I’m the first on the minibus, so I settle into one of the coveted single seats, placing the bag with the still-warm stew on the floor between my feet. It’s hot for January, and I take off my coat and slide open the window, letting in a breath of fresh air. People begin to climb on board. An older woman with a suitcase comes on, and as I help her maneuver it down the narrow aisle, I see a bug scurry past. I briefly consider getting off the bus and waiting for the next one, but I’m running late, and my grandmother is waiting for me. I lift up the bag with the stew and place it on my lap.
I’m sitting up front, so I become the person everyone passes the cash to. That’s the thing about these minibuses- they sit ten to twelve, and once the driver hits the pedal, it becomes like a small kibbutz, people passing coins and haggling for stops and offering advice and directions.
I look out the window. The drive to my grandmother’s apartment in Netanya takes a little under an hour; it’s mostly highway, and the bus stops and starts with the traffic. There’s a part of the drive where the cityscape thins out and you can see straight out to the ocean; it’s short, and if you’re distracted by your phone or the goings-on of the traveling kibbutz you might miss it. But I stay on the alert, and when it arrives I look out, and allow the sand bluffs and the rolling, silky blue to soothe the memories of my hectic morning, and the walk to the station amidst so much noise, and so much garbage, and that man who tumbled off his bike straight into a puddle of sewage water, and I was there at just the right moment, helping him get back on his feet, and offering him the clutch of tissues I had stashed in my bag, as an afterthought, just before leaving my apartment.
I can feel the warmth from the stew on my lap, and I move it around a bit, adjusting. I remember thumbing through an issue of Bon Appetit in Brooklyn (has it been a year ago already?), and lingering on a Lebanese-inspired chickpea stew tucked into the Quick Recipes section. When I finally made it, it was on another continent. I had chicken and a rather bare pantry and not much time before I had to head out, and I remembered this recipe, and a few clicks later, I set about making it, hoping my grandmother would like it.
The minibus screeches to a stop in front of a sprawling green park, and I climb out. The sky is overcast and grey, and I pull my coat around me. I enter the lobby of the old age home, and find my grandmother sitting in a corner, wearing a cream suit, her glossy white hair carefully brushed back, her manicured hands firmly clasping the purse in her lap. She’s wearing a thick coat of pink lipstick and she purses her lips at me.
She says: “Is there anyone else with you?”
We take the elevator up to her apartment. It’s filled with light, and my mother’s paintings are on the walls: a huge painting of a rural scene in Tunisia with large branches of mimosa in the foreground hangs above the white living room couch; a turbaned man with a tanned and weathered face twirls a wand of jasmine by the entrance.
She’s already eaten, so I place the stew in the fridge. I turn on the coffee machine, and make espressos. I ask how many of the tiny granules of sugar substitutes she would like, and she says four or five or six with a smile in her eyes, and we both laugh.
We talk. Her memory is like a sieve, and the things she remembers or forgets take me by surprise.
She takes my hand. “So it didn’t work out with that man, did it?”
I’m not sure what she’s referring to. I never spoke to her about my divorce, and in the times I’ve seen her since, she hasn’t mentioned it, hasn’t asked about him.
“My husband?” I ask.
“No, it didn’t.”
My hand is still in hers and she covers it gently with her second hand.
“It’s ok,” I say. “Sometimes these things don’t work out. I’m ok, don’t worry.”
“I know,” she says. “I know.”
She says: “The little sparrows have wings and they fly.”
“What sparrows?” I ask. “Where? In Tunisia? When you were young?”
She says: “There are so many sparrows, they have wings, they fly.”
“Did you have a sparrow growing up?” I ask. She looks at me, her eyes searching, then blank.
She tells me stories, and some of the links are missing, the relationships inverted, but the words flow and her eyes shine brightly. And then, there are moments when she searches for a word, stutters. She lowers her eyes in embarrassment, and I take her hand. “It’s ok,” I say. “It doesn’t matter.”
I want to take her into my arms.
She says: “They told me he died at sea. I didn’t ask enough questions.”
She says: “How is your grandmother doing?”
“Mireille?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “The other one.”
I tell her she’s the only other one.
“No,” she says, searching. “There’s another one.”
“Who?” I ask.
She pauses, hesitates. Then: “Mamie Hiquette,” she says, triumphant.
Do I explain that that’s my great grandmother? Do I tell her she died before I was born?
“Where is she?” She asks.
My heart breaks.
She says: “The little sparrows. So many little sparrows.”
I lean over and kiss her cheek and she smiles.
She’s still clutching her purse in her lap, her fingers playing with the straps.
She says: “Everything I have is in here. It’s important that I don’t lose it.”
She fingers the straps with her manicured nails. She looks at me, her eyes glazed with fear, her lips stretched into a tight line. I take the purse from her gently, and place it on the table. “It’s ok,” I say. “No one is going to take it.” She tenses up. I hold her hands and she relaxes. She looks down at her hands in mine.
She says: “Look at your hands. You’re so young.”
She caresses my hands slowly, with her long, delicate fingers. The skin on her hands is stretched thin and there are tiny spots where it has cracked.
I walk outside, my heart heavy. In the back of the building there’s a large park and I cut across it to take the minibus back home. That’s when I see them: dozens of little sparrows on the lawn. As I walk past, they lift up and fly.
Lebanese-Style Chickpea Stew
Active: 25 minutes // Total: 45 minutes
4 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 bay leaves
2 15-ounce (425 grams) cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup chopped drained roasted red peppers from a jar
2 tablespoons (or more) fresh lemon juice
coarsely chopped parsley, to garnish
Coat a medium pot with olive oil, and place over medium-high heat. Season chicken with salt, and add it to the pot. Cook the chicken until browned, turning once, about 8–10 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
Reduce heat to low and allow the oil to cool for a minute; then add garlic and cook, stirring often, until fragrant, 30–60 seconds. Add cumin, tomato paste, and red pepper flakes, and stir for a minute, until a smooth paste forms. Add reserved chicken with any accumulated juices, along with bay leaves and 4 cups water. Scrape up any browned bits. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until chicken is tender, about 20 minutes.
Transfer chicken to a plate. Add chickpeas to the pot, bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, shred the chicken, then add it to the stew, along with the red peppers, lemon juice, and a drizzle of olive oil, and allow to simmer for a minute. Taste and adjust seasonings (more salt? more lemon juice?). Serve, garnished with parsley.
Note: Freezes well.