Mamani comes on Saturdays to wash her hair in our kitchen sink. She says she can't use her own because she doesn't have the correct water pressure. Our father says she comes to us because she is cheap.
When she arrives, my father sits in his study, balancing the checkbook or reading the newspaper. We have never heard him speak to her. I ask my mother why he refuses to acknowledge his own mother-in-law, and she says it is because of something that happened before we were born. It is none of our concern. My father pulls me into his lap and tells me everything.
He tells me about home and about a town that glows orange at dawn, as if Tehran itself were the rising sun. He tells me about busy street corners, men selling rice by a mosque; he tells me that he fell in love with my mother at a train station.
In Iran in 1973 this was not a good thing, he says. My mother and father, lithe and lean then, before rich American foods coated their bones and grew their bellies, held hands and hid behind buildings to stare at each other. When I imagine this, there are pink cartoon hearts popping between their faces. My father came to Ohio first, my mother followed.
When the revolution came, a weak clothespin saved Mamani's life. Her family was assassinated, one by one, in their living room while Mamani stood out back hanging clothes. She would have been inside with them, putting the laundry basket in the bedroom, she would have been filling a glass of water, she would have been sighing and laying down for a nap, but a clothespin buckled under the weight of her husband's thick linen shirt, leaving it dangling, the right cuff tracing a line in the mud. Because a General must always be clean she turned to retrieve it. It was then that she heard the pop-pop-pop that was the sound of her family dying. A pop for husband. A pop for each of her children. There was no pop for my mother who was sleeping under a down comforter in America.
Mamani fled to Cincinnati and the smell of exhaust filtering from the road, up two flights, and through the cold metal grate that was the floor of her balcony. She found my mother and father sharing a small apartment, washing their hair with Pantene, smoking long American cigarettes. Mamani, in her chador and sherwal, could not stop America, could not stop my father, from taking what was left of her family.
Mamani looked out at the Cincinnati skyline, azure at dusk, blue lights flickering atop straight-edged buildings, and thought that Ohio was the sharp sliver of a crescent moon.
"It is a dishonorable thing to abandon your country," my father says. "What Mamani fails to understand is that we did not abandon our country. We have Iranian blood in these veins." Here he runs a thick finger up my arm, tickling. I imagine my red blood to be streaked with green and white like the flag of Iran that hangs behind him.
"We wanted more freedom for you and for Sonia. We abandoned shackles in favor of wings. We have adapted. Your mâdarbozorg, she is a stubborn old woman."
"She isn't mad at Maman, she's only mad at you."
"You are too young for this, Naomi."
But he continues.
"She does not think I was good enough to marry her daughter. Your pedarbozorg, he was not going to let our marriage happen. He was a powerful man under Pahlavi, he could have had me killed. We came here without their blessing. Your stubborn Mamani can't let go of the past."
My father lifts me from his lap then, smoothes the creases in his pants, and sighs through his nose.
"And that is the way it is."
But today when Mamani arrives she is smiling. My mother greets her at the door. Mamani opens her arms to us, letting loose the chador she continues to wear even though it has been thirteen years. It falls open around her face. She is very small under the weight of the dark fabric. When she pulls us close, she says, "Oh, Naomi-joon, Soni-joon," and kisses our cheeks. Sonia giggles and says, "She looks like a Kitchen Witch." Sonia is going through a stage, and I am told to ignore her.
Mamani bustles into the kitchen, leaving behind an invisible trail of quince and cinnamon. Sonia and I take our places, she at the kitchen table, and me at the sink. Sonia is too little for this. I wait for Mamani to sit in her chair and let her chador fall around her shoulders like a movie-star's shrug so she can lean her head back into the sink.
It is my job to wash her hair. I pretend Mamani is my Barbie doll with thick blonde curls I can bounce, but Mamani's hair doesn't shine like that. It does not tumble into the sink in thick waves like my mother's which looks like a black waterfall. Instead, I have to reach for it, grasping wisps of gray like cirrus clouds. She sits up.
"Shirin, do you have tea?" Mamani speaks English when Sonia and I are around, though she makes sure we know she isn't happy about it. She is always asking if we've learned Farsi yet, and we are always telling her, "Bebakhashid, Mamani. Farsi e man bad ast." Our Farsi is bad. We only know what we have picked up from our parents. We understand more than we can speak. That is the way it is.
When my mother pulls a bright yellow box from the cabinet, Mamani rolls her eyes.
"You have only American tea?"
"I don't want it, then." Mamani puts her head back into the sink. She looks up at me.
"You have the hooked nose of a Persian," she says. "I am happy you no look like your father. You look Iranian."
Mamani is sideways when she says this, and her eyes have sunk so deep into wrinkles that I can hardly see the whites, they are just pools of dark brown, like chocolate melting on the sidewalk. I don't know what to say, so I smile. My mother tells her that isn't nice, and I wonder why she doesn't ignore her the way we ignore Sonia when she's fresh.
This is when my father comes in. We didn't hear him come up the stairs, but we heard him exhale at the doorway. My father breathes out like a bull. He approaches Mamani and speaks to her in the language we struggle to understand, in the language that is both guttural and beautiful, the language that reminds my mother of home and makes her cry. I let Mamani's hair tangle in the drain and for a second I think of pulling it out, but my father gets louder and I step away from them. I struggle to understand.
"Tu manu be baziye talkhi keshoondi!" he yells.
"Bitter and game," I think. That is all I understand.
Sonia drops her peanut butter crackers to the floor. She doesn't say anything fresh. My mother is calling to my father in English. She tells him: "Let it go! She is an old woman. She is my mother!" My father doesn't hear her.
Mamani stands up from her chair and comes to me. She pulls her chador around her face and holds it tight under her chin. Her fingers look like tree roots, thick and knotted. I am afraid, but she is only kissing my forehead.
"Khelli khosh geli, Naomi-joon."
She says it again in English. She is only telling me I am beautiful, Naomi-joon, I am beautiful like my mother.
She uses her free hand to motion to my mother that she is ready to go now. Sonia starts to cry. Mamani's wet hair is soaking through her chador, the water stains expanding and connecting like countries on a map. I wanted to see if any of them were shaped like Iran, a sideways straw hat of a country, but she was out the door too quickly.
My mother doesn't say anything to my father as they leave. The front door clicks shut. My father closes his eyes and turns away from us. Sonia and I walk to the sink, where she kneels on Mamani's chair and I stand beside her.
One by one, we pull her cirrus cloud hairs from the sink drain.
"Naomi?" she says.
"What were they fighting about?" I want to smack her and hug her at the same time, so I put my hands at my sides so I can't do either.
"Mamani doesn't like our tea."
She is silent. I turn the water on.
"I don't like our tea either."
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