My mother’s wedding dress was made out of curtains. One day as she sat sipping tea at a cousin’s house, she looked out toward the garden and the sheen of a handsome cream-colored brocade caught her eye. The curtains were disassembled at once and the next day my grandmother cut the cloth against her body. Then my grandmother pinned the fabric while my mother frowned and pulled it tighter and tighter across her busom, her hips, her legs.
No, it must be like this, she directed, like this you see.
On the morning of her wedding she bent herself over a table and spread her hair against a white tablecloth. My grandmother ran a hot iron back and forth across the thick panels of black hair until they gleamed. My mother sat before a mirror and watched as my grandmother wound her hair around metal curlers and set each section with slender clips. When my grandmother finished assembling her hair, she raised her arms to place a crown of tiny diamonds on her head.
In the picture my mother keeps in her bedroom, she stands alone beside a colony of white gladiolas on her wedding day, one hand holding the trail of her wedding dress and another at her waist. Her face is turned away from the camera and she is smiling graciously, as if to crowd of admirers.
Look, she tells me, lifting the frame. I have no make-up on here. None at all. Just minutes before this picture was taken your aunt Forough came running towards me with a stick of black kohl, and before I knew it she had swiped one line across each of my eyelids.
She pretends to line her eyes with two flicks of the wrist.
No other make-up at all.
Indeed, her skin is flawless in the picture, and she looks, as everyone in our family always says, like a young Elizabeth Taylor. The dress made of curtains is pulled taught across her torso and it does not seem a thing apart from the silk of her fair chest. Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren. Their likenesses could be found everywhere in the streets of Tehran in that year of 1962. From a panel of curtains my grandmother had sewn her daughter a gown fit for the Hollywood starlets they knew from the films that played each week in theatre in Tehran..
The wedding guests brought the flowers, my mother continues. Aziz prepared the food, Forough and Maman assembled the sofreh, and my cousin Reza, who was just a scrawny boy then (and already flirting with me), played the dombak.
So you see, the wedding cost us nothing at all, my mother concludes with a smile.
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A few months before, when she was a student in a German school for midwives, a telegram was slipped under her dormitory room: her father had died in the streets of Tehran, run over by the automobile of an Western diplomat. Reading the telegram, she let loose such a wail that the housemistress rounded the staircase in just a robe and bedroom slippers to see what could be the matter with the Iranian girl.
All night images of her father crowded in her head: the cut of his grey pin-striped suit, the elegance of his hands when he smoked, the squares of American chocolate he kept in his pockets for her.
May God kill me, my grandmother cried when my mother arrived in Tehran two days later. There had been no time to acquire even a simple black sheath from any of the shops along the Hamburg quay. My mother had left Germany to bury her father in a lavender suit, a lavender pill box hat, and a pair of white gloves with a pearl set at each wrist. She traveled by train over thousands of miles in her lavender ensemble, grieving the father who had sent her this far from her family.
To cheer her when she returned to Germany, one of my mother’s classmates took her to a harvest dance in a village outside Hamburg. She spent the night demanding of a succession of young men, “Persian, I am Persian. Do you know Hafiz? Rumi?” Wealthy Iranian families had been sending their sons abroad for several decades, but in those years Iranian women very rarely left the country except as wives. She would have been an object of curiosity to everyone there that night, and she would have met all the looks with an impudent stare.
That night my father had come alone to the dance but he was already engaged to a German girl from his town. A young railway engineer in a tweed jacket and crooked bowtie, he was the boy his mother had hidden in a basement through the last months of World War II, the only man left in the house he had built with his own father. Each night when he stumbled home, his pores rich with the stench of alcohol, his sisters peeled the clothes from his body and scrubbed his face and chest with a washcloth.
All his life he would be a man who was shy even of children, but because he had read Hafiz and had lived for three months on a Greek island, in my mother he would have seen the almond-eyed beauties of the Persian miniatures, and he would have held her stare longer than most of the German men.
Within a week of their meeting, she had forced him to surrender the ring he had bought for his German fiancee. Then she made him drive them both out to the countryside outside Hamburg in his orange Audi. When she spotted a small pond beside the road, she told him to stop. She pointed her finger in the direction of the pond. He slipped out from his seat and tossed the thin gold band into the water.
Over the next thirty years, for as long as they lived, my German grandmother and aunts never forgave the dark-eyed savage who spirited away their Bube to her own people and married him in a dress made of curtains.