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 candy.
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 afternoons.
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 in America?
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 them.
“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 would reply.
“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 nearly flawless.
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 male attendant.
“Thirty pounds over,” he said, shaking his head and frowning.
“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 strategies.
“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 after 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 flinching.
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.