What is it about a memory that taps you on the shoulder when you least expect it and leaves you gasping for air as you struggle to free yourself from the suffocating grip of nostalgia?
What makes the dry scent of dust take you back to the school playground where you had your first fight with your first best friend all those years ago?
What gives the tacky lyrics of an 80's love song the power to make you shudder as you recall your first pathetic attempt at a French kiss in Junior High?
I don't know if it is memory's uncanny sense of timing that gives it such an unbreakable hold over our psyche, but I for one am often amazed by its ever increasing fortitude.
On a sunny afternoon in October, memory paid me a powerful visit. I was lying on the couch in my parent's living room enjoying the tranquility of solitude in an often crowded house. I was hoping for a short, peaceful nap, but the drawn blinds were no match for the impetuous sun that peeked through and shielded my lids from any sleep.
I tried a variety of tactics to increase the chances of slumber, but all to no avail. I fidgeted with the blinds, regulated my breathing, tried to eliminate all thought from my brain. But sleep's dry sense of humor kept him from making an appearance that afternoon.
Frustrated at having wasted such a rare chance at relaxation, I got up and began to pace the room. I walked up and down the living room rug, suddenly suffering from extreme boredom.
Finally I noticed some specks of dust on the coffee table and decided to do some impromptu cleaning. Thirty seconds later, I had a rag in one hand and the Pledge in the other and was dusting away with a vengeance.
I dusted the coffee table, the sofa, the lamps and the china cabinet and was almost done with the frames on the mantelpiece when I found myself staring at a picture of my late grandmother. She was smiling at me with amazing grace.
I picked up the shiny silver frame that complemented her character so meticulously and used my sleeve to wipe it clean. I must have walked by that picture thousands of times throughout the years and yet it wasn't until that afternoon that I felt myself dragged back to when I was six years old, resting my head on her lap.
I could feel her playful fingers roaming through my hair and hear the sound of her soothing voice mumbling a traditional lullaby. She was trying to rock me to sleep, but I knew that if I stayed awake long enough she would treat me to one of her magical stories. She knew hundreds of them: tales of fairies and beasts, fishermen and kings, sailors and nymphs. But the most amazing story which she never told was that of her life.
The story of a nine-year-old bride who married a man 40 years her senior. The story of a 13-year-old mother who lost her first two sons to disease. The story of a 27-year-old wife who became penniless because of her husband's extravagant gambling. The story of a 39-year-old widow who worked her fingers to the bone and raised four children without borrowing a dime from a soul.
It wasn't until I was in my early twenties that I found out about the extraordinary life that my grandmother had led. But by then it was too late. She had already passed away and I had missed my chance of telling her that she was the bravest and strongest heroine of them all.
As I stood there in front of the mantelpiece in my parents' living room, tenacious memory had one more journey planned for me. I was whisked back to a night in late March of 1983; a night I had spent years trying to forget.
I wish I could say that on that night I had given my grandmother a hug, kissed her wrinkled cheeks and told her how much I loved her. I wish I could say that on that night I had looked into her soulful eyes and told her how much I was going to miss her. I wish… but no.
On that night, I did none of those things. On that night, I was annoyed with her because she kept interrupting some useless movie I was watching with questions about the plot. On that night, the last words I spoke to her were “be quiet! I can't hear anything.”
The following morning at 6 or so, I left Tehran for good. I never saw my grandmother again. The foolish and arrogant young, may they be forgiven by their betters.
On that sunny afternoon in October, when sleep never came and memory chose a picture as its vessel, I closed my eyes and remembered an extraordinary woman of great strength and passion whose story was never told, but whose kindness will never be forgotten.