Never a dull moment Polly and Norman Nasif lived life of surprises

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 10, 2011

There were three wine glasses on the table, not two, and that surprised Polly Koury and probably puzzled her a bit. She and her date, a young man from Greenville, had been shown to their table at the Rainbow Club, on Highway 80 east of Vicksburg.

Soon a bottle of champagne was presented by the waiter, and then a very handsome man with a heavy accent came over, said he had sent the champagne, and introduced himself.

He was Norman Nasif.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Polly didn’t realize it then, but the three glasses were only the beginning of a lifetime of surprises, for before the year was out, she was Mrs. Nasif.

“I learned later,” she said, “that same night, he told Skitch Mitchell, who worked for him, ‘You see that girl? That’s the one I’m going to marry.’”

For Norman, it was love at first sight; for Polly, she said, “It was — kinda. I liked him.”

They had already met, briefly, for Norman had come to the United States in October 1938 and was staying with his brother in Vicksburg. Polly’s mother had taken her children over to greet him, “to pay our respects,” Polly said. Their meeting years later at the Rainbow Club was around the first of the year in 1945. Soon, he asked the beautiful Miss Koury for a date.

For nine months they dated, but it wasn’t just the two of them, for every time they went out he had to take along Polly’s sister Emma Lee and her cousin Flora Ellis.

“They were our chaperones,” she said, “but he didn’t care. When Valentine’s Day came, he had to buy three boxes of chocolates. In those days, it was almost impossible to get nylon hose,” but Norman got them by the dozen for Polly and the other two girls.

“It was me who finally suggested that we leave them at home,” Polly said.

On Sept. 2, 1945, St. George Orthodox Church was overflowing when Polly and Norman married. She was dressed in a gown identical to one worn by a famous Hollywood star, Lana Turner. Polly had gone to Dallas to choose a wedding dress. Azie Jabour was her chaperone — “Otherwise, Mother would not let me go” — for Norman went along. They viewed dresses in a private showing at Neiman’s. Norman insisted on paying for the dress, and Polly remembers that, for him, “There was no other way but Norman’s way,” but he treated her like a queen.

The weather was hot and there was no air conditioning on the day of the wedding. The church stood on a high hill, approached by steep steps, and Polly recalls that she was shaking so that she could not have made it had not her uncle given her a glass of wine, which “helped a great deal. I got through it all.”

Polly Koury Nasif was born in the family home on Clay Street 89 years ago. She attended Clay Street School and graduated from Carr Central. She grew up in the dry goods business, for her father was a merchant. She worked for him each day after school.

Just because they were married didn’t mean Norman and Polly stayed home — for they went out every Sunday and Tuesday night, just like when they were dating.

The Nasifs had four girls — Judy, Donna, Sue and Paula — and though Norman wanted a boy (“What man doesn’t?”) Polly said the girls spoiled their father, for they wouldn’t even let him go get a glass of water for himself, and, “He wouldn’t take anything for his girls.” When he gave them in marriage, “He walked tall and proud.”

Polly admits that she also spoiled him, for when he came home from work he would lie down on the couch, “and he did not have to lift a finger.”

Polly was one of the organizers and workers in the first Lebanese Dinner sponsored by St. George Church over 50 years ago. That first event, now an annual tradition, was held at the B.B. Club and included on the menu was stuffed squash — bushels of squash that she and others cored in the rear of Tannous store on Washington Street.

“Mother was a great cook,” daughter Donna Nasif Thornton said, “and, when the poker club met, they couldn’t wait to get to our house for all the Lebanese food. Daddy’s favorite was raw kibbee made with lamb. He loved to eat, and to him a sandwich was not a meal. My goal, when I cook, is to make it taste like my mama’s. If it’s not quite right, I’ll ask her what she did — tell me, did I leave something out?”

The girls had their sandwiches and Cokes when their parents went out, and Donna admits that in college she felt like she was almost sinning because she had a soft drink every day.

Growing up, the girls sometimes fought, really fought — tussling, pulling hair, hitting and scratching. Individually, they carved their initials into some of Polly’s fine furniture. She raised her daughters with a house shoe (which they called the mule) applied to their rear ends, but she said they really straightened up with, “Wait until your daddy gets home.” He was strict, very strict, and Donna described him as “fearless. He had a temper, but he never did anything to make us grieve about. My parents spoke in Arabic when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying.”

In July 1975, Norman and Polly went to Beirut. It was his first trip to his homeland in 37 years and her first visit to Lebanon. There were some surprises for Polly.

“When the plane landed and I looked out the window, I said, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ There was a mob of people — hundreds of them.” Friends and family had arrived to greet Norman. They showered Polly with bouquets of flowers, and the Nasifs were chauffeured away in the presidential limousine. Everywhere they went he was greeted by admirers, and the planned six-week visit stretched into three months.

Polly shouldn’t have been surprised. Norman had been second in command of the Lebanese underground, fighting the French occupation forces before World War II, and he had escaped capture and probable death with nothing but the clothes he was wearing when he fled to the United States. He had become a national hero, his role told in the history books.

He had told the stories, “but I thought he was exaggerating,” Polly admits.

She kept a journal during the trip, and she talked to her daughters every day. Each night there was a virtual feast and, tradionally, the Lebanese ate late at night. There’s an entry in her journal that tells how much she missed home and family: “My kingdom for a steak, or a hamburger!”

In a marriage full of surprises, she said, there was never a dull moment — “NEVER!” He picked out clothes and jewelry for her, never forgot special occasions, and it wasn’t unusual for him to hand her the keys to a new car.

Norman suffered heart problems, and his doctors advised him to make sure his business was in order. When their mother was out of the room, he told his daughters, “Treat your mother like the queen that she is.” He died Aug. 28, 1985, five days before their 40th anniversary.

Polly will be 90 in September, but that doesn’t keep her from being in the mainstream of today’s technology. She has e-mail, an iPad and reads a lot on her Kindle. Her skin is still as soft and smooth as silk, and her black hair? “It’s just in the family,” she said with a tell-tale laugh.

She has had her problems. Eleven years ago she became a breast cancer survivor, and before that, in 1996, she had a bleeding ulcer that ate through an arterial vessel. The surgery was successful, but then she had pneumonia in both lungs, then blood poisoning, and then Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome — about 95 percent of those who have it don’t survive. Despite more problems that are usually fatal, but with many prayers and the skills of doctors and nurses, Polly was in that 5 percent who live. That wasn’t all — five years later she had a heart attack.

That’s why, at the hospital, they call her “The Miracle Lady,” but Polly summed it up.

“I’m one tough cookie,” she said.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.