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Faith and Family

A Muslim woman, her Catholic grandmother and their overlapping lives

Illustration by Christopher Arnold

To me, a Memphis native, St. Louis has always embodied three things: Ted Drewes, my grandparents and differences in faith. During summer and holiday vacations, my mother often packed my siblings and me into our van and drove to her parents’ home in Webster Groves. My recollections are like most people’s childhood memories: my grandfather standing in the living room, his loose dentures and bony arms stretched wide to embrace us and plant slobbery kisses on our cheeks, his cologne rich with the scents of peppermint and tobacco; my grandmother’s dressing table adorned with oils and eyebrow pencils, her bowling trophies in the basement, her corned beef hash after Sunday Mass. I always made my way to the kitchen and opened her Black Cat cookie jar, eager to find windmill cookies or gingersnaps and take them outside to the deck, which overlooked a baseball field. Their house seemed so free, so safe and calm.

When we visited during the summer, my grandparents gave my siblings and me a taste of St. Louis. From swimming lessons at the Webster Groves YMCA to evening outings to Ted Drewes, they provided us with experiences unlike those in Memphis. We adventured to Purina Farms, the Science Center, outdoor concerts. There was always something to uncover. And during holidays, what St. Louis uncovered was family. Cousins, aunts and uncles arrived at my grandparents’ house, excited to see each other after months apart. Our stomachs ached with laughter at the strange noises my aunt made or the argument brewing between my grandparents. We’d play Scattergories for hours and watch my grandfather fall asleep in his chair. During these times St. Louis seemed to represent family so well.

And yet this familial bond was shaken each time we gathered around the dinner table. We would sit down, ready to eat, and bow our heads for grace. My grandfather would begin: “Bless us, O Lord …” I’d raise my head. This was not the prayer I was used to hearing. But my grandfather continued: “… and these your gifts, which we are about to receive from your bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” Hearing words like “Christ our Lord” at the dinner table was strange to me. Then some of my family made the sign of the cross; my parents, my siblings and I did not. It was during such times that I was reminded of the difference within our family: My extended family was Catholic; my immediate family was Muslim. We were not just separated by the four-hour drive from Memphis to St. Louis, but by two very different faiths.

My parents converted to Islam in the early ’80s and raised their five children as Muslims. Along with our parents, my siblings and I prayed Islamic prayers together, recited the Koran and went to congregational worship on Fridays at the local mosque, where my father was the imam, or leader. Our pre-meal prayers sounded like this: “With the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.” In Memphis my sisters and I wore hijab, the Muslim head covering, and attended an Islamic school that strengthened our religious identity.

Yet this Islamic space that my parents carved out in Memphis didn’t exist for me in St. Louis. My grandparents were Catholic and, naturally, didn’t know certain Islamic practices; as Catholics, they had their own. They went to Mass on Sundays and said Catholic prayers before meals. This fact became even more apparent on Sunday mornings. My grandparents would rise for Mass, slip into dress clothes, eat a light breakfast and head out the door. I would awake, crusty-eyed and hungry, only to remember that my grandparents were at church.

During the summer of my 11th birthday, my siblings and I attended our first Catholic Mass at St. Mary Magdalen. With my cousin to my left and my grandmother to my right, I attempted to sit still on the wooden pew and listen to the priest’s sermon. I wasn’t accustomed to sitting on anything but the carpeted floor during religious services in Memphis. As a Muslim, I always removed my shoes and sat cross-legged on the floor during jum’ah, Friday congregational services. Sitting in a pew for a Catholic Mass, I was on unfamiliar ground, literally. I was amazed at the stunning visuals—bronze crosses, paintings of Jesus and angels, Bibles on the backs of pews, blue-and-green stained-glass windows. These images were fascinating, and I wanted to show that despite being a Muslim, I understood by following my grandparents’ lead. I rose to sing a hymn when they rose, I read the Bible when they read, I kneeled when they kneeled. Yet there was one act I did not perform: communion. I remember watching my grandparents and cousin stand to join the line of people forming in the aisle. Communion seemed to be something I should not imitate. During this Sunday, Memphis seemed so Muslim and St. Louis so … Catholic.

I entered a new public school in Memphis years later. In this setting I was constantly reminded by others who weren’t Muslim that I was—and therefore that I was different. Peers teased me about wearing the hijab and about the sound of my name. I was never made to feel this way before. Through many tears, I found myself praying on my own. I began studying the Koran, asking my father about Islamic tenets and even giving presentations about Islam. Learning about my faith comforted me, reassured me during a time when it wasn’t cool to be different. As I entered high school and college, my faith grew. When I visited St. Louis, I found myself leaving a conversation with my aunt or grandmother to pray with my father or by myself. I would slip away, bow in prayer and then rejoin my family. Practicing my faith wasn’t difficult. It was this level of comfort with my faith and family that allowed me to appreciate visits to St. Louis even more.

Several years later, after completing graduate school, I stumbled across an ad for an English instructor at an independent school in Creve Coeur. Following my aunt’s advice, I applied and received the position. Instead of visiting during summers and holidays, I would now call St. Louis home. Rather than hunt for an apartment, I opted to live with my grandmother. Staying with her, I thought, would be just like my childhood visits. And it was in many ways. I often walked into the kitchen and grabbed a treat from the cookie jar before sitting with my grandmother on the deck and watching Little League baseball in the field below. We ate dinner together every night and took occasional trips to Ted Drewes for frozen custard. We relished each other’s company.

Yet there were moments that challenged my perception of her. I discovered things about my grandmother that I didn’t know before: her battle with diabetes and heart disease, her fear of getting Alzheimer’s like my grandfather (who had died six years earlier) and, of course, the strength of her belief in Catholicism. Living in her house, I began to notice the crosses on the walls, the picture of Pope John Paul II on her vanity mirror, the calendar with Catholic holidays like the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Holy Thursday. These things had always been in my grandmother’s house, but now they stood out and made her house appear different. But why? Was it not the same house I knew as a child? At dinner I watched my grandmother say grace and cross herself as if I had never seen her do it before. My grandmother is Catholic, I would say to myself. I had always known this as a child, but living with her as an adult, I truly started to see her faith and understand how much it mattered to her.

Coming from Memphis, I was used to spotting Baptist and Presbyterian churches on every corner. Driving through St. Louis, however, I began to notice the significant number of Catholic churches. The number astounded me so much that I decided to do some research. I discovered there are 201 Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, 121 Catholic elementary schools and 29 Catholic high schools. Memphis, on the other hand, has only 30 Catholic schools—elementary and secondary combined.  St. Louis media often covered Catholic events and decisions involving priests. Catholicism, I realized, is woven into St. Louis’ fabric. The more I learned about the city, the more I understood about my grandmother. Her faith was a key element in her life. It was embedded in the city where she raised her family. It meant something to her, the same way Islam meant something to me.

The first months of living with my grandmother offered a lesson in how to practice my own faith and live with another’s. On Sunday mornings she rose for church, and I, still in pajamas, helped cook her breakfast or fasten a brooch on the lapel of her suit jacket. I often chuckled to myself: “A Muslim readies a Catholic for Mass.” But I didn’t mind helping her, because I knew how important it was to her to attend Mass, and living together meant respecting our differences. When the Muslim holy month of fasting arrived, she always prepared food to help me start and end my days and offered directions to the local mosques. Perhaps she did this because she, as a Catholic, knew what it was like to fast and to pray. And toward the end of December, a time when many Muslims avoid any contact with Christmas-themed activities or items, I helped my grandmother prepare her tree. I hauled down the dust-covered boxes from her attic, placed the artificial branches in the trunk and strung them with neon green and red lights. It was a messy job, but I knew it made her happy, and as a family, that was all that mattered.

This year the floating Muslim holiday of Eid, like Christmas, falls in December. I will help my grandmother prepare her tree and then visit the mosque for Eid prayer. She will give me alternate directions to the mosque in case of snow, and I, buttoning my coat with one hand, will grab a windmill cookie with the other and tell her simply, “Thank you.”

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