This essay was adapted from the memoir THE GOOD DAUGHTER: A MEMOIR OF MY MOTHER”S HIDDEN LIFE. It originally appeared in the New York Times.
SOME years ago, when I was in my early 20s, I found a photograph of my mother as a bride. That the man beside her was not my father, that she’d kept this marriage a secret from me, that she had been disturbingly young — none of this unsettled me as much as her expression. Eyes downcast and lips pouted, she looked as if the next shot would have shown her crying.
In that moment I thought: That is not my mother.
My family left Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. My parents bought a roadside motel in California and set out to make new lives for us. Immigration baffled, then broke, my father, and so it was my mother who took charge of the motel, my mother who sat behind the plastic window of the manager’s suite answering the phone, my mother who cleaned the rooms on weekends and all the other days when the maid didn’t show up.
At home she was no less commanding. Here the woman who wrangled with truck drivers over motel bills wore a turquoise bathing cap and bright red lipstick to swim in the backyard pool. She reigned over dinner parties of 50 or 100 people. She coursed, coiffed and high-heeled, through rooms filled with marble coffee tables, gilt-framed armoires and fields of Persian carpets. She stuffed plump dates with almonds and passed them on sterling silver platters, smilingly, to her guests.
Proud, exacting, self-assured and unsentimental: that was the mother I knew. Nothing about her resembled the vulnerable girl in the photograph I found, or at least nothing I could yet recognize.
“For God’s sake, make something of yourself!” had been her constant injunction throughout my childhood and adolescence. “Make something of yourself or else you are nothing at all!”
My mother was as protective as she was ambitious. Forbidden even the small liberties enjoyed by the other Iranian girls of our social circle, I spent almost every day with her at the motel or out on visits to her friends.
What I wanted to be — what I wanted to make myself more desperately all the time — was normal. By which I meant American.
I could never understand my mother’s anxiety about keeping me close and safe. As I got older, I simply dismissed her protectiveness as just one of her many strange, foreign ways. I moved to the East Coast and spoke to her only infrequently. I cast her as Odious Old World Mother to my Plucky American Heroine and, until I found the photograph, I didn’t look back.
It’s difficult to imagine our mothers as women with stories and selves that exist separately from ours. So firmly do we hold onto the mothers of our memories that even as adults faced with some irrefutable proof of their lives before and apart from us, we still insist on our own versions of their lives.
After I confronted my mother about the photograph, the truth of her life came out haltingly and imperfectly. Even now, a decade later, there are many parts of it that I don’t understand and can’t square with my memories of her.
What I do know is that she was married at 13. I also know she had a child by her first husband — a daughter — and that she’d been forced to abandon that child as a condition of divorce. “Don’t speak her name,” her family had told her, and even after 30 years, even in another country, she feels herself bound by that dictate.
For me, finding the photograph meant giving up not only the idea of my mother I’d held onto for so long, but also giving up some version of the daughter I’d been. The revelation of her secret made me feel a strange new tenderness toward her, and it would make me kinder to her, if not always kind enough.
It also made me remember other things about my mother, memories I’d just about forgotten. I’d think back, for example, to how she used to sit in the living room by herself late at night, watching television footage of the revolution and, later, of the Iran-Iraq war. As the cries of “Allahu Akbar!” rang out across the rooftops of Tehran, she’d rock herself back and forth, eyes fixed on the screen.
I’d remember, too, the times when I’d wake up in the night, fumble downstairs and find the light from her bedroom spilling out onto the hallway carpet. Behind the door I’d hear her sobbing, and it scared me so much I’d climb the stairs and go back to my own bed.
These two inscrutable histories — Iran’s, hers — were wedded to each other, I realized many years later, and I wondered if I’d ever make sense of either one.
Shortly after I found the photograph, I went to visit her in California. My father had died, the motel had been sold off, and she’d had to give up her house. She had less, by far, than what she’d come to America with and no hope of ever returning to Iran.
As I looked around her tiny studio, I was astonished not so much by what she’d lost, but by what she’d managed to hold on to: her brass samovar, her marble-topped buffet, her canopied bed. Surrounded by these and other hard-won tokens of our American lives, I was suddenly and fiercely grateful to have come back home.
During that visit, my mother showed me another photograph I’d never seen before. In it a young woman, hair bobbed and face in shadows, stood with a toddler.
I studied the photograph closely, quietly, ready finally to know her, or at least to begin.