Every Iranian I met in America was once, according to gender and age, either my cousin, my aunt, or my uncle. This, at least, was the worldview encouraged throughout my childhood. Back then I was directed to call every new Iranian lady my mother met by the familial title khaleh. The lady’s husband then became my dayee and her kids my cousins. It was a fiction, of course, and sometimes also a farce; my mother mistrusted many of these khalehs of mine and would eagerly have rid herself of many more altogether. Still, the names stuck, reminding us of nothing so much as the absence of a real family in America.
While I collected imaginary cousins here, in Iran they had the real thing, a whole country’s worth, in fact. Because just about every story I heard about Iran featured a huge cast of cousins, I concluded that it was a place made up entirely of cousins. Boy cousins tormenting girl cousins. Giggling, whispering cliques of teenage girl cousins. Packs of up-to-no good teenage boy cousins. Cousins were often closer than siblings. Cousins flirted. Sometimes they even got married. There were the regular kind of first cousins, but also two sets — maternal and paternal — of second and third and fourth cousins. Cousins by blood and cousins by marriage. Cousins next door, on the next block, all around town.
Every so often a cousin from this other world, the country of cousins, would show up at our house in America. This caused some problems. How could I explain to my best friend Anne-Marie that the man sitting day after day in my living room, drinking tea in his socks with my mother, was the “the grandson of my maternal aunt by marriage”? It seemed to require a chart of some kind. “He’s just a relative,” I’d say. My friend would be content with no further explanation, but to me the abbreviation always felt a little bit like a lie.
It occurs to me now that my problem was a version of my mother’s more complex quandary: How to translate, and keep real, a culture in which these connections have always been a part of daily life? She had left behind her own brother, mother, aunts, uncles, and something like two hundred cousins in Iran. How could she give me — and herself — some version of a real Iranian family in America?
By hitting the road. With no relatives living close by, my mother pulled out maps and over the years plotted a course to the houses of all the relatives she found scattered across the United States.
This meant, first of all, that I routinely spent as many as several days in the car with my own immediate family in order to get to some far-flung branch of the family tree. On these road trips, Haydeh, Moein, and Googoosh made up the soundtrack to which my mother and grandmother held epic-length conversations while cracking the shells of several pounds of tokhmeh. Had I complained of boredom at any point along the way, they might have passed me a sheet of lavashak and told me to look out the window; no other provisions were made for my amusement.
Luckily, I made do with the feuds and gossip of my mother and grandmother, and, where these failed to interest me, I passed the time, yes, by looking out the window and filling in the blanks with my imagination.
Then, as soon as we drove up to our relative’s house, the discarded shells of tokhmeh by now a blanket covering the carpet of the car, my mother would wave me away, calling out, “Go, go, get to know your cousins!” Now this was something new. Even Anne-Marie, who wore a tiny silver cross around her neck and beamed natural goodness, never gained my mother’s full confidence. My mother was never far away when she came over to play.
But cousins were our kind. In their company all the usual prohibitions were relaxed. My cousins and I were encouraged to get lost for hours at a time. For once, my mother eased out of her vigilance. She seemed glad, in fact, to be rid of me. Settling into various leather couches and Louis XIV armchairs over the years, she was eager to unburden her heart in her own tongue and share memories with the only people left who’d been witness to her youth.
For me, these reunions offered different pleasures. A much older cousin regularly spirited me away to the far reaches of her parents’ garden to enjoy a long and leisurely smoke and shock me with details of her life at college. Who knew that Iranian girls could grow up and have so much fun? Within minutes of seeing each other, another cousin would have me in stitches with her talent for dirty jokes.
My vocabulary of Iranian curses and obscenities grew impressively in the weeks I spent with her. And as teenagers one of my male cousins and I frequently broke away from the family after dinner and he would serve as a wonderfully negligent chaperone to countless parties and outings. (Sorry, can’t provide the details on this one — not as long as our parents are still living.)
In the company of my cousins I experienced freedom from having to translate, or explain, or provide charts of any kind about the Iranian parts of my life. If my cousins were the closest I came to Iran, it wasn’t that we acted any more Iranian when we were together. For the most part we did not even speak Farsi to each other. Nor was our talk distinguished in anyway from that of the “American” kids next door. Like them we listened to Duran Duran, wore only slightly more modest versions of Madonna’s get-ups, obsessed about boys.
What made us Iranian, more than anything, was that instead of, say, sun-soaked, pre-packaged, mom/dad/kid Club Med holidays, year after year we were crowded into each other’s living rooms, bedrooms, and backyards and forced to make a vacation out of each other. The grandmothers and aunts who did not speak English made us speak the Farsi we might otherwise have forgotten.
The cousin just back from spending three months in Iran reminded us that “back home” was not just a memory or a news story, but could also be a destination. And of course being made to sit through endless retellings of family lore, all those stories from the country of cousins that our parents had never really left behind, that, too, kept us just a little bit more Iranian just a little bit longer in America.
But in the years since, without our parents to regularly round us up, my cousins and I have gradually lost touch. We’ve become cousins in a more familiar American fashion: we’re down to occasional e-mails and Christmas cards. For a long time I would have said that this “just happened,” but now I see that, for me at least, it has been part of something else: the habit of creating and preserving distances from my family. By this I mean geographical and physical distances, but also the more elusive emotional distances that characterize just about every family I know in America.
My mother knows, for example, never to just show up sarzadeh at my door, as her own mother had done almost daily back when we all lived in Iran. My sanity depends on this kind of distance, but other kinds of distances I maintain according to a standard of courtesy I have learned from Americans. It would never occur to me now to just drop by for two-week visit with any of my cousins. I assume that, like me, they are busy with work and caught up in the lives of their children, and it’s hard to imagine they’d have room or time for much else.
There are blessings in this way of life, I know. Iran was never an endless string of Sunday afternoons spent with cousins on the banks of rivers and beaches. We all know the rivalries and pettiness that emerge wherever generations are packed under one roof, or even in one city. We have all heard stories about oppressive mother-in-laws and feuding cousins and estranged brothers. We all have less than wonderful memories, less than wonderful families.
Still, the old ideas of family continue to enchant and beckon. I have a friend who, after twenty years of living alone in small apartment in San Francisco, decided he’d had enough. He was going back home, back to Iran, back to his family. A floor in the family compound was prepared for him, and he set off. He lasted three weeks. The campaign to marry him off, at first a pleasant joke, had become relentless and serious indeed. The idea of a family living together, so seductive from his solitary perch, yielded to the far-less desirable reality of life without the privacy and freedom to which he’d grown accustomed.
But there’s something that’s been lost here, especially among the youngest generation, the children for whom the links to Iran and family have grown so much more abbreviated. This is something I realized when I recently took my son on a four-day vacation to Disneyland that was as far away from my own childhood vacations as could be imagined.
I had loaded up the car with four duffel-bags worth of puzzles, books, magnetic drawing boards, puppets — enough toys, in short, to entertain him for a week should any manner of natural disaster strike on our six-hour drive to Anaheim. Our conversations consisted of my shouting out directions on how to work the portable DVD player that sat planted in his lap for most of the trip.
But I was leaving nothing to chance. I had planned the perfect vacation: three nights in the Disneyland Hotel with three-day passes to the park and all the trimmings. We were five miles away from my uncle and aunt’s house, the house where I had spent countless vacations as a child, but there was no time for a visit; I was determined my son would have the kind of Disneyland vacation I never had and that meant no time for relatives.
My son, for his part, took in the sights with a certain world-weariness broken by brief flashes of amusement. By the second day he was asking me flatly, “Can we go home now?” His sole moment of true delight came when I pulled the car back into our driveway two days later and he was greeted by our elderly neighbor and her dog. An only child who knows his own cousins mostly from photographs, he has a craving for family and companionship that I myself thought I’d left behind a decade ago. That day when we returned from our “perfect” Disneyland vacation, he nearly tripped in his excitement at meeting up with a kind and familiar face. It was like he’d found a long-lost relative, which, in a way, he had.
It made me realize that what we really needed, both of us, was to hit the road again, this time without the DVD player, and pay a visit to my cousins.
Then I prayed that they’d missed me enough to take us in when we arrived.
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