The best I could give my son was the example of my own life lived fully
May 10, 2002
A long time ago, my mother taught her children to ignore Mother's Day. It was
a Hallmark holiday, her nonchalance implied, a Madison Avenue plot to get into our
piggy banks. Exploitation and sentimentality, such a distastefully American combination.
My mom is American, but far too dignified, far too worldly an expat, ever to be lumped
with apple pie. She was candid with us, too, about the less predictable joys of motherhood.
She didn't much care for babies. It wasn't the mess she minded, but their inability
to hold an intelligent conversation. The older her children grew, the more interesting
they became to her.
So the first time we ever celebrated Mother's Day in a big way was the year that
Khanomjan, my father's mother, was chosen to be Mother of the Year. Any residue of
confusion that we felt about how this quintessentially American problem had followed
us all the way to Tehran was eclipsed by the very Iranian chaos that engulfed our
family that spring.
It was a very big deal. There was an invitation to the
palace for an audience with Queen Farah, an occasion for which Khanomjan surprised
us all by voluntarily discarding her chador in public for the first time. (Yes, she
had done this once many years before, but not willingly. An invitation from a queen
is very different than a command from a king.) There was a grand ceremony at Amjadieh
Stadium, with hundreds of children marching in honor of motherhood. And there was
attention from the press.
The whole affair sent Aghajan, my grandfather, into a fearsome funk. When the reporters
arrived to interview the Mother of the Year, they were obliged to address their questions
instead to an angry old man. (I don't know whether these poor journalists had to
suffer through their ordeal without tea, or whether Khanomjan was allowed to make
a brief appearance for these khaastegaraan.) Aghajan was not only angry, he was clever.
This was the same man who gave his doctor false answers to test the man's qualifications.
Why were we surprised when each of the papers printed a completely different story?
The crux of the information crisis was the number of children that Khanomjan had
ostensibly mothered. Unlike paternity, this is not a matter that is easily confused.
Khanomjan had eight grown children. Each of them had arrived in the world with all
the requisite fingers and toes, had demonstrated remarkable survival skills by making
it through their formative years, and by now each had made a significant mark on
Surely a man as "houshmand" as Aghajan could
count to eight and remember his own children's names. Three of those eight, however,
were girls and so need not be counted; not even in the context of a celebration of
motherhood, not even as mothers themselves. Any other adjustments to the arithmetic
can be attributed only to Aghajan's clever testing of the reporters, intelligence,
or his desire to minimize Khanomjan's accomplishment.
What struck me as most absurd, in all the absurdity of that time, was that my grandmother's
claim to fame, the measure of her motherhood, was the number and accomplishments
of her children. Even if the reporters could have spoken to her, I doubt they would
have asked her just how she raised those children.
Married at fourteen, intelligent but illiterate, she had no special claim to mothering
skills beyond the fierce, protective determination that I saw in most Iranian mothers.
She was average, typical, and perhaps that in itself was reason enough to be Mother
of the Year. Her children were exceptional in many ways, but what they owed to her
was not visible to the naked eye.
Many more Mother's Days passed without my noticing. The next one I celebrated was
sixteen years ago, when my own son was barely a month old. It was too soon to be
tainted by sentiment, too much still a time of sleepless nights, surrender, and overwhelming,
elemental awe of this creature who shared my body, this visitor who had arrived without
so much as the shirt on his back and was here to stay, forever.
I will spare you the proud mother's stories of how this child grew and flourished,
of the many, many ways he has given me joy. I will tell you only that I have sacrificed
less than many mothers. Not because I had more to give. Not because I wouldn't, couldn't,
shouldn't give him everything. But only because I deeply believe that the best I
could give him was the example of my own life lived fully.
I think of my own mother, so different from me and yet...
She is tall, slim, blonde, inscrutably private behind her sunglasses, a queen in
a castle on a hill. Almost impenetrable. She was an exceptionally talented musician,
and gave it up when I was born. I remember those rarest of times, without any observable
occasion, an empty afternoon perhaps once in a year, when she opened the case and
took out her violin. When she pressed it under her chin and raised the bow and closed
her eyes. The sound was a ribbon of abstract passion so fierce, so pure, that it
brought me to shy tears every single time.
So much has changed since that time; we have all learned so much. My mother now teaches
children to play the violin, and countless students have heard her play. I love the
confidence in her voice when she tells me about their progress and their foibles.
I wonder if they ever hear her music quite the same way I did, and yes, some part
of me is as jealous as a sibling could be.
This year, for the third time in my life, I'm going to celebrate Mother's Day. I'm
inviting my son out to dinner for a great Palestinian meal. We'll talk about art,
his and mine, and our summer plans, and our bigger dreams. He's sixteen now, a fine
young man, and my job is essentially done. Yes, I will be there forever for him,
but he already knows who I am.