Remembrance of Things Past in Egypt

For every traveler, Egypt is a trip back to the ancient world. But for Sandra Tsing Loh it was also a journey into a more recent past — the last time she remembers her mother and father being happy together. As she and her sister explore Cairo and beyond, what they really hope to see is a vision of their childhood

by Sandra Tsing Loh
egyptian pyramids image
Photograph: Harf Zimmerman

When you grow up with a depressed mother, as i did, memories of the fleeting moments when she was happy start to take on the gossamer hues of a fairy tale. This is especially true for me because:

1. I myself am now a frenetic working mom of two tween girls, barely able to remember what I had for breakfast.

2. My mother has been gone now for—could it be?—nearly three decades. A German immigrant to Southern California, she died 17 years ago from the early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosed 10 years earlier, when she was 59. I have been without her for so long—facing alone such adult milestones as starting a career, getting married, buying a house and having children—that it seems even the existence of Gisela Loh before dementia is a bedtime story I tell myself.

3. Where my mother was happy was in Egypt.

Or so says my older sister, Tatjana, who, unlike me, remembers every detail, clearly, vividly, accurately. She is the rigorously organized keeper of everything: old family photo albums, handwritten letters tied in faded ribbon, ornate velvet pillows from our grandmother’s circa-1940s house near Frankfurt, keys to safe-deposit boxes that store incongruous objects such as our “silver collections.” That’s right; whereas at each birthday my brother received cash, at ours my sister and I received silver, from standard place settings to obscure weapons like asparagus tongs, presumably to be used as ammo for—don’t laugh, even though my daughters do—our dowries.

“Don’t you remember that first night in our villa in Maadi,” Tatjana asks me, “when Mama ran from room to room, throwing open all the doors and windows? She was so, so happy!” We’re sorting through some of our mother’s several-decades-old Egyptian souvenirs for distribution among the kids. “Never mind that we woke up the next day with 60 mosquito bites per arm,” I reply. “I have to say, even then Egypt felt like a dream.”

This was due not just to the exotic locale but also to the sudden luxury and harmony of our family life. In Southern California, our Chinese engineer father worked in the aerospace industry, and we lived in a suburban tract house. Unhappily married, my parents would stand in the cold, dark kitchen—where my dad often ate out of pots on the stove, as if he were in a lab—while they fought about money. In 1969, however, my father got a two-year teaching job at the American University in Cairo, and our family entered a life of academic gentility. Overnight we had a two-story villa just outside Cairo, with terraces and verandas spilling over with bougainvillea. We had a cook and two gardeners whose sole job it was to tend our parklike backyard, ringed by 200 rosebushes. Cairo then was an international city bustling with culture, and thanks to my mother’s command of languages (she spoke English, German and French and soon learned Arabic), our at-home tutors in the arts were prima ballerinas from the Cairo Ballet, flame-haired Russian Kirov ballet mistresses, Italian maestros. We went to school with the children of oil barons and ambassadors. There were ballet premieres and dinner parties and even the donning of tennis whites at the private Maadi Tennis Club.

“Ooh, wouldn’t it be fun to go back there?” my sister asks, waggling a hand-stitched camel from my mother’s collection. “Aren’t you curious to see Cairo again? Maybe just the two of us should go!” I laugh and say no. It can’t possibly work. Tatjana has a husband to leave behind, I’m divorced with two children, the idea is madcap, the scheduling impossible.

First published in the May 2013 issue

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