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JewishJournal.com

May 17, 2001

Childhood’s Sweet Sharp Imprint

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/childhoods_sweet_sharp_imprint_20010518

It is summer, a long time ago, and I am lying on a terrace overlooking an ancient garden full of rosebushes and fruit trees. The days have been so hot, the asphalt on the sidewalk melts under my feet if I dare step out of the house. At night, the temperature drops. My sisters and I take the hose to the yard and stand there as the day's heat rises out of the brick floor in a cloud of white steam. My mother spreads our bed on the terrace, and we crawl into it, hours before we can actually fall asleep. We thrash about in the cool sheets that smell of dust, summer and lavender bleach; listen to the music that drifts up from our grandmother's radio downstairs; eat fresh mulberries we have picked from the tree in our own yard.

Our mother, 16 years old when she had her first child, has already lived a lifetime by 20. She is so young that she can play with us all day without losing her patience, so old she knows a thousand tales from a thousand lives already spent.

"Tell us a story," I ask, and she does.

"There is a girl," she says, "so fair, boys follow her home from school just to get a glimpse of her on the way, so kind, she cries at the sight of poor children begging on the streets of Tehran. Her mother has to buy her shoes every week because she keeps giving them away to kids who come to school barefoot. Once, she gives her uniform to a girl who doesn't have one and walks home herself in her undershirt.

"Who is this girl?" I ask.

"My sister," she says.

"What happened to her?"

"She died of typhoid fever. Her spirit became a white butterfly and came back to visit our house every year."

The summers in Tehran are long and slow and smeared with boredom. I play cowboys and Indians in the yard with my sisters. My mother teaches me to cook rice, to embroider white handkerchiefs. My teachers have given me homework for all three months of vacation: "Copy the text and the drawings of entire books, word for word, including title and copyright pages. It's good for your penmanship," they say. "It's even better for your parents' peace of mind. "

Sometimes my parents take us to the seashore in the North. We get up in the dark, four in the morning, so we can be there by sunrise. My sisters and I haven't slept all night from excitement. We drive out of the city and into the mountains beyond. We cross passes so narrow, one false move would land the car at the bottom of a valley. We go through emerald jungles, past crystal waterfalls, across golden rice fields. On the other side, we can smell the sea.

"Tell us a story," we ask my mother in the car.

"There is a woman," she says, "so alone, she lives in a single room in the basement of a house in a town no one visits. She's not old, but she's beaten, not mute, but she won't talk. She sits in her room all day and embroiders white handkerchiefs, signing her name and a blue butterfly in the corner. She has embroidered so many handkerchiefs, her room is overrun by them, stacked floor to ceiling, wall to wall. In her youth she had been so beautiful, her father used to hide her for fear of avid suitors, so cherished, her mother braided her hair into a dozen strands, then tied each braid with a golden coin. But she fell in love with a man who wasn't a Jew, and she ran away with him, and when he became old and died, she could not go home to her own people anymore.

"What are the handkerchiefs for?" I ask.

"To dry her tears," she says, "over her sorrow for leaving her home."

In the fall, my mother sends us to school wrapped in coats and shawls and too many sweaters.

"Eat your lunch and keep your sweater on," she says every morning. "Pay attention in class and study hard. You have to go to college, get a job, have a career. A woman is nothing if she doesn't have a job. Most of all, though, remember not to take your sweater off."

Years later, in America, my son will call her "the sweater police."

"Why does Giti always make me wear sweaters?" he asks, and I find that the answer is on the tip of my tongue, embedded in my consciousness, ready to pour out.

All winter, we walk through snow piled knee-high on the streets to get to school. At home, we do homework till the late hours of the night, watch "Days of Our Lives" on television once a week, eat salami sandwiches on white bread with pickles. My father's relatives visit every week, sometimes every day. A few of them live with us year-long; a few stay for months at a time. An uncle leaves for Canada with $700 in his pockets and will become one of the richest men in the world. Another uncle sits by a brazier day and night and smokes something I am told is tobacco. My older sister listens to Barry White albums and declares she is going to live in Europe, or America, or anywhere people make that kind of music. My younger sister plays with Barbie dolls and speaks French like a native. I linger around the house, watching my mother and the people she interacts with, listening to their conversations, recording their emotions.

"I am going to send you to Europe to study," my mother declares. "You'd better get good grades and go to a good college. A woman needs higher education, independence, freedom."

I am 13 years old. I must have gotten good grades because I'm about to leave for Europe. My mother buys me a suitcase full of new clothes. She gives me a bracelet made of gold, my name carved on the plate. The day before I am to leave, her own grandmother, the famous Peacock, comes to say goodbye. She's 80 years old by her own account, 110 by others'. She walks around the streets of Tehran dressed in layers of pink and red and yellow chiffon, her head covered with a scarf, her hair dyed with henna and tied in braids. She gives advice whether you asked for it or not. She tells my mother that birth control is a sin -- especially if you are preventing the birth of a boy. She says antibiotics kill people. She says divorce is madness: "A husband," she says, "is like a crown of jewels. With it, a woman is a queen. Without it, she's nothing but a woman."

She should know, I think. She divorced her own husband a thousand years ago, refused to go back, made a life for herself selling jewels to women with husbands.

In our dining room that day, she puts her hands in her pockets and scoops out fistfuls of color.

"Look here," she says, letting a string of jewels -- diamonds and rubies and sapphires the color of the night -- roll off her hands and onto the table. "You can pick what you like."

Through the years of school in Europe and later in the United States, I carry these stories, the voices of the people who spoke them, the mystery that surrounded them, as if they were an arm's-reach away. In America, I hear different versions of the same truths. I discover facts that my mother had censored in her long-ago tales, I come to conclusions that she will neither deny nor confirm. I find humor, tragedy, drama. I even learn what the great-uncle really smoked in that pipe.

When my stories are published, my mother goes to every one of my readings and brings along her entire family. She reads all the reviews, checks the best-seller lists every week, buys copies of the book at every store in town. She gives the books to her friends, her hairdresser, her kosher butcher, the Israeli Minister of Defense. She brings them to me to autograph before she gives them away. "Write something good," she says. "Make it personal."

I am signing books by the dozen, wondering how to get personal with the butcher, what the Israeli Defense Minister will think of my tales of women who cry into tear-jars and men who balance gold coins at the tips of their male organs.

"Who's buying all these books?" a reporter asks me when the sales figures show up.

"My mother and my sisters," I say, and the woman laughs, thinking it must be a joke.

But then the dust settles, and the excitement wears off, and my mother actually begins to read this book she has a thousand copies of. She calls me daily to tell me what I got wrong, what I have neglected to mention, what I should have left out. She asks other people what they thought of the book. Everyone has an opinion, especially those who have not read it and do not intend to. They, in fact, are most convinced of what I should and should not have put in these stories, and my mother records their thoughts and repeats them to me loyally.

As if to help her along, my friends confront me and say they never knew what kinds of thoughts circled in my mind. Strangers come up to me at parties and complain that they cried reading a passage, that they were pregnant when they read the book, that crying is bad for pregnant women. American audiences come to my readings and ask me specific questions about individual Iranian neighbors and business partners -- as if being Iranian has given me a window into the mind of each and every one of my countrymen, as if we are all the same -- predictable and uniform as they have imagined us to be.

I should be writing by consensus, I think. I should take a poll before I start my next book.

This is what I want to say to my readers, what I have tried to conferee in the books: that we are all one and the same -- Iranians and Americans and everyone in between; that with a bit of luck, perhaps a bit of skill, I can tell a tale, however personal, which will resonate with readers as foreign to me and my culture as they want to be. That it will resonate with them and remind them of their own lives and bring us, neighbors and strangers alike, together.

It's spring, just before Mother's Day, and my mother has called.

"Sign one more book for the rabbi at my temple," she says. "Write something good. Make it personal. I'm coming over to pick it up."

I hang up the phone and watch my children, dressed down to their T-shirts, scramble around the house, looking for their sweaters.

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