My parents are very different from one another in a number of ways. My maman is pretty serious most of the time; she's sensitive about what others think of her; she has a hot temper when she's angry; she's the queen of making daily 'to-do' lists and she is a very proud and classy Iranian lady. From my earliest memory, she has always done her best to instill in me, and my sister before me, a deep respect, love and reverence for Iranian customs and traditions and for the Persian language.
Unlike my maman, my dad has a laid-back personality and a quirky sense of humor. He doesn't anger easily and doesn't worry about what others think of him with the result that few people have ever been able to hurt his feelings He sees himself as a “big picture” type of guy and it drives him crazy sometimes that my maman is so detail-oriented. Perhaps, the biggest difference between him and my maman is that he grew up about as far as a person can be from Iran — a farm in small-town Texas. The old adage “opposites attract” is tailor made for my parents, because even though their differences appear huge on the surface, each one must be able to fill a deep need in the other because they've built a happy and loving life together for nearly three decades.
Over the years, they've undoubtedly affected one another's personalities in countless ways. I wish I could know what they were like before they ever met. I'm sure they were different people before they met from how they were after they met, or how they are now and I'm not simply talking about the fact that they've grown older. When two people share their lives for as long as my parents have, each influences the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of the other in innumerable ways.
If I had to guess which one of them has influenced the other more over the years, I'd say, 'hands-down' my maman has influenced my dad more. The reason I say this is because he's always loved her just the way she is while, being the perfectionist she is, she's never stopped trying to help him become better a better man. While he isn't the kind of man who is easily changed, I know she's had a culturing affect on him over the years — Persian culture — that is. Just as a good steak can be tenderized if it is beat on hard enough before cooking, so too can an American husband's brain be I-ranized if his Irooni wife keeps thumping on it long enough.
At times, I've wondered how different our family is from the typical two-Iranian-parent family or the two-American-parent family. Of course, I've been around many of my friends' parents over the years, but, ultimately, it is impossible to know how people act and what the dynamics of a family are once people are in the privacy of their own homes. When I was younger, it bugged me sometimes that my family was different from other kids I knew. In elementary school, friends used to ask me weird questions about my family that made me feel self-conscious. American kids asked me questions like, “Why does your mom talk funny,” or “Isn't it weird having a mom from eye-ran?”
I remember in second grade a boy two years older than me would taunt me with a little chant he made up, “I ran, you ran, we all ran to eye-ran.” American kids weren't the only ones full of questions, though. Iranian kids had questions for me, too: “Why can't your dad speak Farsi,” or “What's it like to have a baba who is a foreigner?” Sometimes, I just wanted to blend in and be like everyone else, but that never happened and it probably never will completely. While I now know that the kids were just curious when they'd pepper me with questions, at the time they bothered me a lot. As far as I was concerned there was nothing unusual about my parents. The longer I live with them, however, the more I think that they've both got to be little nuts to make the many compromises and sacrifices required of people who choose to love and marry someone from a different culture.
My parents have never had an equal 50-50 partnership in all aspects of their marriage. In some things one is always more equal to the other. Ultimately, however, there is only one king of our castle and the majority of decisions regarding the running of our household are made by the one who wears the pants. I'm sure my dad wishes it were him! In truth, it has always been my mother who runs our house and she runs it like a well oiled machine. There may have been a time in their lives together when my dad was the head honcho around the hacienda, but that time is long gone because now she's got him trained and he just says, “baleh, honey”, “ok, azizam” or “bosheh, dear,” whenever my maman tells him to do something. Don't get me wrong; my dad is about as far from hen-pecked as a man can be. The way he sees it, the secret of being the king of the castle is to never have to act like you're the king of the castle; let 'your better half' wear the crown inside the home, but never relinquish the sword or scepter to her on any matters outside the home.
I guess it's obvious that my dad is old-fashioned and chauvinistic, but he's probably no different from other men his age. Sometimes he tries to dazzle me and my sister with some of his down-home, retarded-Texas advice on love and marriage. My sister hates it when he does it. Invariably she'll say something like “Run for your life, Tex-tard on the loose!” Once he was talking to her about the boys as if she was hearing it for the first time (she's 24 years old). Very seriously, he said, “Boys won't marry girls that give it away. Boys are like dairy farmers.” My sister looked at him like he was crazy and said, “Dad that doesn't make any sense. How are they like dairy farmers?” He looked her straight in the eye and said, “No one's going to buy the cow if they can get the milk for free.” My sister thought he was such a country bumpkin to express his point like that, but then maman pitched in, “He's right, gorbonet beram. Listen to you your father.”
The ole Tex-tard has also thrown some of his nuggets of wisdom about how to have a successful marriage my way (even though I didn't ask him to). At times, he's compared marriage to shift-work at a factory and to playing with a slinky. He says if you keep your wife happy on the dayshift by doing what she tells you to do; she'll keep you happy on the nightshift. Then, he asks me if I know what he means as if I'm an imbecile. To him, married life is like playing with a slinky. If two people don't work together, it's like pulling the two ends of a slinky in opposite directions until it snaps and breaks apart. If they work together, however, it's like what you give at one end of the slinky, you get back at the other end… ..and everybody's happy.
My parents first met each other twenty-nine years ago. I've seen some of their college photos together. They looked so young back then. It's strange to think that while I am looking into their past, they were looking into the future when those snapshots were taken. Neither my sister nor I were even a remote thought to either one of them at that time. They probably didn't even know that they would choose to spend their lives together when some of those old pictures were taken. Although they've aged more than a little since then, I think, they still see each other the way they did back in the 70s. When my dad looks at my mom today, anyone can see that he loves her deeply. I don't think I can remember a day that he hasn't kissed her when he comes downstairs in the morning. He always says, “Sobh be khayr, azize delam.”
I think part of the reason that they've made it so far in life together and remained in love is because they fell in love at a very young age and because they only had each other to rely on in the beginning. A lot of people were against them and wanted to split them up when they first showed interest in one another. My dad's college friends told him he should stick to his own kind while my mom's Iranian girl friends told that it looked bad for her to go out with an American boy. The prejudice each of them faced from their own people was tremendous. What amazes me is that neither one of them caved into the pressure their peers put on them. This is especially true when one thinks of how powerful peer-pressure is on teenagers which both of them were when they first met. The more people tried to force them apart, the tighter they held onto one another and that is something they've never stopped doing… with each other and with my sister and me.
One night, my parents told me the story of how they met. I heard both sides of the story. The only thing they could agree on was that the first time he laid eyes on her, he thought she was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen before. While he admits that it was a case of love at first sight, he says that it was my mother who fell madly in love with him and not the other way around. According to him, her heart melted like butter the instant she saw his rugged good looks and suave and debonair manner.
Sitting in the room listening, my mother let him ramble on. I noticed her eyes begin to roll back in her head. Then she said, “Daddy is either taking drugs or needs to be taking drugs if that's how he remembers the way things were.”
To say that my mother and father don't remember their first meeting the same way is the understatement of the century. According to her recollection, he was a nerdy, shy tongue-tied, seventeen-year-old boy, the first time they met. “Even though I could barely speak English back then, I didn't feel so bad because all your father could do was stutter and stammer,” she said smiling, “He was far too shy to ask me out until he got jealous of another boy. One day one of our classmates spoke to me in front of him and only then did he find the nerve to ask me to have lunch with him.”
Smiling wickedly and glancing toward my dad, she goaded him, “What did I say?” “Go ahead, tell him.” “What did I say when you asked me out?” “She said no,” he muttered with exasperation, “She didn't just play hard to get, she wrote book on it. I didn't give up so easily though, did I?”
Winking at me, she said that she couldn't figure out which part of “no” he didn't understand; the “n” or the “o”! “How many times did I say no to you?” Sheepishly, my dad looked up from the paper he was reading, and mumbled, “Fourteen.” I'm glad that he was persistent and wouldn't take no for an answer.
My dad says that he owes one man more than any other for having had the chance to marry my mother. He says that the person most responsible for their marriage and the subsequent births of my sister and me is, no other, than Ayatollah Khomeini. He says without the revolution, my baba bozorg would never have let my mother marry him. He says that when my grandfather came to the United States to take my mother out of college and back to Iran shortly after the revolution, that he begged my grandfather to give his consent and let them marry. He said that at first my baba bozorg was stubborn and refused to consider it, but finally after he'd begged like he'd never begged before, my grandpa said ok. It is ironic that my very existence in the world today and that of my sister is direct consequence of the faraway actions of an old man who brought so much death and misery to Iran.
I have only seen my dad angry once in my life and my sister saw him get angry once with a man before I was born. In both cases, my father exploded in fury when grown men disrespected my mother because she was Iranian. He is the kind of man that is very forgiving if someone is offensive or curt with him, but he simply will not tolerate anyone hurting my mother's feelings. I think that she has always felt very safe and protected with my dad because she knows that no one is more important to him than her. My mom is the same way, though. Her temper is more explosive than dynamite, if she thinks someone has been intentionally unkind to my dad.
While we're on the subject of tempers, let me tell you, my parents don't fight in the same way. He fights fair while she fights to win. When she gets angry with him, she really gets angry. He usually just lets her vent and blow off steam and he doesn't respond. The more he remains calm or silent, the angrier she gets. Maybe that's his strategy and, then again, maybe he just keeps his mouth shut so he doesn't dig the hole he's in any deeper. Sometimes when she's angry with him, she'll bring up things that he did or said from twenty-five years ago.
If you knew my dad, you'd know that he often can't remember what he ate for breakfast. So, when my maman brings up things from the distant past that he can't remember, he just looks at her with a blank stare and asks her if someone dropped her on her head when she was a baby. If my father ever responds to my mom's anger, he does it in a quiet and subtle way trying to calm her down. Sometimes he's successful more quickly than at other times. Once she explodes about something, she loses all her anger after a short time. One thing about the two of them is that no matter how angry they might be with one another, they never go to bed angry.
My dad has a very quirky sense of humor. More times than not, what he thinks is hilarious, leaves me, my sister and my mom in total bewilderment. I'll give you just a few examples of his weird, but definitely, Iranian-influenced sense of humor. I'll understand if you don't laugh.
My dad named our three cats. He named them Hailey, June and Lubia. One day while they were making small talk, my mother asked him why he gave two of our cats American names and one a Spanish name. He looked at her and said they all had Persian names. My mother assured him that Hailey and June were very English names and Lubia sure sounded like a Mexican name. He then smiled and said Hailey… as in khaili khoskeleh, June… as in jun-e mani and Lubia as in… My mom stopped him and said…
“As in… lubia polo.” He grinned from ear to ear and said, “Yeah, now you've got it!” I still don't see why he thinks it's funny for our cats to be named Hailey Khoskeleh, June EMani, and Beans and Rice, but if it makes him happy, it's alright with me.
Sometimes, he makes little ditties out of the Persian words he knows. He is far… very, very far… from fluent in Farsi, but after being married to my mom for so long, he knows a lot of words. I can't remember all of the dumb little ditties he's made up over the years, but there are a lot of them; some of them worse than others, but, believe me, they're all bad. A few weeks ago, my mom went shopping and bought herself some new outfits. My dad was sitting at the kitchen table when she walked in wearing a new dress. Smiling she asked him what he thought and he said she looked lovely. He asked her to turn around so he could see the dress from the back and out of his mouth came, “I still love your fanny, my sweet eshghe mani! You'll stay my azizami, if you let me pat that fanny” I think that she probably liked the compliment because she gave him a little smile, but told him to be serious.
Finally, about two weeks ago, my mom and I were sitting at the table in our dining room talking, when we heard my dad in the den, holler loudly, “Hey you guys, come here… .come look at this mother f$@%&*.” We went into the den and he was watching a program on one of the channels coming from Iran on Intel Sat. There on the TV sat two Mullahs with a long bearded American sitting between them. They were all were chatting it up in Farsi with a little English thrown in. We sat there watching this blue-eyed, red bearded man making nice with the Mullahs. Finally, my mom looked at my dad and said, “Honey why did you have call him a mother f@#%^&?” My dad looked at her and said, “I didn't call anyone a mother f@#$%^.” ” I called him a Mullah sucker!” That one made mom and me laugh. Seeing that guy on TV, kissing those Mullahs' butts was pretty ridiculous and he deserved to be called a mullah sucker!
Maybe our family is pretty weird compared to the typical two-Iranian-parent family or the typical two-American-parent family. All I know is that our family feels normal for my sister and me. Our parents have hung on to one another for many years and will continue to do so, I'm sure, until one of them buries the other. While we are Muslims, my mother has told me of an Armenian expression she learned as a child in Khuzestan. She said it went something like this, “I'll enter my husband's house wearing white and I'll leave it wearing white.” I know that this is how my maman feels about my dad. She will never leave him, she will never neglect him or forsake him and, most of all, and she will never stop loving him. His life has been enriched by having her and hers had been sweetened by having him. She takes care of him, just as much as he does her. He promised my baba bozorg a long time ago that he'd never break her heart and he has kept his word.
I love them and respect them more that anyone in the world. Maybe we aren't like other families but that's okay, because now, I like my weird little family, just fine. Maman June, kahili duset daram, and dad I love you very much, too!