by Nahal Suzanne Jamir
“man comes / & puts his hands on artifacts / in order to contemplate lineage / you start with what you know / hands, hair, bones, sweat / then move toward what you know / you are not / animal, monster, alien, bitch / but some of us are born in orbit / so learn / to commune with miles of darkness / patterns of darkness / patterns of dead gods / & quiet / o quiet like / you wouldn’t believe.”
-Franny Choi, “Turing Test”
Okmulgee, OK. “Okay?” A leather sofa. Warm air. I laugh as I throw toys behind the sofa to investigate. Grandpa’s cat, Chang, can fit underneath. I stare longingly, belly to the ground and fingers clinging to shag carpet. Mother tells me to stay away from the cat.
Later, Mother and I sit outside and cook kebobs slowly. Her eyes are pieces of meat.
Father’s skin is lighter than hers. When she is gone, I fall in the middle of a sunshine room. The skin on my forehead breaks open, and blood drips between my eyes. Father tells me everything will be okay. But I don’t believe him, not until Mother returns.
My mother is going blind. Since her eyesight began failing, my mother has been after me to write her family history. This is my first attempt. My mother is a willing source, but she cries too much, especially when she tells me about Mirza Ahmed Vahidi’s sickness.
Her other request is to type up her old love letters. I’m more comfortable with this task of transcription. I wonder how one can tell a true story without using artifacts. Vahidi’s sickness left nothing tangible. Is my mother an artifact? She is getting old.
In 2000, my mother had a basic operation for cataracts and ended up with worse and then failing eyesight. She lost her ability to work or drive. The following years involved loneliness, depression, and anger. But so did, seemingly, all the years before. Nothing is more difficult than understanding loss, imagining pain. Often, we harm ourselves in order to understand the pain of others. Is this martyrdom? Or must pain be forced upon us to be real?
This is the story of our martyrdoms, real or not.
The story begins with God. In 1844, a new monotheistic religion emerged in Iran, my mother’s homeland. That religion, the Baha’i Faith, began with a precursory prophet, Mirza Ali Muhhammed, who assumed a title: the Báb. His title translates as “the gate.” He opened the golden gates. To paradise, heaven, the promise of Islam, their Second Coming, called the Qi’ám. The Báb, a young man of twenty-five, paved the way for the Baha’i Faith and its main prophet, Bahá’u’lláh. The Báb is a figure similar to John the Baptist, but the Báb was not only a precursory prophet but also one who founded a precursory religion, the Bábí religion. Almost all of Bábi’s were prepared for and converted to the Baha’i Faith in a few years’ time.
My great-great-grandfather, Mullah Hassan Labshakari, was a rich and well-known man who supervised various properties in Nayriz, my mother’s native city. In the summer of 1844, he set out to deliver soldiers to Shiraz, a nearby city to the north. While there, Mullah Hassan wished to visit the graves of poets Hafez and Saadi. On his way, Mullah Hassan encountered the Báb but did not know of the Báb’s holy mission, which the Báb had only declared a month ago.
Mullah Hassan gave the Báb a ride by horseback. The Báb repeatedly put his hand to his forehead, and said, “Oh, Quddus.”
In the beginning, Bahá’u’lláh was to have Letters of the Living, like Christ’s disciples. These Letters of the Living would begin with the Báb. Quddus would be the last of the Letters of the Living. Though Mullah Hassan knew nothing of the Letters of the Living or Quddus, he understood the Báb’s gesture, one of need and frustration. And during the ride, my great-great grandfather also sensed an essential difference in this man, the Báb. As the two men progressed on horseback, Mullah Hassan drowned in something like white water. Mullah Hassan knew the difference between insanity and holiness. He realized the Báb was Islam’s Qi’ám.
Once back in Nayriz, the Báb asked Mullah Hassan how to repay him for the ride. Mullah Hassan refused payment, yet the Báb gave him a ring.
Mullah Hassan, my great-great-grandfather, told everyone in Nayriz that if the Báb ever returned, they must acknowledge and respect him as the Qi’ám. And when the time came, the townspeople followed Mullah Hassan’s instructions.
The Báb was executed six years later. The ring became a family artifact.
Her hair helped me sleep. When I was eight, I had a hard time trusting dreams to protect me. As soon as the lights went off, I would hear metallic clanging, footsteps of a giant tin-can robot. I spent many nights holding my pillow over my ears to drown out the sound, but it never worked because the noise was coming from inside my head. Often, I could convince my mother to sleep with me. She would lie in the bed beside me and rub my head. She still had long, black hair. Unpermed, perfectly straight. I clung to it, my link to her courage.
Once my father decided I was too old for this protection, he tried to lull me to sleep with classical music, Mozart’s horn concertos. The fullness and fervor of the French horn worked well but couldn’t compare to the dark cloak of my mother’s hair. Some nights alone without my mother, I strained to hear the danger beyond the music.
Mother was born in 1941, the second of nine Shahidpour children.
Amma Pari is bossy and still cannot retire for her restlessness.
Then, Mother. Quiet in the presence of any sibling, desperate for my ear alone.
Amma Ghodsi next, though she always seems the youngest, with her fast-talking, high-talking jokiness. She calls me “Bad Girl,” though always reassures: “Oh, you know I love you, Bad Girl.” We always have a secret, but I never seem to know what it is. Amma Ghodsi survived breast cancer, never had children. Every time I see her, she tells me that I am her favorite. All of her savings bonds are in my name. When she dies, I am to split the money equally amongst my cousins. Mother says I look like Amma Ghodsi.
Aboo Hassan sang to me and my younger sister when we were children. A version of Ira Gershwin’s “Funny Face.” To this day, “funny face” is his nickname for my sister and me. When he was younger, soon after he came to the U.S., he gave my mother a pearl bracelet that she now keeps locked in a bank drawer. Another artifact.
Aboo Hooshang is quiet and sweet. He loves the women in his life, provides for them like they are royalty, queens, though he doesn’t have the money to do so. When I am with Abboo Hooshang, I believe in the Persian mafia and its goodness.
Aboo Mohammed is shy. He lacks Aboo Hooshang’s ability to take charge, but Aboo Mohhammed loves in the same way: too much. He is Mother and Amma Ghodsi’s favorite brother (though their favorites change frequently). Aboo Mohammed almost died when he was ten years old. A taxicab driver hit him, and he ended up with a severe concussion. He needed a whole-body cast and weeks of bed rest. In the hospital, the nurses shoved him into a corner. My mother demanded they move him onto the terrace so he could see the rose bushes, and because of this scenery, he recovered.
Aboo Ruhullah. I have finally met Aboo Ruhullah and his family. Aboo Ruhullah smiles a lot, but always a gentle and sad smile. He is a very calm man. Occasionally, I hear him get energetic with Amma Ghodsi, but she has this effect on everyone. His son Sami is the opposite of his father, and this interests me.
Also, Aboo Bahram, whom I have never met. And I have heard no stories about him. He is still in Iran with his family.
The youngest of the Shahidpour children is Bahman. Batman to my cousins and me. He arrived in America just in time to be a superhero.
The story begins with sunlight in March 1909 in Iran. A religious upheaval, Baha’is vs. Muslims, and my family on the losing side. My great-grandmother Parijan “lost” her father and husband. They would not renounce one god for another. They were affixed to naked trees, and the sun, the light, finished what humans had started.
Parijan ran with her two children and her mother. They found safety in a farm with a man and a woman who should have been their enemy. Weeks later, Parijan and her mother came out of hiding with the protection of this Muslim farmer.
Later, when everyone was scrounging for money, Parijan managed to retain her husband’s land and acquire even more land. The crops her husband planted before his death grew to plenty the next year. Parijan offered the surplus to those her husband owed, though she required no actual proof of her husband’s debt. In the years to come, her generosity and trust would serve the Shahidpours well.
My mother was a registered nurse and would work twelve-hour shifts three days a week. When I was eleven, I dreamt she died at work. In my dream, I saw her walking down a hospital corridor, towards the white light of death, indiscernible from hospital’s fluorescence because of her white uniform. After this, I was certain my mother really was going to die at work. I was young enough to believe in paranormal things like premonitions.
I’m not sure why I was so afraid of my mother dying.
Six years ago, my mother retired early because of back problems. Then, she began to go blind. I should be relieved because I still believe in the portent of that dream. I am not relieved. I am tired of listening. Now, I am afraid my mother will never die.
As a child my mother, like me, only had one grandfather, Mirza Ahmed Vahidi. Oh, Mirza Ahmed Vahidi was a big deal! Before my mother was born, Mirza Ahmed discriminated against Baha’is, but as he got older, his stubbornness faded and his ears opened. He became a devout Baha’i. Mother only knew him as a Baha’i.
When she was five years old, she spent her days with Mirza Ahmed, who sat in his sitting room receiving people all day. Two swords leaned against his chair, and two keys were always in his hand. A few times a day, only for one of his visitors, Mirza Ahmed would go into a room otherwise locked. His visitor was allowed in briefly while Mirza Ahmed stood in the doorway. Then, the room would be locked again.
One afternoon, my mother slipped into the locked room by sliding underneath the door. Therein, huge ceramic vases lined with silver, holding nuts and gold. She could have crawled into one, displaced riches. Now, Mirza Ahmed’s swords and keys made sense.
But once inside the room, my mother couldn’t get out! She had become excited, and her wonder ballooned her tiny body so that she couldn’t fit under the door anymore. Only quietly did she call for help. My mother ate nuts and convinced herself that soon a visitor would come worthy of the locked room. The afternoon passed.
In the early twilight, Mother got nervous, and her noises became louder. Mirza Ahmed stood outside the door, spoke loudly: “What is that noise? I think a cat is trapped in the room.” When he opened the doors, Mother squeezed by, well beneath his gaze.
Years later, when Mirza Ahmed was old, he still kept this room locked. Two swords, two keys. Despite illness, he would not leave his post until a representative of the Baha’i Faith arrived and promised to safely deliver Mirza Ahmed’s money to Haifa where it would be used for the future shrine of Bahá’u’lláh’s grandson.
The story begins on a rooftop. Parijan’s daughter, Fatemeh, was five years old when her father and grandfather were killed. Fatemeh sat in doorways for months, crying. Fatemeh believed the doors should be left open for her father to return home.
The same year Parijan met Bahá’u’lláh’s son, Abdu’l-bahá. He said Fatemeh should from then on be Fatemeh Nur, that she would grow up to follow the path of the Baha’i Faith and would be most precious in her sacrifices.
As Parijan grew older, she became extreme in her faith. One day, walking upon the roof of her home in Nayriz, Parijan declared to Fatemeh Nur that she would sacrifice anything for the faith, even the child Fatemeh Nur was pregnant with then. For the chance to serve the faith, to earn her place in the new heaven, Parijan promised God to give up everything. Fatemeh Nur said, “Don’t offer the lives of my children.” Parijan refused to recant her promise.
That night, Parijan had a dream that she and Fatemeh again stood upon the roof. A butcher had come for Fatemeh’s head. And Parijan was left to hold the body. The next morning, Parijan recanted. But it was too late. When Fatemeh’s daughter was born, child and mother soon became ill and died.
My mother is named for her aunt, Fatemeh. It means “lady of light.” My mother’s middle name is “Nur” which means “light.” Such brilliance. When she arrived in the U.S., she changed Nur to Noora. Perhaps, she was intimidated by her own name, was afraid to be swallowed up by light.
I am my mother’s daughter. When I was younger, she called me zah-r-mar, which means snake. She called me this for things I had not done. I grew up believing myself to be her trickster god. And her sacrifices came in the form of stories. I have heard them all, though they fade. She would rather I forget them altogether because she is the storyteller, not me. I interrupt her good stories. Also, she knows that the memory profanes. And my trickery is remembering.
The story begins at home. As a child, my mother was brave and quiet. Her family lived on a farm. Muslims came to persecute them, but her family, the Shahidpours, ate apricots and figs for strength. They lived on the land Parijan had saved, in the same house my grandfather, Abdul Sami, had been born in.
This home, it was a fortress of three sides. They say the triangle is the strongest shape.
On one side, an immense room with seven sets of double doors, facing the outer world. The family lived in this room during the winter. All of the doors would open for the sun, and the family would be warm. Just off this large room, there were two smaller rooms, one for the servant, Ali, and one for my grandmother’s nice dishes and fancy mirrors.
The summer side, like the winter side, was a single room. The sun never came here. Seven sets of double doors opened onto a balcony with five massive pillars. In the hottest summers, the children would sleep outside to be closer to the wind. The summer side also had two smaller rooms, one for fruit and one for wheat.
The third side of the house consisted of a kitchen and a brick oven. Only two sets of double doors opened onto a smaller balcony. The dogs slept there. To get to the kitchen, you had to enter from the outside. No internal entry, so smoke wouldn’t pollute the house.
Outside, a ten-foot wall of brick and mud surrounded the house. Then, gardens and fields.
Do you want to know what my name means? When I was younger, my parents claimed Nahal meant “young tree.” Long ago in third grade, I abandoned my Persian name for my American one. My younger sister followed suit. I set the example of abandoning heritage.
In 1969, my mother left Iran. Turkey, England, and finally America. She lived in New York City and worked in an emergency room as a nursing technician. To pass the New York state nursing board exams, my mother had to study hard. She specifically had to take several psychiatry courses, something the state required all foreigners to do. So, on Monday mornings, she would ride a train to White Plains, New York, where she attended these classes during the day and slept in a YMCA during the night. On Thursdays, she would return to New York City and work all weekend in the E.R. My mother found New York dangerous and dirty. Once she passed her boards, she only stayed there a little while longer.
Then, she moved to Wilmette, Illinois where there was a Baha’i House of Worship, one of seven in the world. A white building with nine sides, surrounded by nine gardens and fountains, that sits on the shore of Lake Michigan. My mother lived and worked in Wilmette for two years. Despite the proximity of holiness, she couldn’t take the winters and fled to the American South.
The story begins with children leaving home. My mother and her older sister, Parivash, had to leave Nayriz in order to attend a British high school in Shiraz, to the north. The sisters lived with their grandmother Parijan and only returned home to Nayriz once a month. Yet, Parijan cooked for the girls anything their hearts desired, dishes they had never even heard of.
When grown up, Amma Pari went to a British nursing school in Shiraz. My mother finished high school shortly thereafter, but she worked as a private tutor for two years. Eventually, she attended a nursing school as well, though in Abadan, a city that lies on an island that is wedged between Iran and Iraq. Mother could see Iraq on the other side of the Karun River.
For the first time in her life, my mother had access to public transportation, and every day, she rode the bus to school. In the summer, no air conditioning. The worst thing was the poles on the bus: they were so hot. But my mother always held on. She held onto those scalding poles to save her life. Martyrdom by fire. Why did she hold on? Discipline. Foolishness.
The cataract surgery was scheduled for May 2000, and I wasn’t home. Outpatient surgery. Minor surgery. Later, my mother blamed the failure upon a dream, her own failure to recognize her ancestors’ warning.
A windy night. She saw her grandmother crying in a dark red La-Z-Boy in our living room in North Augusta, South Carolina. My mother gave her a box of tissues and went into the kitchen to heat a pre-baked apple pie. When she returned with dessert, her grandmother stood on the other side of the front door knocking. Again, she entered and fell crying into that chair.
The next day, the day of her cataract surgery, my mother almost didn’t go to the hospital. My father convinced her, and after the surgery, the doctors knew immediately that the swelling in her eyes wasn’t normal. My mother knew immediately that she would never see well again.
This has become part of our shared history, even though I wasn’t there, because I wasn’t there.
In 1973 in North Carolina, my mother participated in a Baha’i summer school. On a heat-stricken afternoon, everyone at the school met in the central room to read prayers and to read from holy texts. Here, my mother heard my father’s voice for the first time. Soft, perfectly paced. An inflection that made her fall in love.
The story begins like a thief in the night. Once the Persian government executed the Báb, once Bahá’u’lláh declared his mission in 1863, and once Bábi’s became Baha’is, my rich great-great grandfather Mullah Hassan Labshakari, who had so long ago met the Báb, assumed the duty of hiding Baha’is from the authorities. Mullah Hassan himself was safe because of money and power he had accumulated during his life. After his death, Muslims in Nayriz freely persecuted my family. In time, the Báb’s ring was taken from us. Then, other things.
Card, Oct 28, 1974
My dear Vinson, Allahu Abha,
What joy better than this for me to know you and sent you my best wish and love for your special day I hope always you have the bounty of Bahaullah and his assistance.
I want to see and wish all your wishes come true I hope you able to see pice and love betwin all nitons. This is best time for me to share with you my love and confess my love.
I wish we have measure to measure our love for each other but love has not any limitation it is extreme I want you have very happy day and every day. Happy birthday my love
With essence of love,
Letter, November 1977
I love you forever, and with all my heart, and you are my Qurrat al-Ayn—the solace of my eyes. And you are my Tahirih, and you are my Zarin-taj—my love is crowned with gold. And you are my bird of paradise, and you are my partner, and you are my companion, my one true love. And you are my favorite person, my best friend in all the world. I hope you will always keep me company when I am lonely, and say a special prayer for me each day. And you are Layli, my crazy girlfriend whose laughter is ringing in my ears. You are my light, which is light upon light, and my joy. And you are in my thoughts and prayers each and every day. You put me to bed at night, and you wake me up in the morning.
The story begins with exodus. When Ayatollah Khomeini took over in 1979, it became illegal for Baha’is to own land. My mother’s family in Iran left their triangular fortress and moved north to Shiraz. Later, after the death of Khomeini and during the Iran-Iraq war, the government placed Arab refugees in the old Shahidpour house. My mother proudly tells me these suffering people lived like kings in her old home, though there is no way she could know.
Letter, June 26, 1984
Mrs. Fatemeh Jamir
Apartment H-206-Area 2
Athens, GA 30609
Dear Mrs. Jamir:
Please accept my warm congratulations on your recent naturalization as a citizen of the United States. This is obviously a very important event in your life, and you can be proud of the accomplishment.
I represent the tenth Congressional district, in which you live, in Washington. For the convenience of my constituents, I also maintain offices in Augusta, Athens and Norcross, Georgia. These offices are there to serve you, and I hope you will call on me for any assistance you may need.
Doug Barnard, Jr.
Letter (typed by my father), December 31, 1984
Doug Barnard, Jr.
236 Cannon Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
I wish to thank you for your letter of June 26, 1984 congratulating me on my recent naturalization as a citizen of the United States. I am very happy to be a new citizen in a country like this one because I spent my childhood and part of my adult life in a country, Iran, where freedom does not truly exist and is not even understood. I remember that as a child of five my first grade teachers would ridicule and punish me frequently because my family and I were members of the Baha’i religion. We lived in a small town where religious fanaticism was the mark of civic consciousness, and persecution of the Baha’is was considered the surest way to gain a seat in heaven. We lived in terror, and I thought this was a normal way of life until moving to America. Let me share some of my terror with you, just to give you a sense of what citizenship means to me.
I remember hearing from my grandmother the heart-rending account of the martyrdom of five members of our family, including her father and her husband. Muslim mobs, urged on by their clergymen, brutally put my grandmother’s loved ones to death in the name of Allah, leaving her with. . .no place to live, no income, no protection. My own childhood memories include the frequent stoning of our family’s house, day or night, which left us without a moment of peace or security. When I was ten years old, a fanatical mob seized my father and cousin and lowered them into a well where they were soaked in cold water 24 hours, then pulled out and whipped with chains another 24 hours. In order to obtain their release, it was necessary for the family to send a copy of the Holy Koran with some ransom money tucked between the pages. When father returned home, we found the cloth of his shirt so mingled with his lacerated flesh that we could not remove the shirt without trimming the flesh. He was in bed for six months, and the scars remained for the rest of his life. This would have been enough for anyone to endure, but again when I was fourteen, a frenzied mob seized my father and demanded that he go before one of the clergy in town to recant his faith. One of the mob slashed his forehead with a butcher knife, but rather than consent to their demands, he shouted out his willingness to follow the footsteps of his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather. . . .Eventually, after suffering indignities too ugly to describe, my father was again released. He lived to see four of his children emigrate to the United States.
These are only a few stories out of thousands of similar tales of sorrow. The example of my father’s patient, non-violent endurance is considered quite ordinary among the Baha’is of Iran. Furthermore, all of these incidents occurred prior to the recent revolution which deposed the Shah and established the regime of the Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini.
When I first arrived in this country in 1969 and set foot in this blessed land, I made a wish that I could share my experiences in Iran with all Americans and tell them how lucky they are to enjoy freedoms, which are truly inalienable, truly God-given. Freedom of worship is the most precious of all, for it allows us to return thanks to the Source of All Freedoms without fear of brutal torture and constant interference from bloodthirsty fanatics.
Last November I was able to cast my vote in the general election. This was the first time in my life that I had the opportunity to participate directly in the democratic process. As you have congratulated me on winning the right to vote, please allow me, in turn, to congratulate you on winning another two-year term.
Fatemeh Noora Jamir
When visiting friends of my mother’s in Dallas in the summer of 2002, a middle-aged Persian man told me that my Persian name means “the hope you have at the beginning of things.”
The story begins in Oklahoma with a melting wedding cake.
My grandfather never came to the United States. He was too sick to come to Mother’s wedding, though Grandmother Shahidpour did manage to attend. I have a picture of her standing with my parents.
I don’t have a picture of my grandfather, Abdu’l Sami. My mother does and has shown it to me several times, but I can never remember what he looks like. He died when I was four. My father answered the phone and silently handed it to my mother. She cried because he had died but also because she could not risk going back for the funeral. Baha’is in Iran are still persecuted. Baha’i graves are desecrated or ignored. A building sits atop my grandfather’s grave, I think, and one day, this building will have a Starbucks in it for the white-collar workers.
In 2007, when it is finally possible for my mother to return to Iran, she doesn’t want to because she cannot even visit her father’s grave.
My Persian grandfather died in the bathtub, slipped and hit his head. Sometimes, when I’m taking a shower I think of him and how the last thing he saw was white plastic. Or maybe the bathtubs in Iran are stone, marble. Still, it was a good, clean way to die.
I outgrew God. When I was younger, my father told me God was like the sun. The truth is that God is like an overdue library book, easy to forget.
My mother keeps reminding me of God. Wherever I live, she claims that place has “very good Baha’is.” And if look up these folks, my life would be what it is supposed to be. I prefer newness, difference, to the repetitive shimmering of holy manifestations and exigencies.
Two years ago, Amma Ghodsi returned to Iran. She swore to me she would come back with pictures and videos of the house in Nayriz. But she didn’t return to her family home. Instead, I received footage of Shiraz. Goldfish swimming in dilapidated city fountains. Aboo Ruhullah’s house. Children, my cousins, playing classical instruments skillfully. One girl cousin dresses up and sings a Britney Spears song for me.
Then, the day Amma Ghodsi is to leave. She, her mother, and Aboo Ruhullah sit on a window bench quietly, with light streaming in behind them. The light is all that moves. Grandma Shahidpour, who looks just like she did before I was born, smiles demurely while her children cry. Still, I can tell her heart will break the worst when Amma Ghodsi leaves. Sure enough, the next scene is tragic.
In the summer of 2004, my mother decided to have eye surgery again for the smallest of improvements. This time, we went to a big hospital in Washington D.C. rather than the Medical College of Georgia. We both flew into D.C. on the same night. When I arrived, my mother was calm. The next day, before her surgery, she said many prayers. Still, she was calm. Even in the waiting room when they called her name.
After a few minutes, though, the nurses came to get me. My mother was frantic. She was crying, despite the nurses’ advice not to. “Remember,” my mother said, “that the box with all my jewelry is in the attic. Your bonds are in it, too.” Then, my mother was ready.
And this time things went smoothly, no swelling. On our way to the hotel and in our hotel room, Mother wore two sets of sunglasses. Before she fell asleep that night, she said, “I think God is taking care of me.”
Abandoning heritage is like pretending to be sick: someone always finds you out. In March 2003, I read Dante’s Divine Comedy and again discovered what my name meant:
When the fierce soul leaves the body
from which it has torn itself,
Minos sends it to the seventh depth.
It falls into the wood; no place is chosen for it,
but where chance throws it
it sprouts, like a grain of wheat.
It grows into a sapling and a wild tree. (13.94-101)
The punishment of the suicides is to be cast as young trees, saplings, in hell. Do names, like words, have meaning? Have I killed part of myself? Or perhaps it will be my lot to kill myself before my name returns to me.
In his unpublished memoir, Father writes, “I sought shelter from the harshness of life in marriage and the family but found it to be much less a fortress of wellbeing and salvation than the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh seem to suggest. . . .I know Baha’is are supposed to learn each other’s character before entering into marriage, but the truth is that the only way you can really learn each other’s character is by marrying and trying to raise a family together. Then and only then do the marriage partners find out the truth about each other and their relationship. Only a few years passed, and I discovered my wife’s character was contrary to what had been presented to me before our marriage. . . .She is the light of my life, indeed light upon light, but she shines her light upon all my imperfections, leaving my good qualities in the darkness. . . .I could not stop loving her. . .I could not understand how she could claim to be a follower of Bahá’u’lláh and yet so frequently resort to faultfinding.”
In my unpublished memoir, I say to my father and to you, “We are sharing our terror. If you don’t want to suffer, must not suffer, cannot suffer—leave now. Leave while you can. My mother is in the garden. Leave her there.”
I’ve told you that my grandfather died in the bathtub. But this isn’t the truth. After he fell in the tub, he went to the hospital and was subsequently sent home. He died at home—at the dinner table, to be precise. Yet, is the dinner table such a good place to die? There was also no triangular house. It was four-sided, but the family only used three sides.
These things happen when you try to tell a true story. My mother tells me, and I listen wrong. Important details slip away, and eventually, you’re left not knowing anything about a house you’ll never see. You’re left not knowing your grandfather’s story, about what took him. What will someday come for your mother, who has made herself the goddess of stories, the goddess of one irresistible story.
The day after my father hung himself in 2003, my mother refused to sleep in their bed. She slept on the couch. My sister and I, finally hungry after all the shock and sadness, left to get food. We returned after dark and startled my mother. She spoke rapidly in Persian, which I have never learned. I told her that it was just her children. All she could say was “Che?” which means “What?” I turned the light on to make her feel better. “See, it’s me,” I said. But she couldn’t see me.
Don’t feel sorry for my mother. She’s a real person, not a myth. She never shuts the bathroom door. She coughs and sneezes loudly. These days, when she cooks, her hair ends up in the food. Can you see her putting medicinal drops in her eyes? Head leaned back, then eyes rapidly blinking. She uses one of my father’s old handkerchiefs to dab away the spillage. My mother looks then like a brown Southern belle, jilted. This is not how she looks when she cries. For real tears, her head is bent forward, her eyes squeezed shut in an attempt to stop tears.
He loved my mother in the beginning. She believed that in the end she loved him much more than he loved her. There’s truth in this: he married her totemic status, not her reality. But there is also truth in the opposing ways that he writes about her.
She’s a real person, not a myth. Don’t feel sorry for my mother. Her losses, her sadness, connect her to her family. She wishes for me to join her and them. Part of me wishes to join her. Should I say, It will be my lot to kill myself before my name returns to me? To kill myself in anger at my mother’s god, my ancestors, the false value of suffering? I don’t believe any of it. All of it so dramatic.
Instead, I’ll say this: Sometimes I do feel the pressure not of God’s love but of his mystery. But when I put my hand to the scar on my forehead, I don’t think of my lineage of martyrs. Instead, I remember what it is to be a child, to want my mother, to know the truth about my mother.
The story ends in a garden. Red-tips line the wire fence of the backyard, but you can still see the metal through leaves. Only half of the sod ever took to the earth. Light struggles through the oak tree, the numerous pines. Everywhere else brittle leaves and cones. Little garden patches are laid out in no pattern. One is lined by wood beams, another by large gray cement bricks. The smallest patches are bound only by makeshift wire fences, three-feet high. Stepping stones create a path to one garden patch and the spigot for the hose. A clothesline stretches from the oak tree to a pine. We use it when we feel frugal, which is often.
There is no we. The grill on the porch remains covered. My mother wanders amongst the small gardens, dragging her sad mutterings behind her. There is blood on one of the cement bricks. Her eyes are raisins. And we have all been this: the wanderer, the stain, the dried-up thing. And alone, too. We have all been dead.
Mother, everything will be okay.
NAHAL SUZANNE JAMIR’s work has previously been published or is forthcoming in journals like Beloit Fiction Journal, The Bitter Oleander, Crab Orchard Review, Meridian, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Her short fiction collection In the Middle of Many Mountains was published by Press 53 in 2013. She is a graduate of the creative writing program at Florida State University and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.