Requiem for a matriarch
August 10, 1998
Your absence has gone through me
had heard legendary stories about my grandmother's younger years, yet none
of us in the family doubted them. Men like my father viewed her as an aberration,
and women in the family reveled in her determination. She had left her
husband after nearly 10 years and four children; not a big deal this side
of the ocean, but quite a daring gesture back in Reza Shah's Iran. And
during the forced so-called modernization of Iran, she had stood up to
a group of gendarmes and refused to take her veil off. When physically
forced to unravel herself, she had quickly withdrawn, spat at the goons
and asked God for forgiveness.
As she passed away two months ago, I tried to put her legacy in "proper" perspective and define what it was she meant to me: a task many of us, cocky with our academic degrees and assured of our psycho-social skills, feel obliged to do. But it was an ardent task and I had to give it up . I realized my memories of her and what I have inherited from her were not disjointed pictures that I could catalogue into an album.
My grandmother was not an educated woman; her worldview emanated from two sources: tradition and intuition. Dilemmas in her universe were explained by one or the other. I don't recall her to ever succumb to a perplexing doubt, an existential question or a moment of deep uncertainty; there was not a single moment of indecision about what she believed in, who she was nor where she was going. Centuries had dictated her to be a wife, a mother and supreme protector of her family and her identity. That was what she was. Yet, like other matriarchs, she was more: The crown of a court where respect filled the air like ether, and wisdom was the only adornment on the wall.
I remember on long, lazy summer evenings when Mordad coincided with Ramadan, and Tehran was drowned in heat and famished mouths, I sat by her spread of tea and sweets and leaned on her side. After she was done with formalities of ending a day of fasting, she opened her scarf and spread it in front of her. She then calmly, slowly combed her henna-tainted white hair. Her chador always on her lap, she sat long, countless hours on such evenings bent over her samovar and silently contemplating the affairs of the family. There, she patiently offered advice on every subject ranging from how to choose the perfect wife to the right way of disposing of communist pamphlets (1).
There was never anything urgent or chaotic enough to warrant a wrinkle in her grace. The world began in her living room and ended only where her eyes could reach, sometimes not further the small pond in the middle of her house. She had been abroad to the bi-poles of Islam in Saudi Arabia, and that was the farthest she knew of the world. She once traveled to Los Angeles, but I don't think she ever grasped the idea that she had crossed continents and oceans. She thought Mecca was still farther away than Hollywood.
This woman never uttered words of affection nor offered material gifts, yet there was never any doubt as to the extent of her love. I remember on one occasion, my father bought me a gift and gave it to me on her behalf, thinking I would not realize the deception. The deception was unnecessary. There were eye contacts, embraces, warm hands that did not need to profess love; their existence were a testament to love. Every Thursday night, as we arrived at her house, and as she pulled me in her tight embrace, the love between us was apparent even to the blind. It knew no limit. No words or gifts were necessary; we were one separated by the insignificance of two generations and we knew it.
It is that sense of tribalism that has been lost by her death. This was a unique matriarch, the last of the heroines who never reasoned but only felt and connected to others through feelings. She was not afraid of disease, death, disaster or novelties. She could master them because she was guided by intuition. Because of her I trust a guide who can find his way by the stars and the smell of the wind more than one guided by the latest technology.
There are quite a number of us left by her. Many are still back in Iran, and a number of us are spread across the world. Each of us harbor a little part of her. Most of us have shades of her looks, her hair, her thoughts, her torrid temper and her gestures. Most of us are as reserved as she was but also have inherited her often unwelcome bitter wit. She also gave us that cold countenance which everyone mistakes for indifference and conceit.
But none of us I think have inherited her assuredness. Perhaps because it was not born with her, but it was a trait she acquired through hardship unique to her environment. She never flinched and never thought twice about making a decision. There was tradition, and if it applied she followed it; if not, she modified it. To her there was no double-blind test needed to know when to leave, when to stay, what to say, how to act, whom to pray to, how to love or how much to give. Somehow she knew that if circumstances failed her and she had given all she could, it was somebody else's fault; and life went on!
To many of us Iranians, patriotism is the tie to a certain land, a border spanning so many mountains, deserts and dialects. We find refuge in calling ourselves words that conjure images of old glories and recent woes. Well, you can keep all those because home is still defined for me in how her embrace felt. And home is no more.
Our world has altered radically from the markedly black and white world in which our parents and their parents lived. Ours is abundant with shades of gray. Everything goes, few things remain sacred and totality is merely a sum of small details. The world in which my grandmother lived was starkly black and white and represented a connection to a place where identity was not a multi-color badge or a hyphen-ridden phrase, but a fierce expression on a face, the reaction to the severest adversity, an eye to tradition and still an individuality that surrounded one like a halo.
We live in an age where matriarchs and patriarchs are viewed as pejorative relics of a dark past. But more often, as I use psychology, history and a whole host of other acquired skills and learned isms to interpret the world around me and my own identity, I remain in awe of my favorite matriarch and her capacity to envelope and interpret the world in its simplest and truest light.
(1) This is best done by folding the pamphlet or any piece of paper in more than five pleats, standing it upright and igniting it. (back to article)
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