Finding its way into the corners
and secret compartments of my grandmother’s suitcase
July 13, 2005
Long after my last Halloween costume had been donated
to Goodwill, my grandmother still went trick-or-treating on Halloween
night. When I was growing up in a small Northern California town
in the seventies and eighties, she used to come from Iran to stay
with us for months and sometimes years at a time, and if her visit
coincided with Halloween, you could be sure she’d set out
after sunset shrouded in same the flower-print chador she usually
kept folded away in the guest room for her daily prayers.
Four-feet-eight-inches tall, swaths of fabric trailing behind
her, she disappeared easily into the packs of neighborhood children.
Before ringing each doorbell she would draw the veil around her
face, leaving only a small opening for her nose. My grandmother
spoke no English, which on this particular night proved a great
advantage; from under many folds of fabric she’d croak out “Treeeek
Treeeek” and present her plastic sack to the unwitting host.
Trick or treat indeed.
Eventually she grew savvier, enlisting my mother to drive her
out to neighborhoods far beyond our own. While I stayed home, sprawled
out on the couch watching whatever grisly movie happened to be
playing on TV that night, my mother would be out trailing my grandmother
in our yellow Cadillac convertible as she made her Halloween rounds.
Later I might duck into her room to say goodnight and find her
spreading out the evening’s plunder on her bed, inspecting
each piece of candy with her reading glasses balanced at the tip
of her nose, the occasional chuckle warming the soft features of
her face. She could be easily cajoled into sharing a miniature
Baby Ruth or Almond Joy with me, and we’d sit side by side
on the bed chewing our candies. By the next day the rest of the
candy disappeared into the recesses of her suitcase, and within
a few days I would forget all about my grandmother’s Halloween
Every time she came to visit, my grandmother arrived with the
same weathered leather suitcase smelling of mothballs and some
other scent I could never place, but that for me was the essence
of the afternoons I had spent with her as a small child in Iran,
playing for hours on her bed while she told me stories and played
clever magic tricks to make me giggle. When she came to America,
her suitcase would arrive already stuffed full with ruffled silk
blouses, knock-off Chanel suits, and pantyhose mended many times
over at each toe. As soon she got in from the airport, she would
unpack a sweater, two or three prim little house frocks, and a
pair of rubber house slippers. Her fancier outfits would appear
only on nights when my parents’ friends came to dinner, spending
the rest of their stay in America in the same suitcase in which
they had arrived.
America for her was a very small place, much smaller than her
life in Iran. She did not speak English, she did not know how to
drive, and she did not know anyone here whom she could call on
the telephone. She spent all her days alone in the house, cooking
and puttering about, endlessly arranging and rearranging the contents
of her suitcase, then tucking her toes under her in an armchair
to watch “Days of Our Lives” until I came home in the
It must have been the loneliness and isolation of her days that
made Halloween such fun for her. On Halloween she could prowl streets
fearlessly, re-enacting the games she played with her eight siblings
in the alleyways near her childhood home in Tehran, her sense of
mischief undiminished by the losses and hardships of her life.
Americans, of whom she was always shy and more than a little frightened,
would suddenly become playmates in her game, and their cheerfulness
and generosity on these nights truly delighted her.
The Halloween candy would, of course, find its way into the corners
and secret compartments of my grandmother’s suitcase. During
the course of her visits this suitcase would inexplicably expand
to accommodate not only several more piles of girdles, sequined
party dresses, and coats with matted synthetic fur collars, but
also huge stashes of toothpaste, razors, dish soap, shampoo, and
every department store makeup sample she managed to fish out from
the cabinet under my mother’s bathroom sink. The candies
would take their place among all this, and much more.
After a few months in America her suitcase would grow so fat
that it would not close with ease. Often she and my mom would spend
the day of my grandmother’s departure taking turns sitting
on that suitcase in an effort to force its metal clasps shut. This
ritual could go on for hours and it became the scene of their most
tearful exchanges, inspiring ceaseless installments of the drama
that coursed through their relationship for decades: Why did my
grandmother not sell her flat in Tehran and come to live with us
My grandmother had been living without a husband since her twenties.
Her two children had left Iran years ago, my uncle for Germany
and my mother for America. Every time she left, she promised she
was returning to Iran for the last time, that she would only stay
there long enough to sell her flat. The ritual of the suitcase
became my mother and grandmother’s way of talking about Iran,
but also about so much else that otherwise went unspoken between
“Why are you dragging all this back again?” my mother
would start, bearing down on one corner of the suitcase while snatching
vainly at its clasps. “I just don’t understand you.
There’s nothing left there, don’t you see?”
“You don’t know anything about it,” my grandmother
“And what are you going to do when you get really old?
And what am I supposed to do then?”
My grandmother was a quiet woman, always quick to head off an
argument and guide others into uneasy reconciliation because it
made her so anxious to have others around her argue, but on these
occasions my mother could work her into a quivering rage. She’d
draw herself up, place her hands on her hips, and a sudden ferocity
would enliven her honey-colored eyes. “What did I do all
through the Revolution? What did I do through the war?”
Sometimes these arguments reached such a pitch that they spent
the entire ride to the airport bickering and, in the most serious
instances, swearing they would not even say goodbye to each other.
When the time came to check her suitcase, my grandmother always
had a brilliant tactic for evading the exorbitant fees charged
by the airline for heavy luggage. If the attendant was a man, she
would bat her eyelashes like a coquette and smile the smile of
a schoolgirl. If it was a woman, she’d shrink herself into
the pitiful posture of an invalid. Needless to say, she was difficult
to resist in either case, and her record in evading the fees was
But one year she and my mother arrived at the airport after a
particularly tempestuous exchange. My grandmother hauled her suitcase
onto the scale by herself and then looked up hopefully at the young
“Thirty pounds over,” he said, shaking his head
“What did he say?” my grandmother asked me.
“He says the suitcase is too heavy,” I translated.
Even I could tell that this man would not be won by her usual
“I’m not paying it,” said my mother. “I’ve
had it with that suitcase and all the junk you keep dragging around.” Then
she walked away, leaving the two of us to deal with the attendant.
He looked weary with the experience of dealing with our kind day
My grandmother reached into the depths of her scuffed handbag
and pulled out two immaculately crisp hundred dollar bills. Who
knows how long she had held onto those bills and what purpose she
had intended for them? This would have been enough money to buy
half a year’s groceries back in Iran. Nothing in her suitcase
was worth that much, but she slid the bills onto the counter without
That was one of the years my mother and grandmother did not say
goodbye to each other.
“Please, please, please take me with you,” I wailed
once when I was six years old, clutching at her skirts in the departure
gate at San Francisco International Airport. “You could put
me in your suitcase, and no one would ever know!” Our separations
were still new to me then, but in time I grew old enough to recognize
the silliness of my plea and it became a joke between us. “I’d
tuck you into my suitcase, but see how you’ve grown!” my
grandmother would exclaim. Then, pinching my sides, she’d
cry, “Now that I’ve finally decided to put you in there
you will never fit!”
Years later we would hear of an Iranian man who had done just
this to smuggle his fiancé into the United States. He had
taken the precaution of punching small holes through the fabric
of his suitcase, but when he opened the suitcase in America his
fiance was dead. We were not entirely sure of the story’s
truth, but even so, from then on we could no longer tell our old
joke. Anyway it was not much long afterwards that my grandmother
grew ill and it became extremely difficult for Iranians to get
visas for America.
For years now I have imagined those Halloween candies nestled
deep in the cupboards of my grandmother’s kitchen back in
Tehran, waiting to be doled out in tiny increments to this grand-niece
and that neighbor’s child as the years went on. And lately
I have been thinking about the candies that made round-trip voyages
between Iran and America, changing planes both ways in Frankfurt
or Amsterdam and even sometimes touching ground in Istanbul or
Dubai as well.
Some years she would arrive months after Halloween,
so she’d already have missed her opportunity to gather a
fresh supply of candies. We’d be sitting together in the
backseat of the car on one of our summer road trips to visit relatives
in Los Angeles, and my grandmother would nudge me gently and hold
out a faded and softly wrinkled packet of M&Ms. From America
to Iran and back, and all the worse for the wear.
I haven’t seen my grandmother for many years now, and I’m
sorry for the times I refused her offering.