Too sweet to be true
By White Cloud
May 6, 1998
Breathlessly blue Tehran in the thirties surrounded my life. I could have stuck up pictures of all the cobblestone streets, chenaar trees, kings and queens, and most of all, the family sitting around the dining room table before it all disappeared.
"All these moving scenes are still there today rendered more beautiful still by the waters of sorrow which have passed over them and by the rich incrustations of time," said James Joyce.
I can remember the new soft blue light in the morning when the camel caravan passed our house on Shah Reza Avenue on soft paws, with only the sound of ringing bells, as I slept on the roof under the stars lost in dreams.
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultans Turret in a Noose of Light
Awake a little bit out of the blue, I walked down to the dining room to stand in line with my three sisters Lailee, Parveen and Paree to have my mother Helen comb my hair using a bowl of water and a tortoise shell comb.
Helen was a nurse born in Weiser, Idaho on December 24, 1905. The Jeffreys family moved to Los Angeles in 1919 and after high school, Helen attended Riverside College. She went to New York City to work and met Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar at Harlem Hospital. They married 27 October 1927. Helen had blue eyes and blond hair. She started the first nursing school in Tehran when there was no electricity or running water. She loved to wear nail polish, silk stockings, chiffon dresses and hats. She hated to cook, do housekeeping or pay attention to that dull aching void in her heart. We suffered too as we gazed into the Shah's palace pool and touched the mirrored walls yearning for the love that might have been.
We laughed of course just as much as we cried for there was no stopping the wisteria on the wall or the terrible shouting and swearing that hurt us all. In 1939 the final separation and divorce.
Don't worry. Dont' worry, I would sing in old Madrid, eat sandwiches and cakes in Estoril, and even in St. Tropez catch the scent of lavender. Imagine. Too sweet to be true. But it was.
The shops on Shah Reza Avenue sold pistachio nuts in gunny sacks and we would take a handful whenever we passed. Dr. Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar had an arrangement with the shopkeeper to pay for our stolen pistachios. So salty outside and so sweet inside. The stationer sold us pencils, notebooks and bamboo pens to dip into cotton filled ink bottles of black ink for maktab. He also sold black and white pictures of American movie stars, including Dorthy Lamour, on a metal rack outside. I stole one once and hid it under a rock in the backyard. It is probably still there moulded and turned green.
I walked to my kindergarten, Bersabeh, in the early morning sunlight always in between purple shadows and white chalk as the shopkeepers would throw buckets of water on the dusty sidewalk and then sweep the dust into the street leaving a sweet scent of earth mixed with sunlight in Tehran that is still clinging to me.
On the way I passed a candy shop and would go in and buy a paper cone made by the owner and filled with tiny colored sugar candy. In the corner was a teapot covered with a teacosy embroidered with roses and a gold and white clock with a canary bird that came out of a little white house to tell the time.
Bersabeh was an old walled palace that now was my kindergarten across from the irongrill-gated Majlis. The paths were made of crushed seashells and the garden was had hundreds of pansies, butterflies, and mullberry trees full of ruby red berries. A huge pool was in the center of the garden where we would swim in the summer. Our teachers were Armenians dressed in black with white collar and cuffs. They herded us from place to place like little lambs or smoked cigarettes among the pansies and frogs.
Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
To-day of past Regrets and future Fears -
To-morrow? - Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n thousand Years
Khanom Bersabeh would stand on the second floor balcony and look down on us. Always dressed in black like a black bird watching over her flock round which we phantom feathers would come and go.
We would line up at the foot of the majestically wide stone steps made for kings and queens and sing the Shahanshahi anthem and then wait for my name, Shireen Bakhtiar, to be called to follow the ancient mysteries up to my classes.
In my sewing class we embroidered handkerchiefs with colored wilk thread pulling the needle into shapes of roses violets and knots of blue bells. I danced in the center room in the light of the sun coming through the wide windows on the polished wooden floor. I took naps in the afternoon under mosquito nets when I could not stop laughing.
I took my lunch in the garden. It was brought to us by my mother's staff in three round tins, one stacked on top of another with a handel ontop. A hot meal of rice, khoresh, bread and fruit.
When the bell rang at the end of the day I opened the wooden doors to the outside and the moving scene there in the late afaternoon. Doroshkehs drawn by horses trotting on the cobblestone streets. Whips flew as the drivers drove the horses faster. The horses would slip and fall when they went too fast or when it was raining. Their reward at the end of the day was a bag of oats slung over their heads to eat.
At home preparations for dinner at nine were already in progress. I loved to dance on the Persian carpets and listen to the music on the RCA and turn the volume up high and watch the people walking by. And then pick a rose washed with the evening dew from the wandering caravan crossing the desert in my yellow striped silken shawl, drums beating, waiting for Dr. Bakhtiar to come home.
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- Also by White Cloud