mecca to El-Madena El-Monawara at the beginning of preaching for Islam. It was a very nice film.
In one letter he wanted to be, not an engineer, but a cop; in another, a doctor. His passions shifted from kites to soccer; his drawings became increasingly more sophisticated and finely rendered.
Today, as I pored over these letters and documents, I realized that Mohamed will be celebrating his 23rd birthday this fall. I find myself wishing that I had an address to send him a greeting. I wonder if his parents, who had been struggling with poverty and poor health during his boyhood, are faring, what his older brothers and sisters are up to now, and what he has ultimately become. Police officer? Doctor? Artist or engineer?
Before closing the folder again, I looked into the huge and darkly beautiful eyes of Mohamed at ages 7, 9, 11, and 13. He must have broken a few hearts by now; perhaps he is married and has children of his own. I cannot help pondering how the events of Sept. 11 have affected him.
My old school grades folder and my Mohamed folder are nestled side by side in the file drawer. Both recall more innocent times for me. I can never go back to the '50s, or be a child again, and none of us can turn back the clock or our psyches to Sept.10.
What I suddenly want to do is make out a new personal budget - one that somehow includes another foster child with whom to correspond. Someone who will write from his or her own "dearest land" to mine with news of fruit markets and colored fish, school, sports, and celebration days - the stuff of life connecting us all.