Living through Letters – the Last Days of Bim Nakely

Thursday, September 3, 2020
Opinion By Jean AbiNader

I don’t have much time for casual reading. Keeping up with US foreign and domestic policy issues that affect my work takes hours every day so when I take a break, I really want to enjoy what I’m reading or viewing. So it was a great pleasure to hear from an old friend, Sam Hazo, a doyen of Lebanese-American literati, that his latest book had been published and he sent me a copy. It is loosely based on his musings about letters that might have been written by an elderly Lebanese woman in the US knowing that she would die in several months.

His own family immigrated to the US from a small village near Saida in the early 1900s. Patterned after a great aunt who was a fixture in his growing up, it offers letters written by Bim (Barbara) Nakely to her sister Lottie (Charlotte), as well as to FDR, Mae West, Rita Hayworth, Charlie Chaplin, and others, many of whom have already passed away. She felt that she had something to say to them, and want to share her thoughts about life before hers ended.

Her letters are a way of capturing the values and concerns of someone transplanted to a new land and life, who lived in a circumscribed world expanded by her readings and movies. For example, when she writes to FDR, she recounts how President Theodore Roosevelt intervened to save her and Lottie from being sent back to Lebanon from Ellis Island because they had eye infections. A story quite similar to my own mother’s family except there was no presidential reprieve!

The book’s title, “If Nobody Calls, I’m Not Home,” is a classic Arab formulation. Loath to talk about death directly, she calls death “Nobody,” which I have found a common practice to reference death by another name among older generations throughout the region. The book is a series of letters, no commentary, no introduction. The letters provide the milieu for her life, expectations, reminisces, experiences, and final wishes. They are easily digestible, and at 143 pages, it’s a summer’s gift, a book club classic, and an all-around great read.

In a conversation with me, Sam said that her character was based on his aunt: courageous, independent, who didn’t know the meaning of defeat. In the book, her sister Lottie dies at a young age and leaves her two boys to Bim’s care who raises the boys and, as a consequence, has no life of her own outside of her family. The letters let us see her candor and admiration for icons of the 20th century. Bim’s attitudes and opinions certainly resonate with those of us who have older immigrant relatives. One difference I appreciated was the strength that came through, even though she lived her life for others, again reminding me of my mother – devoted to her extended family, misused by her elders as a child, and rooted deeply in values that she found lacking in her children to the very end!

Here are some selections.

To Mae West. “You were always Mae West, and if others didn’t like it, that was too bad. That’s something special, especially in a woman. I know so many women who change the way they really are depending on the people they’re with. With men they’re all flirty, and you know the rest…I’m not a great believer in all this business about men and women being the same. Equal is all right, but not the same.”

To Babe Ruth. “Sometimes when I look at flowers in bloom, I feel like I’m going to cry. I can’t explain it, but I just start crying. You were no flower Babe, but you lived the way flowers live. You were always yourself, and you stood out because you were never competing with anybody else. You just went and did your thing, and it was good enough to make everybody take notice. That’s not much different from what flowers do, is it?”

To Charlie Chaplin. “A lot of people who didn’t know a word of English came to the Nickelodeon and really enjoyed themselves just watching you. There was nothing to translate. Isn’t that something? In those days, there was every kind of nationality up on the Hill and all over Pittsburgh – Polish, Germans, Italians, Syrians, Jews, Slovaks, Irish, and a lot of Slavs. Except for the Irish none of the others could speak English that good, but it didn’t matter. They all spoke Charlie Chaplin.”

Enjoy the read. You can order the book on Amazon.

Or directly from the publisher Wiseblood Books, which offers discounts on multiple orders.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.