July 5, 2011
Gina Nahai: What Remains
We were exchanging “memorable aunt” stories, and my friend, who’s a trial attorney, had a clear lead over all the rest of us. In part, that’s because she’s a comedic actor who missed her calling and became a trial attorney instead, so she wasn’t just narrating, but also performing the part of her favorite aunt. But even without the advantage in delivery, my friend’s aunt had a genuine edge over everyone else’s — which is saying a lot, given that these were some phenomenal characters we were talking about. You couldn’t dream them up or forget them easily or help thinking what a shame it was that they all lived and died without being memorialized in some grand, black and white, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up” film.
There was, for example, the homely young girl with the bad stutter and crossed eyes who, tired of being laughed at and told she’d never find a husband, sent her brothers out to grab some unsuspecting young man off the street and bring him home to what turned out to be his wedding. He was sitting in a theater on a Friday afternoon, watching a movie, when the brothers went in and “invited” him to follow them. They had picked him out of the crowd of moviegoers because he had blue eyes, but then they discovered that he had the added advantage of not understanding a word of Persian: He was a Pole, hiding in Iran during World War II. At the entrance to the house where the brothers had taken him, he found himself surrounded by a few hundred cheering, ululating women who tossed sugared almonds at him while a complete stranger in a white wedding gown threw herself into his arms and pledged eternal love. By the time he figured out what had happened to him, he had been married 60 years and raised five blue-eyed sons with his not-so-pretty wife.
And there was the tall, robust woman with great ambition and little conscience who kept marrying rich men, then “losing” them in freak poisoning accidents. Around Tehran when I was growing up, she was known as the Black Widow, knew it, and didn’t mind at all.
And then there was my lawyer friend’s great-aunt, now long dead, who started out smart and educated and very beautiful, married a rich, good-looking man, bore three ravishing daughters, and promptly lost her mind. She had moved with her husband to Hamburg, Germany, and there she lived until the very end, even after he died and the daughters moved away. She had a little apartment with a spare bedroom that contained her deceased husband’s bed, clothes and personal belongings, and that she kept sealed year-round, opened only when a very important guest came to visit and then, just to give a short, “don’t touch anything” tour. She wore red dresses and red hats at home, spoke in librettos and sang opera at dinner. Every Shabbat, she bought a raw chicken from the corner butcher shop, stuck a fork in it, and held it over the flame of her gas stove until it was charred on the outside and still bleeding inside — her idea of good, wholesome, home-cooking.
Now I don’t know if it’s just me, or if most people revel in the notion of such extraordinary creatures existing within the folds and wrinkles of our ordinary lives. I realize, of course, that what we hear or remember of them — the surprise wedding, the serendipitous arsenic, the red dress and red hat and the fork stuck in the raw chicken — is a sliver of an otherwise epic, multifaceted tale. It’s not fair, not something any of us would wish for ourselves — for everything we have ever done or felt or wished to be reduced to a single story, and for that story to become our legacy. And yet, it’s also true that without those odd, perhaps even misperceived, traits, without those radical deviations from the customary, there wouldn’t be much to remember any of us by.
What would Queen Vashti be but another forgotten wife if she hadn’t been crazy enough to say no to the king? Did she know, when she did it, that that’s what the world would remember her for? And if she did, would she still have said no?
Maybe it’s wishful thinking — that I’ll be remembered at all — but I’ve always wondered which crazy, off-the-wall act will end up defining me to my grandchildren. My husband worries that it will be my habit of writing in my car when I have two offices — one at home and another at work — plus a house that’s pretty empty these days, in which to write. My kids think it’s my tendency to love my iPad the way normal people love their pets. I wouldn’t mind either one of those; I’m sure it could be worse. But these days, having reached midlife and then some, I find that the question has taken on a much greater weight: If there was one moment that, if witnessed by others, would become my story, one choice that came with a stamp this will be what your children will remember you for, would I dare commit it at all? Would I do as I would have done if I believed I was invisible? Would I know how to choose between what remains — a name, a memory, a sketch of a woman’s unflinching wrist as she flicks a drop of poison into her unsuspecting husband’s glass — and what I hope to gain in the moment?
I’ll never know what the inner lives of any of my friends’ and my own eccentric aunts and uncles and close and distant friends really were like. I’m willing to allow for the possibility that the surprise bride didn’t, in fact, have a happy marriage, and that the Black Widow of Tehran’s high society enjoyed every one of her ill-gotten rials. I would like to believe that, given the choice, I would opt for the difficult life and the gleaming legacy over the good life and the dark, damning story. I would like to, yes; but I hope I’ll never be given that notice, never see the stamp on the back of the little step, the quiet word, the otherwise ordinary moment in a very ordinary day.