Friday, December 18, 2020

Tribute to my Teacher

Christmas season, coffee mugs, and loss . . . again

It’s crisp cold on this mid-December morning of 2020, and coffee mugs are on my mind once more. My father—biological father, that is—was born on Christmas Day. My family is of the Muslim faith, and we always respected, and sometimes, joined our Christian friends’ celebrations of the blessed day. But in my house, we held a special event to mark my father’s birthday. 

It has been six years since he passed away. I still cling to his favorite coffee mug, the one with a native American motif. I stopped using it the day he died, but when times are tough for me, I seek it out, unwrap the protective newspaper sheets, and caress its fading designs. Loving memories flood my brain, tender feelings drench my system until I become whole, at peace. Then I tuck the mug back into its box. I don’t drink from it, of course, ever thoughtful I might chip or break it, as nothing materialistic in the world lasts as long as we wish it to, but I want to stretch the existence of my father’s mug in my life as long as possible.

There’s a saying by Prophet Mohammad which goes somewhat like this:

After a person dies, everything he or she worked to accomplish is cut off from the world, but only three acts continue to live on: a son or daughter praying for their soul, a perpetual charitable act which positively impacts people, and a useful education to benefit others.

My father lives on, through me and my brother, through the many people he helped in his life, through books he authored about education and instruction, and through an entire generation he helped shape as a school teacher and a university professor. Sometimes, I take a measure of comfort in knowing that.

Roger Paulding
And now, this year, the year of Covid-19, I have another mug to cherish and try to preserve. A mug collection, that is. It came to me from my writing mentor, Roger Paulding, who was an avid collector of coffee mugs brought to him from different parts of the world. I had gifted him a couple from my travels. Two years ago, when he prepared to leave his house and move into a nursing home, he asked me to take his special collection—wanted to see it go to a good home, as he had phrased it—not sold in bits to strangers at a garage sale where some of his possessions ended up. So, I offered to purchase the entire collection. Eighty-two cups, six pieces shy of his age at the time. Wrapped and stored in a box, I kept them protected and untouched since then. I visited Roger many times in his new place—I refuse to call it his home—as he never expressed that he considered the nursing facility as such. I would inform him of my writing journey progress, the path he had helped launch me onto, and he would tell me of bad lunches and rambling neighbors. When Covid-19 hit and nursing homes closed for visitors, I lost touch with Roger. All my attempts to call and hear his voice failed. A couple of attendants told me to call at certain times, which I did, only to be told they couldn’t take the land line phone into his room. I wrote him a letter to let him know I was thinking of him. I don’t know if he read it or even received it. I never got a response back.

Roger passed away on December 11. He died alone, away from family, friends, and all those writers who are indebted to him for his pointedly honest critique. 

So, on this crisp, cold morning, what do I do? I take out the box titled “Roger’s Mugs” and I go through the collection to pick out a cup to have within reach when I need to summon fond recollections. There’s the one with BERLIN etched in blue letters, then the one with red BRITAIN, the one with black TOKYO, the coconut shell one from HAWAII, and so on. I keep unwrapping until I reach a mug with brown JERUSALEM letters, and I’m thinking, this is the one.

Roger did not sire children, but he was a writing coach and teacher. He established the writers’ scene in Houston, the largest city in Texas and in the southern US, and the fourth most populous city in the nation. He mentored scores of writers over the years and paved their paths to successful careers. I am but one of them.

I don’t know of Roger’s faith, professed or otherwise kept personal, and I am no judge of his choices in life. He used to introduce me as his friend, though he was old enough to be my grandfather. Friend, that is a heavy word. I hope I was a good friend to him, as he was an excellent teacher to me.

The Prince of Poets in Arabic literature, Ahmad Shawqi once wrote in one of his poems:

Stand for the teacher, give your full respect
For the teacher’s rank is close to a prophet

I will take good care of your mugs, my dear friend, and I will always stand for your memory, my treasured teacher.

Lilas Taha is a novelist, winner of the 2019 Best Books Award in the Inspirational category for her novel Lost in Thyme and the winner of the 2017 International Book Awards in the Multicultural Fiction category for her novel Bitter Almonds. She is also the author of Shadows of Damascus

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