The Coat, The Hat, and I, on the right.
The little emigre
My family emigrated to the U.S. when I was twelve. It was late January, 1964, three months after Kennedy was shot. We traveled overland in Europe, visiting various relatives on the way. In Hamburg, we stayed with my Uncle Yousef, while my mother took my younger brothers and I shopping for winter clothes that, living in Shiraz, we had not needed.
For the most part, I had been obnoxiously excited about leaving Iran and returning to America. I bragged, to anyone who would listen, about how everything in America was fantastically better. About how the big, black box of a TV set, sitting, deaf, dumb and mute, in our living room, actually came to life and you could have cartoons and Zoro, all to yourself. I bragged about tall buildings made of glass and wide avenues filled with big shiny cars. I bragged and bragged and bragged. That is, until the goodbye scene at the airport. That's when reality broke through my defenses, and clinging desperately to my best friend Boogie, I fell apart. This was loss. This was nothing to brag about.
In Shiraz, when we had needed clothes, my mother would open her magic trunk, with the self-replenishing cache of fabrics, make that year's selection for us, and then trot us down to the tailor's shop. The tailor, whose bad breath was legendary, liked to get his face real close as he fussed and cooed, and stuck us with pins. The only good part of the new clothes experience in Shiraz was the "paaloodeh" shop next door.
So, I looked forward to this department store shopping expedition in Hamburg. After all, this was the "aabaadi" we had lacked in Shiraz, right? Having hundreds and thousands and millions of ready made items to choose from. Spending whole days, engaged in a frenzy of self-adornment. As it happened, that day turned into one of my more memorable public humiliations, the aftermath of which, rippled through my life for the rest of that year.
There I was, adrift amongst racks and racks of luscious colors, fabrics and styles, positively hyperventilating with excitement. I imagined myself strutting out into the world, wearing something "chic," something "vraiment chic, " full of that special female pride that needs no adjectives. Heads would turn, cars would crash, and every cute boy on the planet would be struck dumb with awe. Unbeknownst to me, while I hovered thus, drooling in a self-induced Audrey Hepburn/Coco Chanel trance, my dear mother, who insisted that her children would not grow up spoiled, was busy picking out something "practical ."
What a truly frightening concept. When you are a budding female, and desperately in need of opportunities to demonstrate it, " practical " is disturbing enough to chase that nascient vanity back into the DNA from which it emerged. Needless to say, the offending garment turned out to be brown with ugly black nubs, at least two sizes too big , with a big black collar that swallowed up my neck, and made my head look like a potato wart. On that wart, naturally, I was made to wear an even more hideous, furry black hat. And to complete this picture of humiliation, I was given a toy purse. A purse so tiny, that even a five-year-old would have had difficulty fitting in the basic essentials, so vital to the female psyche.
There was no arguing with my mother. This was it.
All the lovely dreams I had been spinning, came to a screeching halt, literally. In that great cavernous building, I threw a fit. A truly disgusting, twelve-year-old fit. And then I cried my heart out. The saleslady helping my mother, glared with teutonic disdain, and proceeded to scold me as if I were her own child. Other women stopped pawing through the racks long enough to cast a dull stare my way, then went back to their shopping with much the same grace as a cow goes back to grazing.
The real humiliation took place in my head, where all the cute boys on the planet lived. All in all, there was no consoling me that day. I sulked and brooded and planned my funeral, complete with a guilt-stricken mother promising me any coat I wanted, as long as I would come back to life. Budding female vanity has a logic all its own.
I have a picture of my brothers and I standing in the street with my Uncle Yousef. Keyvan is looking right, Cyrus is looking left, and I am looking glum. Clearly, we have been bamboozled into thinking our dreary duds are actually princely raiments. In point of fact, we look like the children of Siberia on a bad borsht day.
Miraculously, I survived. After several days, my mother made amends by offering a consolation prize: I got to pick out my very own piano. Naturally, I picked a Steinway.
From there we went on to Copenhagen . The shopping got better and my stature rose. We stayed at a very grand old hotel near the water and went shopping for furniture. I was publicly commended on my good taste, so of course, for the next ten years, I took complete responsibility for the purchases my parents made. Adding to my delight, was the Danish contingent of cute boys. My brothers, too little to really understand what was going on, followed me around the lobby like chics after their mother, while I performed agile feats of flirtation for the bellhops. Also noteworthy were the Danish breakfasts. I distinctly remember eating my fill at the table, then deftly stuffing my pockets with a tremendous quantity of really good cakes.
Finally we arrived in Chicago , where schools were already in session. Cyrus, being too young, escaped the battery of tests to which Keyvan and I were submitted by the top private school in the city. Little Keyvan, a shy and highly emotional first-grader, didn't pass all the tests. They were silly people with silly tests. Little did they know, that day, they lost a brilliant scholar. Imagine their faces when Keyvan wins the Nobel Prize. HA!
Thankfully, my parents, who were often quite smart, did not separate us. Instead, we were packed off to the inner city public school nearest the hotel we called home.
On the first day of school I arrived wearing The Coat, The Hat, plaid knee socks, a kilt, starched white shirt and blue blazer. From outer Siberia, via an English girls school. There was also something distinctly black and rubbery at the other end of my legs. GALOSHES! This is Chicago, mind you, in the sixties. It took me all of five minutes to realize, I was a geek. The girls in my class wore lipstick, shaved their legs and through their pastel blouses, I could detect, BRAS! They came to school in parkas and penny loafers. They had huge purses and hula-hoops. Boyfriends and bad language. I was unspeakably mortified.
Since, in American geography, Iran was not discovered until... oh, about 1979, nobody had a clue where I was from. It could have been Mars. My penchant for invention got the better of me, and the stories I told included not one, but several magic carpets. One for each of my father's wives. For the sixth graders of LaSalle Public School, magic carpets became a viable means of locomotion, intended for the truly discerning traveler. Mr. Ayres, our teacher, poor fellow, was of the horse-and-buggy era himself. Making sense out of the conundrum that I presented, was very taxing to his system. He sighed a lot.
That first week, it was imperative that I stand up and make a name for myself. The class bully, a giant of a girl named Ginger, spent most of her time picking on us geeks. Her favorite target at the time was the smartest kid in the class, a Chinese girl named Mai-lin. Mai-lin's problem was not just being smart, she was also tiny and very skinny. So skinny in fact, that if you turned her sideways, she disappeared. As my first heroic act in support of underdogs, I publicly announced my intention to defend Mai-lin's honor. I challenged Ginger to a fight in the alley after school.
This was brave indeed. Ginger was an acknowledged expert at squashing bugs. As the newest geek on the block, my status was roughly equivalent to that of a dung beetle. Mr. Ayres lost control of the class, as notes flew back and forth with the urgency of butterflies. Bets were placed, sides were taken. I went through the motions of being a good student, but I was actually in a state of abject terror. My biggest fear? That Ginger would knock me down and everyone would see my UNDERPANTS! God forbid, that any cute boys should witness that expanse of lily white cotton, hopping with pink bunnies. In my mind, I practiced my punches and drew up elaborate plans on how to fall with dignity.
In the end, Ginger chickened out. She came up to me after school, and with feigned indifference, said, she had no quarrel with me; she wouldn't fight. Mai-lin, was so impressed, she went on to create the now famous dish, Chinese Ginger Chicken, in honor of the occasion. In my own heart, I knew I was the victor. No one had ever stood up to Ginger before that day. Allah was merciful: I made a name for myself and the bunnies were never exposed.
Eventually spring came, and I shed The Coat. I went on to become a cool geek, and all the greaser chics wanted to be my friends. In Shiraz, I had been a dodge ball champion. In Chicago, I became a jump rope champion -- with double ropes, mind you. This was followed by a short period, where my friends and I suffered from the illusion that we were horses. They were all determined to be black stallions, preferably from the Arabian peninsula. Myself, I knew I was a palamino. Palaminos, being the golden retrievers of the horse world, smart, goodnatured, and loyal, could always be counted on to come to the rescue of small animals and children. I was also under the mistaken notion that palamino meant "my friend" in Spanish. And, as we all know, every geek needs an invisible palamino.
Suddenly, it was summer and we moved into a house in a nice white suburb and those brief, heroic days of my life came to a close. Much to my parents chagrin, I became a full-fledged teenager. Sometime after that, I became an adult.
I can't remember what happened to The Coat and The Hat. But, I still remember the feel and smell of their fabric. Fully lined and on top of a complete set of clothing, The Coat was as itchy as old Mehdi Agha's chin. This was supposedly proof of the quality of the wool. I wasn't convinced. The Hat, as disfiguring as it was, turned out to be a blessing that first winter in Chicago. Countless snow balls ended their lives flattened against it's protective armour.
Every now and then, I like to bring out the "Old Pictures" box and spend an afternoon traveling over the mounds and molehills of my childhood. I get wistful for the days when all the cute boys on the planet actually thought about ME. When my biggest problem was overcoming bra-less geekdom or getting the biggest piece of cake.
I get weepy, thinking about all the different flavors of loss, life dishes up for us. Loss of magic, loss of innocence, loss of childhood, loss of friends, home, family. A bittersweet theme that weaves itself in and out of our days, like the ribbon in a young girl' s braid. Sometimes I ask myself, if an anti-loss vaccine were invented tomorrow, would I take it? Who would I be today, without all those losses? How would I measure my happiness? Would I even be able to recognize myself?
Yes, those were good old days. Traveling the road from Smiling Obedient Child, to Thoughtful Well-Meaning Adult .With that, ever so slight, detour through the biologically-programmed cataclysm known as, The Teen Years.
Life is never simple. But if we try, it can be simply wonderful.
Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form
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