My two mothers
My aunt and I continued to think of each other as mother and child
November 16, 2005
Soon after my mother was pregnant with me she promised me
to her sister, a widow with no children of her own. My mother had already
given birth to seven children; two died, five lived. When my mother was
in her second month of pregnancy, my aunt and grandmother came to
our house in Ahvaz to discuss the informal adoption. My father, a circuit
judge then, was away all the time and was not consulted. So when I was
six months old, old enough to be able to stand the arduous fourteen hour
train ride, my grandmother, carrying a bottle of my mother's milk, took
me to Tehran.
Years later, she would say to me, ''Maryam loved you from the moment she laid her eyes on you.'' My aunt took me everywhere with her, to the public baths, to the market to shop, or to visit neighbors. She was a staunchly religious Muslim, and yet, she was lenient with me. She didn't insist that I cover up when I went out as she did or even pray. At the time, under the Shah's regime, it was optional to cover one's hair; she left it to me.
Once a year, my real mother came to Tehran to visit her relatives there. But she paid me no particular attention. I called my aunt Mother and my own mother Aunt Mohtaram or nothing at all. I had met my father only once. I was afraid of him, of his rights to claim me, a fear I caught from my aunt. I lived with a sense of foreboding as you do if you know you have a lot to lose. I stayed close to my aunt, came home right after school, invited my friends to our house rather than going to theirs.
One day, when I was nine, I was playing with friends in the yard of our elementary school when I saw a man approach. It was autumn; a pale, cool sunlight shone on everything. The man was thin and short with a pockmarked face and a brush mustache. I wondered who the stranger in a suit and tie was. His face brightened as he walked over to me.
''Don't you recognize your father?'' he said. I stared at him. He took my arm and led me outside. ''You're reaching an age when you need me to watch over you. I'm taking you to Ahvaz.''
I looked back and saw my friends at the school door but, before I could say anything, my father dragged me forward. ''Does my mother know about this?''
''You mean your aunt? By the time she knows we'll be on the airplane.''
''I want my mother," I pleaded.
''We're going to your mother.'' He paused, and then said angrily, "You mean your aunt. You can see her when she comes to visit.''
''Please let me go.'' I saw a white chador with polka dot design in the distance. I screamed, ''Mother, Mother,'' but then as the woman came closer I realized she was not my aunt.
''Don't put up a fight. It won't do you any good.'' He raised his hand to hail a taxi. One stopped and he lifted me into the back seat, got in next to me, pinning my legs down.
It is all swift in my memory, getting to the airport, on the plane, and into another taxi.
''We're home,'' he announced when we entered my family's courtyard; my mother sat by a round pool. Her hair was set in a perm and she wore a shade of deep red on her lips. She got up and embraced me tentatively. Then she looked at a servant and said, ''Ali, show her to her room.''
I followed Ali up the steep stairway. He left and came back in a few moments with a bundle of clothes, a robe, slippers, a dress, some underwear, and put them on the bed. I sat there shivering, even though it must have been about ninety degrees, Ahvaz being much warmer than Tehran. I lay down on the bed with my own clothes still on. The soft springs of the bed were no comfort to me; I was used to a mattress against the hard floor. My aunt lived in an old-fashioned way; my parents, though Muslims also, were modernized.
The next morning, I was called down to have breakfast with my parents and siblings. My mother spoke of the day ahead, the shopping, the cooking, the ceaseless chores, something to be bought for this child, something else for another. I had only just arrived and yet, it seemed that I was the one she was complaining about, as if I had somehow tipped the scales, and now she had far too many children to attend to. The others, after all, had always been there. I looked to my siblings for solace. But no one let their eyes rest on me, except for my sister, Pari, who stared at me with curiosity, a look that would one day blossom into love.
Soon after I was taken away, my aunt came to Ahvaz and begged her sister to let me go back with her. I seemed to be an unbearable weight to my mother. She might have complied. But my father was adamant. So I was forced to stay with a mother who was alien to me, and continue to dream of my aunt. I saw her once or twice a year. Parting each time was unbearable, heart wrenching, for both of us. We continued to think of each other as mother and child and both felt as if I had been kidnaped.
Why did my father take me back at that particular time? From the pieces of conversation I heard, and now with the passage of time, I have cobbled together an explanation. Nine was the legal age for a girl to get married. In fact, my mother was only nine when she married my father, who was nearly 30. Not that he wanted to marry me off that young -- things had changed. But he was afraid that my aunt would marry me to someone without his consent. I was a woman in his eyes, one to be watched over. Mohtaram had been torn from her home as a child and thrust into a strange world as I had. The shock must have been worse for her than it was for me. I can understand that. But even now, I cannot address her, mother.
This piece was first published in the New York Times Magazine under the title "Bitter Homecoming" (4.14.02).
Nahid Rachlin, born in Iran, came to the United States to attend college and stayed on. She has been writing and publishing novels and short stories, in English. Among her publications are three novels, FOREIGNER (W.W. Norton), MARRIED TO A STRANGER (E.P.Dutton), THE HEART'S DESIRE (City Lights), and a collection of short stories, VEILS (City Lights). She has another novel, JUMPING OVER FIRE, in press at City Lights. She also has a memoir, PERSIAN GIRLS, in press at Tarcher/Penguin.