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My day
The best I could give my son was the example of my own life lived fully

May 10, 2002
The Iranian

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 the world.

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.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for poet Zara Houshmand

By Zara Houshmand

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