Riding up Sumach, one of the smaller streets in Toronto, all of a sudden, I felt transported in time and space. Back to my childhood I was, when grandma used to water her garden in southern Tehran after a sweltering day in the summer. The smell of bedewed flowers and dripping leaves had brought back so many memories of a long distant past. Those were the days, when in my carefree childhood I would spend hour upon hour on the swing set up from atop the sturdiest tree of grandma’s garden.
I remember how Farshid, my British-Iranian cousin, had come for a visit one year — of course, with Uncle Farhad, for he was but a child of seven at the time — and how we used to fight over who would gain temporary control of the garden. In the end, despite all our fights, we had lots of fun, to which we would refer, years later in his old home in northern London.
In fact, the memories of those days were what once kept us awake till 3.00 a.m., over twenty years later when I went to visit my uncle’s family in the UK. My cousin has not been able to go back to the land of his ancestors fearing conscription, along with an array of harassments. We tried hard that night in May 2005 to revive the selfsame mood, the selfsame feelings of excitement that pervaded granny’s garden, but long gone was our childhood and along with it, our carefree state of mind, our innocent enthusiasm over horticultural gains.
I recall having been mesmerized by a picture of a six year old little girl and her slightly older brother in that garden. So old is the picture that it has yellowed with time, though one can still detect the harmony between the two kids’ eyes and their green background.
Now, upon the passage of decades since the development of that photo, whenever I look into the eyes of my mom and those of my uncle, I still think of the garden of my youth, which also happens to be the garden of their youth, my grandma’s youth and the “baagh-e eram” (literally “paradisal garden”) of so many more of my ancestors.
It was in that very verdant garden that my grandma wedded to a soon-to-be doctor whose eyes matched those of the leaves in the trees around them. A doctor who would save the life of his five-year old daughter from the depths of a swimming pool which had been constructed at its center. Yes, the garden had its deadly side too (like so many other gardens), and although that pool could have cost the life of my mom and her progeny, including myself, it will always remain beautiful in my mind.
In fact, despite its darker side, it happened to be the vernal venue for so many family weddings and surreptitious love-makings. And it is not because of its more obscure aspects that I remember grandma’s garden, for the initial feelings that overwhelmed me as I struggled my way up Sumach were those of desire, of a longing for a past long gone by, a sense of nostalgia. It was more a longing for a nostos in time and not in place, though I find the two inextricably connected.
I recall how based on that premise, years upon the sale of that garden, I made an attempt at polishing it up in my mind by actually revisiting it. Alas! What I found was a range of run-down cars which had nothing to do with that green space of my childhood.. For a century or so that verdant space had been home to the memories of my ancestors but had then fallen into the wrong hands, hands which valued the greenback over the green land.
Gardens have always featured as venues of thought-provoking discussions as Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (c.1350) and Thomas More’s Utopia (1515) testify. In the former, we read of how seven young women and three men fleeing the Black Death take refuge in a garden, in the latter, More sits down with Raphael Hythloday in a garden to discuss “Utopia.” And there is, of course, Andrew Marvell’s garden, a garden of marvels, “annihilating all that’s made/ to a green thought in a green shade.”
My grandma’s garden was surely where I had felt annihilated, if not necessarily into a “green shade,” yet, into a unique colorless force, whatever one may call it. What could have turned into a cultural heritage, and hence a space of memory for many more of my compatriots, had fallen into hands, who in their lust for the luxurious, could not appreciate the luxuriant. And that it is why it has turned all gray, like so many other erstwhile greens that were once a part of not only my homeland, but also our entire planet.