May 13, 2007

A Letter From My Mother

by Liz Adair

Today is Mother’s Day, and I thought I would post something my mother wrote to me over forty years ago. She was living in Afghanistan at the time. My father was there working for the Agency for International Development, and, though Mother had been assured that she would be able to work for the U.S. Government while she was there, her papers got hung up in Washington, and no job came through. However, she was offered the position of manager of the AID Staff House, a small hotel and restaurant that catered to the American contingent as well as visiting diplomats.

Mother took the job, though she had never done anything like that before. She had a staff of fifteen Afghan men working for her, and she became very involved in their lives. Below is an excerpt from one of her letters. I might explain that on mother’s first day at the Staff House, Saddrudin came to her and announced that he was her ‘system’. He meant assistant.

March 10, 1966

Dearest Children:

I have to sit right down and tell you this thing that happened before I forget just how it was. Yesterday a little boy came to the Staff House with Saddrudin (my “System”), and since I had been wanting some fertilizer for my flowerbeds, Saddrudin said, “Here is a businessman you may want to enter into a contract with for some fertilizer.” So I said, “Of course.” Well, here stood this little ragamuffin. I know he had a hundred patches on his coat. In fact, the coat was made of squares of material put together like a quilt. It was not a coat, but a toga – sort of a long shirt affair. Such a chapped little brown boy; he couldn’t have been over eight or ten years old. He had his turban wound around his head; such a little, old, man-child standing there. He would bring his burros with fertilizer, he said, two bags on each burro for seven afs a bag. He had to bring it three miles, walking behind the burros.

I said great, bring it on.

Well, this morning I could hear one of the boys saying, “Barro, barro,” which means “Go.” I went out into the breezeway, and there was this little boy putting up a very good argument. He had brought the fertilizer, and he had brought three bags on each donkey, and he wanted seven afs for each bag. Well, Saddrudin wasn’t here yet, and I couldn’t remember if it was seven afs a bag or per donkey. The gardeners came flocking around, and all the cooks, and they were all going to be darn sure that I didn’t get robbed by this formidable bandit. The big gardener with the deep voice came and spoke his piece, and since the Afghans are very excitable, you can imagine the din around his head. By the time I got out there, the poor little chap’s mouth and chin were quivering. When I spoke softly to him, he broke into tears and was just a poor little ragged boy and not a big-time contractor.

Well, you can imagine it tore me all up, and I dispatched fellas for cookies and said I didn’t care if it was too much, I would pay the price: forty-two afs for half a day’s work for this little man-child and two burros. He got up before dawn to do this bit of work, and he was a brave little guy. After we got him calmed down, I told him to go to Gertrude’s. She’s no tougher than I am, and I knew she would buy some. Then I told him to come back in two weeks and haul me some more. Probably the whole family will eat for two days on the forty afs I gave him. I slipped him a six-af tip, too. The boys didn’t see that or they would say, “That’s too much, Memsahib.”

The poverty among some of these people is a pitiful thing to look upon, especially in the children. He was a proud little boy, and after this houseboy had given him such a verbal trouncing, he’d be darned if he would take cookies from him. It was only when I told him to take them that he took them in his little grimy paw and almost squeezed them into crumbs. They were peanut butter cookies and kinda crumby anyhow.

Gotta go. Love to all...Mother

To see other excerpts and pictures, go to


  1. Liz, I loved this story. Your mother could really pitch a scene -but what I liked best was what the story was about. Why can't we hear more of these? Thank you for sharing that! Rene

  2. Liz,
    Thank you for sharing this story! I visited your Letters From Afghanistan website. I am so impressed. Good for you and your beautiful daughters!

  3. Oh my goodness,
    I don't know why I didn't get the connection sooner! My uncle worked for A.I.D. fore many years. He spent time in India, Peru, the Phillipines, Kenya, and places I don't know about. He brought home a surprise for my Aunt one day while living in India...a beautiful baby girl. After he lived in India, the family had to quit calling him Uncle Potts, because he became very health conscious and lost his belly while living there.

  4. No wonder you're so wonderful, Liz. Look what you sprung from! I've known that for some time--especially since buying her letters from Afghanistan.


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