Mother is here again. Every year in late spring, just before Tehran's weather reaches its blistering highs, she packs a rug and all of Iran's bestsellers of the year and flies to New York. Though she's only five feet tall, it's never hard to spot her among the crowds at the airport: she's the passenger defying the laws of physics — the ant of a woman dragging a weight several times greater than her own. When my boyfriend sees her, he yells across the crowd: Mother! A word that always reaches her no matter the mob or the echoes overhead. There must be many other mothers in the lot but not a single head ever turns our way, except hers.
The next 48-hours bring a most inexplicable surprise: a little bit of Iran in the air of our Connecticut home. It's a strange claim, I know. Countries are expanses of land. Immovable. Not transportable. Solid. But Mother's presence defies that common wisdom. Even a week into her stay, the Iran in mother's air only thickens and the motherland that mother brings begins to move with her around the kitchen, inspecting the tupperware in our fridge. In her every movement, I'm reminded of everything I miss and everything to which I never wish to return.
Sitting behind the glass window of my study, overlooking the lawn and driveway, I watch her stroll toward the road and reach into the mailbox, as if to reach in for the affection she still believes the postal service is in the business of delivering. She puts her glasses on and begins to scan the mail as she walks back. By the time she steps into the mudroom, she has two piles of envelopes, his and hers, in each hand. Waving the “hers” batch at me through the glass door of the study, I'm tempted to say that I'd look at them at the end of the week. But her face is far too lit up for so lackluster an answer. I separate the bills from the pile and put the rest of the envelopes in the box of recyclables. She is aghast: “Aren't you even going to open them?” “Mother” even I call her so “it's all junk mail.” She shrugs — both the light and the glasses leaving her face. She runs her hand over her eyes and barely 65, she says, “what do I know? I'm an old, stupid woman on the verge of dementia.” I know where those words come from and it's the place I don't miss.
With a bachelor in Childhood Education and Philosophy, Mother was a ubiquitous curriculum consultant and a high-flying educator 25 years ago. But after the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini to power and the “cultural revolution” he subsequently declared, Mother had to choose between the headmastership of a high-school that used to be run by one of her close colleagues or early retirement. Raised in a culture that puts human affection above all else, Mother's choice was clear. And that's something I do miss.
At home, she found herself beside her husband, a judge who had refused to switch to practicing “Islamic Law” and thus was also forced into early retirement. And so their golden years proved not to be so golden after all. To fill the endless days, he picked up the sitar and turned to poetry. She became the local star hostess. More years passed and the new Islamic order emboldened the men by taking away a woman's right to choose, divorce or travel, not to mention reviving polygamy, Mother found her respectable husband eying, serenading much younger women in the party crowds of their living-room, while she was busy cooking in the kitchen and diminishing. Though the serenades never amounted to more than innocent flirtation, they have nonetheless lessened her, she confides in me whenever it's just the two of us at the breakfast table.
It's to this past, packed in her petit frame, that I surrender my hard-earned Americanisms –the insistence on the sanctity of personal time and space. I cannot undo her bitter experiences, but nor can I refuse her when she extends the telephone to me, exclaiming exuberantly: “the call is for you!” I take the phone and smile in gratitude even though I'm perfectly happy with our current long distance carrier, don't wish to sign up for a dream cruise to the Bahamas and our home has already been refinanced — thank you!
Author of two books of poetry in Persian, Roya Hakakian's memoir, Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran, will be published by Crown this August. Visit: www.RoyaHakakian.com.
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