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When it comes to validating us, there’s nothing like seeing a forgotten face



January 3, 2007 

When I hear terms such as “New Year”, it sends my mind into the past to revisit the years that I have left behind. That may indeed explain the melancholy that follows this holiday because, no matter how grand one’s life has been, the mere remembrance of what once was, brings deep sorrow to the heart. On holidays, I try to gather my friends and what is left of family, work too hard to prepare a feast, and even exchange well-thought gifts, in hopes of spreading some cheer. But as soon as the holidays are over, most people are left with a heavy heart that is impossible to explain, a sorrow we can’t admit, one that we choose to mask in order to proceed with our daily lives.

This year, just as the holidays were coming to an end, I received a gift I intend to keep, a gift that I had needed for years, though I was not conscious of such a need. As we grouped with a few friends, someone gifted me with memories that have been buried too deep inside, so deep that I could have never accessed them without assistance.

One of my best friends and her husband planned to come to Southern California and pay us a visit. While to most people having a houseguest is nothing unusual, we seem to have turned into hermits who see fewer and fewer people each year. The day before their arrival, I cleared the clutter in the guestrooms, changed the bed sheets, and placed flowers in their rooms while my husband checked to make sure there were enough tissues, soap, and towels in their bathrooms.

Despite my fuss, I continued to worry that I may have forgotten something or that the house would not be warm enough. But the visit went smoothly: we enjoyed our walks around town on sunny days and spent quiet evenings of dinner, conversation, and an occasional glass of wine. As usual, they had brought us many presents, but unbeknownst to all, my most valuable gift came through a comment during the last day of their visit.

My friend’s brother, who happens to be here for a visit from Iran, accepted our extended invitation and agreed to accompany the couple on this short excursion to San Diego. I had seen the man many years ago, and vaguely remembered him from the time when he was a high school friend of my brother’s. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but as it turned out, he not only proved to be pleasant company, I also found him an easy guest to care for. The only surprise was that he did not resemble the aloof friend I had met all those years ago. This could be in part because I had never spoken to him, or the fact that the passage of time has given him a new face and perhaps new demeanor. So I decided it best to consider him a new acquaintance and treat him as such, making sure he received the same courtesy as other guests.

A shy and distant man, he said little during the three-day visit, but on the last day, he presented me with a true gift of memories. “I recall seeing you in what must have been fifty years ago.” His face lit up with a smile at the remembrance. “It was at your older sister’s wedding, and you were only a little girl. I vividly remember your carefree manner, and the innocent face of that child has stayed in my mind all these years.” He stopped, unaware that his words had taken me back to a hidden corner and cleared a vision that the fog of time had blurred into oblivion. 

People often fail to realize the profound effect of their words, or indeed how words can became true gifts, but I for one shall cherish the vision in his words for as long as my memory should allow me to. While there is nothing extraordinary in what he remembered, to me it was as if someone had found a faded photograph of my childhood, a reel of an old family movie, digging out a buried segment of my life. As he went on to describe the scene, I had an out of body experience and saw the forgotten child, who had been hiding from the world, even from me.

Indeed, at my sister’s wedding I was but a little girl, one young enough not to be included were it not for the fact that she was a sister of the bride! Perhaps influenced by her years of life in England, my sister insisted that there had to be flower girls trailing behind the bride. I remember the matching white lace dresses and that red chiffon sash and how magnificent it looked. I felt like Cinderella, dressed as a princess, and on my way to the ball. No sooner had the flower girls finished guarding the train of the bride’s dress than the novelty wore off and grownups seemed to forget all about us.

Our guest’s words had brought flashbacks of that evening, presenting me with a forgotten segment of my life, one that many of the people who could possibly bring it back are no longer with us. Life has taken away an integral part of my childhood, and the little girl with the innocent face has tried hard to forget all that used to be.

Sometimes it feels as if I have always been middle-aged, a mother, a caregiver, and I am convinced that a part of me has forever been this melancholic woman. The past is looking more and more like a dream, a product of my imagination, and perhaps a story that my mind has given it vivid colors.

When it comes to validating us, there’s nothing like seeing a forgotten face, hearing a familiar voice, or listening to another’s words. Only then can we believe that the past is real, that the memories aren’t figments of our imagination, and that life as we remember it indeed happened. While others may go through such recollections frequently, I needed help to experience the flashback and those words have presented me with a truly unexpected gift.

As I begin yet another year in this life of mine, I am reminded of the years gone by, of an innocent child I used to know, and of a long lost tribe. I am not sure if my friend’s brother will ever know, but if he should happen to read this, here is to you, Mr. S., for the light you shed on that dark corner where a frightened little girl has been hiding. Comment

Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani gave up dentistry to be a full-time writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is "Sharik-e Gham" (see excerpt). Visit her site

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