“Is Connie coming to dinner?” I ask my friend Mary.
“She is, but she had two other cocktail parties,” Mary responds. “And I think she’s bringing a date.”
“Maybe he’s in the running for husband number three,” Calvin, Mary’s husband, adds with a sly smile. Connie has outlived two husbands.
All of this would sound perfectly reasonable apart from one fact: Connie is 85 years old. And she lives in Connecticut, where the distances between small towns like ours are great, and the roads winding and dark. There are deer to worry about.
Connie and Calvin have been friends for 30 years, despite the 20-year age difference. Their paths cross due to shared interests and causes. Calvin is on the board of Union Theological Seminary, and Connie is the third generation of women in her family to serve on the board of the YWCA in New York City, where Calvin’s wife Mary currently serves. Calvin, Connie, and Mary don’t think twice about going to Africa or India or China on a moment’s notice if asked by their charities.
There’s a special guest at dinner that night, a 21-year-old Afghan woman named Tabasum Wolayat. Connie has championed her cause and introduced her to Calvin, who invited her to his and Mary’s weekend house. Tabasum just graduated from Middlebury College and is soon going to Oxford to continue her work in women’s studies and anthropology.
I try not to zero in on Tabasum and bombard her with questions, as I tend to do, according to my daughter and many others.
“I’m just curious, Lili,” I always tell my daughter. “I’m interested in the lives of others.”
But Lili is not at this dinner party tonight. She is in her freshman year of college, leaving me a widow and an empty-nester, a double whammy. This is my first social outing without Lili, and everyone is aware of this. I am treated with special care tonight.
Of course I cannot help myself; I have to tell Tabasum about Lili.
“Look,” I announce. “There’s Lili’s graduation photo of the fridge.”
“This is your daughter?” Tabasum asks, not quite understanding.
“Yes,” I say, adding, “my late husband Gregory and I went to China and adopted her,” as a way of explaining her appearance.
Lili is darkly beautiful, with glowing brown eyes and smooth skin. She could be a sister to Tabasum, and in a sense, she is: both were born into cultures with long histories of denigrating and even torturing and killing women.
“How old was she when you adopted her?” Tabasum wants to know.
“Almost a year,” I said. “She was found outside a police station when she was just a few days old. It was December and freezing cold.”
“But who left her there?” she asked.
“We will never know,” I say, “because it’s a crime in China to abandon a baby, even a girl.”
“And where is Lili tonight?”
“In college in Ithaca,” I say. “How did you choose Middlebury?” I ask, steering the conversation away from Lili.
“I found out about it on the internet,” Tabasum explains. “I knew of an Afghan woman who went to Mt. Holyoke College. So I applied to five colleges in the same area, New England, all small. Middlebury offered me a full scholarship and welcomed me in such a wonderful way. I loved Middlebury College.”
Within a half hour, I have all the information I set out to obtain, without being too intrusive, I hope.
Tabasum is a member of a tiny minority tribe from the northern part of her country. She grew up in a middle-class home in Kabul and attended a local school where she was tormented by her Pashtun classmates because of her minority status. Yet she persevered, determined to attend college. When she arrived at Middlebury, she spoke little English and had never been outside of Afghanistan. She realized that she enjoyed women’s studies and decided this would be her major. She dreamed of going to Oxford for her doctorate, and now, she was on her way there.
The other guests now move in on Tabasum, fascinated by her life story. She handles the attention without embarrassment; she is the most poised young woman I have ever met. Here she is, I think, at a dinner party in Connecticut with almost 20 people she’s never met!
The next day, we all want to talk about Tabasum.
“What I want to know,” David, the father of three sons, says, “is where she got the drive.”
“I know,” Scott replied. “What makes some people able to beat all the odds?”
How ironic, I think, that it is the men who want to know this; the women, all survivors of life’s tragedies, know the answer.
A few days later, an email pops up in my in box with the name Tabasum Wolayat. Who? I have never been good with names. It says:
It was a pleasure meeting you in Calvin and Mary’s house. I enjoyed chatting with you very much! I would like to invite you for a Fundraiser Dinner I am organizing to raise $$ for the project my friends and I are running in Kabul, Afghanistan. Young Women for Change (youngwomenforchange.org ) has recently opened a women-only Internet café in Kabul. Your donations will help us open more women-only Internet cafés in Afghanistan to create a harassment-free environment for women to network and discuss challenges they face. For more information please see the attachment; feel free to share this email with other friends. I look forward to welcoming you!