The Other Woman
The WASP nuclear family or the Iranian extended family ?
By Catherine Dehdashti
June 19, 1998
It was our second year living together and my partner, Mohammad, and I wanted to grow a garden. Making a garden plan and scanning seed catalogs became our mutual obsession. We tilled the beds for our carefully selected seeds and seedlings.
Our life together seemed promising.
Meanwhile, in far-away Iran, Mohammad's mother prepared to come to Minnesota for a long visit. I worried constantly about this "other woman." I had spent all my teenage years dying to get out from under the control of my own parents and here I was in my middle twenties about to have a live-in mother. Mohammad and I knew we were in love, but what would we do about our biggest cultural difference -- an extended versus a nuclear family structure?
The day she arrived she told me to call her Maman. She unpacked. From a king-sized white pillowcase, this petite woman pulled huge brown paper packages of garden seeds. She had seeds of tarragon, fenugreek, cilantro, parsley, green onions, five types of basil, and a cucumber variety I hadn't seen in our seed catalogs.
The problem was that the week pre-Maman we had slated a very small section for herbs and now here she was with enough seeds to fill a park. Another problem was that the garden had become a romantic endeavor between just the two of us and I didn't want to share. However, we reworked our plan and Mohammad showed his mother to her own section of tilled earth.
One morning I looked out the window to see if it was planting weather. Maman was in her floral housedress squatting down over a garden bed that was supposed to be for old-fashioned perennials. She reached into a brown paper package and a gust of tiny herb seeds landed in the freshly tilled soil. She threw out more seed gusts and moved on to another flower bed.
This short, 67-year-old Iranian matriarch who had invaded our home barely paused before crouching down in the vegetable garden and seeding most of it too.
I wondered, should I make a scene in the yard now or just till her seeds two feet under when she's not looking? I mean, this was our garden! Of course I was overreacting, but the episode seemed to confirm my fear of a fatal blow to our "normal" (nuclear-family WASP American) future.
I didn't till her seeds under, but the next day Mohammad and I did our own planting exactly as we had planned. The three of us watered and watched for signs of life everyday for the next two weeks. When we saw the first sprouts, we knew we had a thick carpet on our hands, a Persian carpet, my own mother joked. The how-to books said to thin out crowded seedlings by decapitation. Instead, we let them be.
In July and August, thickets of herb foliage complemented flowers and vegetables springing up among them. The cucumbers Maman had seeded were more sweet and tender than any I'd had and we ate them like melon. In September the basil and tarragon produced thousands of tiny iridescent flowers, turning our nighttime garden into a reflection of the starlit sky. It was a delicious, fragrant and beautiful summer that year with Maman in-residence. I grew used to sharing our home and our garden with her. The next year, when the spring flowers bloomed I wanted her to see them, but she was back home tending her own garden. I couldn't believe I missed her.
Last summer, during Maman's second long visit, Mohammad and I married at a public garden on Lake Minnetonka. Our cross-cultural and quasi-extended-family life is still a fusion of frustrations, clashes and great blessings. But when I'm not so sure about the blessings, it helps to remember that there is always room for three in a garden. It doesn't hurt to have an extra person pulling weeds either.