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Jewish Journal

Age of Restoration

by Gina Nahai

June 21, 2001 | 8:00 pm

I'm two hours late for a noon invitation, my eyes itching from the unfamiliar weight of mascara so early in the day, and as I drive through town I'm rehearsing the many excuses I think I'll have to offer my host. It's a Sunday in June, and I'm about to celebrate a cousin's high school graduation.

I arrive at the house alongside an elderly Iranian couple who examine me with undisguised curiosity (Who are you and how come I've never heard of you, or at least known your parents from back home?) but who won't say a word or ask a question. I say hello and hold the door for them, and the wife seems to like this because she pats me on the back and whispers a blessing that, roughly translated, would be: "May you become young again."

I didn't realize I was old, I think, but the woman has already forgotten me and is making her way into the house.

I follow her into a living room full of flowers, food and all the little trinkets that cost too much and serve no purpose, walk through wide-open French doors overlooking a red brick terrace, and then I'm outside again, in a yard as vast and beautiful as any I've seen in this city of trophy homes. I look at dozens of young people in flowery dresses and crisp white shirts under a light so vivid it pours onto their faces like gold and lines the edges of their eyelids and the tips of their lashes.

No need to explain why I'm late, I realize. It's an Iranian party. You're not expected to be on time -- just to stay late and socialize.

I see a bright green lawn dotted with white umbrellas and round tables, the pool at the far end an unreal shade of blue, the trees around it only just starting to cast shadows. I recognize people I've known all my life -- family and friends and those others you run into everywhere without knowing who they are and what their relationship to you may be. I nod at strangers who nod politely back, embrace little girls in pale pink dresses and tiny white shoes. I walk past tables occupied by men in dark suits and women who wear too many pearls and never smile, past young girls of marrying age who carry themselves like Sheba without a horse and smile only if their mothers tell them to. I avoid the people who are busy surveying the yard with razor-like precision and speaking without diplomacy about everything that doesn't please them, and then I'm safe again, among people like myself -- ones who know they're imperfect and aren't ashamed to say it -- and suddenly delighted to be here.

All afternoon I drink hot tea brewed with cardamom brought to me by an Armenian waitress in a black-and-white uniform; Diet Coke with lime; something green and icy served by an American man in a Tahitian get-up, complete with the leather armband that I imagine would signal his readiness to die at war. I eat kosher sushi and Iranian shish kebab, beef stroganoff served with saffron rice, Arabian dates and French marzipan and yellow cherries so sweet they leave a trace on my lips I cannot erase.

I'm thinking of the time I sat at an Iranian wedding with columnist Bob Scheer and his wife, Narda, how he had looked with fascination at the scene that by now had become so familiar to me and had wondered aloud about the mysteries, the drama and banalities of the lives surrounding him. "Does anyone in this crowd ever step out of line?" he had asked.

I hope so.

I've been here two hours when I finally look across the yard and see the guest of honor -- my cousin -- sitting at a table with her friends from Harvard-Westlake. She's got long curly hair and the sweetest dimples you've ever seen, long lashes and mischievous eyes and a smile that reassures and disarms you at once. I remember the day she was born, this girl, remember when she was 3 years old and tormented her mother with her fashion sense and savvy. I remember how she lisped through the gaps in her teeth when she was 5, how she moved across the room the night of her bat mitzvah as if nothing and no one could ever faze her. I should feel old, I think. I should count the years since she was born and feel I've lost a chunk of time. But I don't.

Instead, I look at her, at her blond friends and the black-haired ones as well, and I think how well she and others like her have taken to life in America, how in the process they've also managed to infuse a bit of the old culture into this place. They're the first generation of kids born outside Iran -- the ones who are now 18 and 22, graduating high school or college. They were raised by parents who lived out of suitcases in cramped apartments all around this city, by fathers who were tense and angry over the uncertainties of life after the revolution, mothers who cried quietly into the phone as they spoke to their relatives back home. Some of them were born to wealth. Some of them have watched their parents struggle all their lives. Every last one, I suspect, has been scarred by their parents' losses.

Years ago, a young Iranian woman told me about her own experience coming to America as a teenage girl -- how she had been 10 years old and so tall for her age, but the minute she was forced into exile she had stopped growing, "shriveled up like a fruit that falls from the tree before it's ripe."

And yet they've turned out OK -- my cousin with the long black lashes who had to memorize terms like "vernal equinox" in her very white and exclusive elementary school; the others who've had to fight their way through tough public schools, work part-time jobs to supplement the family income, sustain their parents through culture shock and alienation and a sense, for many, that nothing will ever be right again. Even the little boys who used to vex the librarians at the city's public libraries by running through the halls instead of walking on tiptoes, the boys who, to this day, some see as examples of everything that is wrong with immigration -- even they have turned out OK.

It's true some of them put too much gel in their hair, pierce their ears, refuse to go into the family business. It's true some of the girls date gentiles, go away to college, demand to experience life on their own. And yes, it's also true that some of them have erred in greater, more serious ways than this, but, by and large, the children of Iranian immigrants are among the brightest, hardest-working, most promising youth this country has to boast.

They've taken their parents' pain and their own sense of confusion, and built with it an identity all their own -- a sense of belonging to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts: not Iranian, to be sure, and not quite American either, but some of what's best in both cultures. They know about friendship and loyalty, about family and duty. But they also have a sense of possibility, a horizon that is much wider, much more open than anything their parents ever knew.

And so being here today, in this yard, now full of shade with only bits of sunlight falling like coins through the leaves in the trees, being here alongside four generations of people, connected to them through blood and friendship, maybe, but also through memories, being here in this city where I once swore I would not last and which I can no longer imagine leaving, I think of what the old lady at the door had wished for me and realize what she meant -- that we live, all of us, in circles that have no beginning or end, fine traces of longing and experience that merge not in death, but in the lives of others; that time passes, it is true, but is not lost; that we get old, turn around and see our youth on the faces of children, and we know they'll put that youth to better use.

I know they'll err sometime. I know they'll step out of line. But in the end, I think, these children will make us all young again.

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