Once upon a time, I was born in a faraway land into a storyteller family. Both my parents, my nanny, all my six uncles from my father’s side, and their children were storytellers. Some of them told stories through poetry, some of them through their humors, some of them through their spiritual convictions and all of them through their hearts.
But amongst all, my mother was the best storyteller. Because she was a stranger in the strange land, she had the best stories. Being born in the city of Baku in the Soviet Union to a Russian Orthodox mother from Belarus and a Muslim father from Republic of Azerbaijan, and immigrating to Iran of 1930’s at age six, made her stories unique.
The following pages are my mother’s stories as I remember them. The stories she told me, and my siblings expanded more than four decades. The stories kept her grounded. The stories of a long-lost loves. The stories of a million rooms haunted mansions.
–in Maman’s Memory
I’m almost done with my mother’s stories titled “A Russian Epic.” A couple of more chapters and I’m ready to do a rewrite and more thorough editing to publish it as a book.
To do so, I have to remove all my chapters and leave you guys with synopses of each chapter. Of course, the book would keep all you’ve been reading so far, and then some.
I’m expecting to publish “A Russian Epic”, both in paperback and digital format by the summer of 2022, and I will notify you as soon as they get released.
Thank you again for your patronage and support.
You can email me your comments and suggestion @ email@example.com.
The black rotary phone sits on my desk. Maman gave it to me when she came back from her last trip to Iran. She had sold the house, and she brought back to the States things of sentimental value. She was sick, but we didn’t know the extent of it at that time. One month after her return, we gathered at my brother’s house in Downey and opened the packages which were packed by my brother, younger sister, and Maman in Tehran. The trip was not long. First, Maman went to Tehran to finish closing the deal. Then my brother and my younger sister went there to help her pack and close her life in Iran for good.
That day, in my brother’s house, we opened the packages and remembered. Each one of us chose our prizes from the past. Amongst the paintings and antique lamps, books and albums, china and glassware, I picked one of the two black rotary telephones. The one which sat on the custom-made wooden coat rack’s little drawer in the basement hallway. Now it sits on my computer desk in my work/ bed/ nursery/ entertainment room.
A few years back, my grandson dropped the handset and the weight of it broke the cord. I felt bad. I gave him grief. I told him that Papa Habib was sad because he broke his phone.
He thought about it a little and said, “Papa Habib is dead.”
And I smiled and said to myself, “Clever boy.” But I didn’t want him to go scot free.
Then I said, “I know, but when I die, I’m gonna tell him.” Poor kid, he didn’t think I can stoop so low.
He thought about it a second and said, “Oh.” He never touched the phone again.
The black rotary phone sits on my desk with the severed cord, but at age 65, I’m still not cordless. My memories are connected to the still life of my parents. Cords shouldn’t be severed. Not even after the death of Mom and Dad. It’s the cord that keeps the memories of memories of my parents, dynamic and alive, no matter how dream-like they are. The black rotary phone sits in front of me and reminds me of good calls and bad calls. As if it’s the only impartial entity from my past.
It’s the winter of 1972. I’m in the first year of college. It’s seven o’clock AM. It snowed all night. It’s still snowing. Papa is in his three-piece dark brown gabardine suit. His patterned red silk tie gives an oomph to his starched white dress shirt. His polished leather brown boots and wool stockings keep him happy. Papa is fond of shiny shoes. He is in good humor. I’m in my pajamas. My class doesn’t start ‘til 10 o’clock. Maman is in the kitchen, still in her house robe. Nanny, buzzing around her in the kitchen. My older sister is putting make up on and getting ready for her class. My three-year-old sister is on the couch playing with her doll. The black one which I bought for her from our neighborhood’s sundry shop. Her green flannel pajamas keep her warm in this freezing day. My brother is getting ready to ditch the school. Tea is ready. The sweet smell of it fills the basement level. Fresh naan-e sangak, feta cheese, butter, and sour cherry preserve, are set on the dining room table. The heater next room, grumbles. Its tank is full of petroleum. A black portable heater sits in the middle of hallway. Papa sits to eat. His cigarettes and his lighter are on the table. Winston red. My brand as well. He fills his plate with the cheese and preserves. I sit in front of him. My sister leaves the couch and sits on one of the eight chairs around the dining room table. I fix her bread and butter sandwich with the thin and crispy stone oven baked sangak, and a sprinkle of sugar. We all love sugar sprinkled bread and butter sandwich. That’s how our nanny fed us most mornings.
“The eggs are getting ready,” Maman shouts from the kitchen.
The smell of fried eggs makes me a little hungry. Nanny comes in with a tray. Little glasses full of red and hot tea, shake, clink, and spill a little in the tray. She puts the tray on the table and goes back to the kitchen. We all say thanks. My older sister still is in the upstairs’ bathroom. My brother rushes in and sits to my right. I eye the cigarettes. I have a plan to smoke one with my tea. Papa catches my eyes but says nothing. I know what he thinks. He is worried about my health. But he doesn’t want to be a hypocrite. Nanny comes back with the sizzling skillet full of sunny side up immersed in boiling butter. There is sprinkle of pepper and turmeric on each of eight yellow sun-lets. Nanny puts the skillet in the middle on a hot plate placement. We say thanks. She leaves the room. Back to the kitchen. Her tiny body is bent. She is agile though. Maman needs her. They are preparing lunch.
“Start,” Papa says, but I’m not that hungry.
I pick a plate and lift an egg with spatula and drop it in the plate for my sister. She reaches out to grab it from my hand.
“You gotta wait, it’s too hot.”
I hold the plate away from her reach. She listens. She always listens. She is a good kid. Papa reaches for the spatula. The black rotary phone starts to ring. Papa’s arm freezes in midair. Maman steps down the kitchen steps. She passes the bathroom. She runs toward the coat cabinet where the black phone resides. Papa gets to it before her. I leave the table and stand in the threshold. Papa picks up the receiver.
Maman’s eyes bulges out and quizzes, “Who could that be?”
I’m curious. My older sister comes down the stairs and freezes on the last step. My brother stands behind me. Telephone rings at odd hours all the time. But this one has a different ring to it. Nanny feels it too. She rushes into the dining room and sits beside our little sister. Her eyes narrow in protectiveness.
“Alo,” Papa answers. “Yes, this is he.”
Maman gets closer. Papa signs her toward himself with a gesture of his hand. Maman gets closer. He holds the receiver between his and her ears. Maman goes pale.
“How do I know you are for real?” Papa says. “Hold on.” Papa opens the drawer which the phone stands on it. He retrieves a note pad and a pen and starts writing.
“8:00 PM. Yes, sir, I’ll be there.”
At this point Maman is wobbly on her knees. She grabs her throat with one hand and leans against the wall.
“What’s going on?” my older sister asks.
“Nothing, you go about your business. You’re going to be late for your class,” Maman says. “I’ll tell you guys later.”
Sister is reluctant. As always, she wants to know everything. But this time Maman is firmer than usual. Her tone of voice scares all of us back to our designated spaces. But I can hear their whispers in the hallway.
Three minutes passes and I hear Papa, “Then this was not a crank call? Yes sir, we’ll do.”
He hangs up. Maman and Papa come into the dining room. The rest of the eggs stay untouched. Papa is not in good humor now. Maman is not interested in life anymore. I have to get ready for my class. Something is wrong today. It’s still snowing, and white streets are not going to be fun today.
It’s Abaan Maah, the second month of fall of 1968. My sister and I are in middle school and I hate middle school with a passion. It’s a Thursday evening, Eve of Moslems’ Sabbath. The air is cold, and the autumn wind blows the trees off their leaves in warm colors of a timely death. If a year is a symphony, autumn is its adagio. Too Vivaldi-ish for you, oh well. Maman, my sister, and I are stuck in the traffic in the taxi. We are going to do some winter boot shopping in the old shopping districts of Laleh- zaar and Naderi. It’s not that we cannot find good boots in the new and modern shopping district of Pahlavi Avenue and the Elizabeth Blvd, and its newly developed continuation, Karim khan-e Zand. But from time to time, like tonight, Maman wants to visit the old district to remanence the modernity of her own time.
“Tomorrow we will check the Naderi district,” Maman announced last night.
“I knew it.,” I thought. I should have known. Maman planned this all along since we decided boot shopping a couple of weeks ago. She’s been hinting in the last few days.
“I have a big craving for Café Naderi’s ice cream,” she would blurt. Or she would close her eyes and sniff the air deep and say, “No one has Khosravi’s pirashki,” as if she was holding one close to her nose and about to eat it. Or she talked about her childhood with more longing lingering in her grey eyes which looked a bit tired in the recent days. Well, the decision was made and that was that.
“Look, if you can’t find what you like we can go to British Embassy district on Friday. Promise.” And that did it. At least for me. There are a few trendy shoe shops in that district worth trying.
Now the three of us sitting in the back of an old taxi knowing deep-down the journey to the past wouldn’t be fruitless. Maman knows a few skilled cobblers in the district, which we shopped from them before. Not to mention a delicious journey was ahead of us. Downtown Tehran still is the home to the best Russian and Arminian bakeries and restaurants. We might not buy boots tonight, or we might, but for sure we are going to have our fills of pirashki, ponchic, and creamy vanilla ice cream. It’s been two years that we visited the old downtown shopping district and all and all I’m happy that Maman is taking us there. Too bad my brother didn’t want to join us. My brother stayed at home with his best friend. When we were leaving the house, they were working on their bikes in the garage. They were wrapping new color plastic ribbons around the bike’s rods and frame-out with the bright yellow, in with the neon green—and that was more delicious than creamy delicacies. But no fret from Maman’s part, as long as Nanny is supervising them. And disinterested in shopping Papa, is in the card club.
“Hey girls, are you excited?” Maman asks.
“I am,” I perk up.
“How about you Sima?” Maman wants to make sure my sister is ok with our outing.
My sister sounds an “Aha,” without taking her eyes off the outside traffic. Maman sighs and leans back, but before she could settle, a car cuts our taxi and makes the driver slam on the brake. All three of us in the back jolt forward. Maman holds me back with her arm.
“Sorry,” the driver says as he checks on us in the rear-view mirror.
Maman sits back again. She rolls down the window. She is claustrophobic and we have a long way to go by the look of slow-moving traffic. The cold air rushes in and blends with the smell of stale tobacco. The sound of the driver’s footwork on the cab’s three pedals picks a tempo of its own-woosh, clang, thump. The driver’s right hand and arm works the stick shift frantic, from neutral to lowest shift and back to neutral and with each release the stick vibrates with a subtle boing sound. He honks his way around a public bus to avoid its exhaust plume. Maman rolls the window up. My sister relaxes her body and sinks in her seat. I crane my neck and fix my glare on the traffic jam through the windshield. The traffic light keeps changing from green to yellow, and to red, way down the road.
“With the speed we are going it seems we will never get to the intersection.” I sigh and sit back.
“What time is it?” my sister asks.
“It’s almost six,” Maman looks at her watch.
“Oof,” my sister hugs herself and sinks in her seat.
“After this intersection traffic will get better,” the driver says.
A young man jumps in front of the taxi to cross the street. The driver slams on the break and we jolt forward.
The driver rolls down his window and stick his head out and shouts, “Stupid ass.” The pedestrian joins his friends on the opposite sidewalk laughing. The driver rolls the window up, says sorry for the second time.
The traffic light changes six times until we cross the intersection. We are going a little faster now. The driver is using a higher gear. He is relaxed, but we all know we will have more grid lock ahead of us as we get closer to downtown.
It’s been dark for quite a while. It’s getting chilly in the cab. There is something wrong with its heater. I lean my upper body against Maman’s. She looks at me and puts her arm around me and asks my sister to join the huddle. Sima leans towards me. Maman hugs both of us.
“Did you get stuck in traffic going downtown when you were a kid?” I look up and ask Maman.
“No, there weren’t that many cars when I was a kid, but it still felt too long,” Maman says after a pause, “I couldn’t wait to go to the shopping district with my parents.”
“Did you go every weekend?” my sister asks.
“Almost,” Maman perks up, “even when times were tough, they took me there for a stroll and ice cream.” Maman draws us into her embrace.
It’s the first week of July, year 1970. It’s already scorching-hot outside. As soon as strawberry season was ended in the mid -Spring, so did the cool breeze which carried around the sweet smell of the short-lived berries and invited the folks of every creed and age outside. But now, at the beginning of the summer, the shimmering, hot air arising from the black top, holds the smell of tar in its ebbs and flows, and dares people to step outside, sometimes starting after ten o’clock in the morning.
But inside is cool. Just last year, Papa bought a heavy-duty, water-cooler, air conditioner and strapped and mounted it on a metal scaffold in the back yard. The behemoth air conditioner, with its thick and industrial aluminum ducts sprawling on the walls and the windows, wasn’t a pretty addition to our backyard. But in hot days like today, I could hug the monster and kiss its cool and thick, metal tentacles. It always kept us cooler in our two-joint, huge basement rooms where Sima, Maman, me—and Nasrin, a young seamstress Maman hired to help her make our summer collection—are gathered since eight o’clock this morning.
My one-year-old sister is taking her daily nap in her crib in the little nook next to our parents’ bedroom upstairs. Nanny is preparing 10:00 o’clock refreshments in the kitchen. My brother, Bahram, left the house with Papa to go to work around 7:00 this morning. And, like any respectable Iranian house, our three-story, green house on 64 Dey Street belongs to women at this time of the day.
Half unrolled rolls of voile, silk, and delicate cotton in vibrant colors—some with geometrical patterns and some with florals—were strewn everywhere. Fabric is on the chairs, on the big beige couch by the window, on Maman’s newest model sewing machine sitting in the corner waiting to be used, all the way on two twin beds in the joining room. Sima and I fondle the summer issues of Burda the German fashion magazine, and the latest issue of Vogue, plus other fashion publications.
Though we’ve already chosen what style to make before purchasing the fabrics, since this morning, we’ve been going back and forth between the two rooms bringing out fabric rolls, trimmings, buckles, and buttons while asking for each other’s opinions, arguing, screaming, and drowning the sound of Nanny’s transistor radio coming from the kitchen direction.
“No worries, I think I can draw the pattern myself. It’s not that hard.”
“It looks like handkerchief.” I grab the magazine.
“It’s not for you,” Sima says, “you don’t have the boobs for it.”
“The model doesn’t have boobs either,” I say.
Maman cranes her head, takes a brief look at the open page, and says, “It’s beach appropriate.”
I take a second look at the picture, and all of a sudden, I remember a couple of glossy pictures of Maman in shorts, a white halter top, ala Katharine Hepburn, a pair of strappy, white sandals, and a wide straw hat. She was on Bandar Pahlavi boardwalk, leaning on a rental bike, her hip holding the handlebars. In the pictures, she has long hair and a broad smile. Her perfect legs with long muscles rivaled any Hollywood goddess.
“Just like those pictures,” I blurt out.
“What?” Maman says.
“Those pictures with the bicycle on the boardwalk,” I say.
“I remember those pictures,” Sima says. “How old were you in those? 16, 17 years old?”
“Something like that,” Maman says.
“Wasn’t it during the war?” Sima asks.
“Yes, it was.” Maman sighs, “Good old days.”
“Good old days?” Nasrin who’s Jewish says.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Maman says, “there were scary times. Believe me I got my share of verbal abuse by my Muslim and Zoroastrian neighbors when the war started. Hitler’s Aryan nation propaganda was working.”
“I didn’t think Zoroastrians had prejudices?” Nasrin asks.
“Zoroastrians considered themselves pure Aryans.”
“But you are not Jewish,” Nasrin says.
“Believe me, we Russians were as hated by Germans,” Maman says, “we had a rough time even before the war. But mind you, at that time, there was a rumor that Reza Shah identified all the Jews around the country on behest of Germany’s request. But as I said, that was the rumor which was circulating amongst the Jewish community.”
“I didn’t know.” Nasrin stopped working.
“Ask your parents, they probably know,” Maman starts to mark the pattern’s thin paper using a measuring tape, “for sure my husband’s family were aware of the rumor.”
“Then what happened?” Nasrin says.
Maman stops marking the paper, hangs the yellow measuring tape around her neck, looks into the distance, and says, “Then allies occupied Iran and ousted Reza Shah who claimed he was neutral and sent him to exile and installed his young son. And things changed for the better. We not only felt safer, but a lot of jobs were created during the occupation—money started to flow. My own father got a job at the American base in Tehran and made a good money. That’s why he could afford to take us to Caspian shores one of those years. The pictures you saw were taken then. But before that, oof, we had a rough ride for a couple of years.”
“Maman, tell her about those tough years.” Sima says.
“Don’t distract Nasrin. She’s going to poke herself.” Maman double checks her markings with the tape before drawing the lines.
“Oh, there is no distraction,” Nasrin says as she pins the pattern on the fabric. “Please Sara khanoum, tell me the story.”
“In its good time,” Maman smiles. Nanny comes in with a big bowl of fresh cherries, “Now clear the table. We should get some refreshment. It’s getting hot.”
My storyteller mother is reluctant today. Maybe it’s the color of the fabrics preventing her reminiscing the grey times. “Oh well, I’ve heard the story many times,” I say to myself. But I don’t mind hearing it one more time. Maybe new details come up, a new clarity, a new angle. They always do before they turn into composites of dream images.
It’s year 2009. It’s mid -June. It’s a calm Saturday morning. A sunny, cloudless day. A good day to let life happen. A day of spontaneity. And today it turns out to be the three of us again, Maman, Sima—my sister—and of course me—on another road trip of our lives.
Maman has been back in the states since her trip to Tehran to finalize the sale of our family house for a year now. She is sick. Right after her last trip to Tehran, she came down with a bad bout of bladder infection. Then everything went downhill. Now she has pain in her bones. I still can’t believe that I’m taller than her now. She always been taller.
Her pain comes and goes, but recently she’s been having pain in her abdomen too. On top of that, she misses Papa bad. Since Papa’s death, the roses on her cheeks turned pale yellow. Ah, how she misses him so. I know, she told us. The vibrant and extrovert Maman, misses Papa and cannot stand people anymore, except her children and the grandchildren and sometimes her best friend from Iran, who would visit her for few weeks. But she never forgoes her outings, and today, on this beautiful sunny June day, we’re headed towards the beautiful Malibu through Topanga Canyon onto PCH. My sister is driving. They picked me up earlier from my house in the Valley and now we’re enjoying the ride. Maman is happy, despite the pain. Lot’s to celebrate these days. My oldest daughter married and expecting. My younger daughter’s recovering from addiction and doing well. My son, the youngest, is working and making money. My brother, Bahram, the late bloomer, is going to be a first-time father at ripe age of 51. My baby sister, Nina, is married more than five years and seems content. And Sima’s daughter got married and made my sister happy. Oh yeh, life’s been happening in a good way in most part, in the last few years.
Because Tehran and Los Angeles share a Mediterranean like climate, driving through the city’s, canyons, and streets, is a nostalgia galore for us, and with nostalgia comes dreamy memories.
“Do you remember how you hated to travel with us, because you would barf all the way?” my sister says.
“I’m about to barf now,” I say. “You better have your eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel.”
I’m happy that I’m sitting in the back, otherwise I would hit the imaginary brake on the passenger side all the way to Malibu. She laughs and takes her right arm off Maman’s head rest and reaches the dash and pushes the cd player buttons. A sound from the past fills the car. “Pas az in zori makon, havas-e yari makon, to aye nakam, del-e divane…”
And with velvety voice of Vigen my heart starts to beat backward. I used to know the lyrics by heart. I start to murmur, but Maman beats me to it. Her voice is young, just like when she sang Ochi Chernaya in our little rental apartment in Tehran. We had this little battery-operated portable turn table, which we bought from my father’s old friend, who imported them from Germany or maybe Japan. As soon as we got the delight-able device, Maman started to collect vinyl of all sizes and speeds. Russian folk’s music, Chopin’s piano sonatas, Straus’s waltzes, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Khachaturian’s Guiana, and the Beatles, lots of Beatles, and Nat and Frank too. She had them for years until the Islamic revolutionary guards, in one of the two raids of our house in Tehran, confiscated them all and she mourned the loss until now. And I hope somebody is listening to them. Oh well, that’s a wishful thinking.
Maman stops singing. She turns in her seat towards my sister and says, “Do you remember Vigen used to live right across our building in Villa Street?”
“I remember it very well,” my sister says.
I say to myself, “How is it that she can remember all the details, but my memory of the same thing is so vague and hazy?”
She looks into the rear-view mirror and sees my gaze and says, “Sohaila do you remember?”
“Vaguely,” I say. “I was only three or four?”
“Bah, I remember it well, I even remember the night you were born,” she says.
I almost blurt out, “How could you? You weren’t even two.” But I say nothing. Maman turns again and looks out. She is sad again. My sister pushes more buttons and finds Frank Sinatra.
I like to find Frank Sinatra on the road. The best hitchhiker ever, because he did it his way, so he claims. I don’t know about Frank, but for sure Maman did her best to do it her way, despite believing in luck and happenstance. Whenever I brought up a lot of I’s in my conversation, like, I did this and I did that, I earned this and I helped that, I’m going to be this and I’m going to say that, she would say, and I’m paraphrasing—as you know I have a foggy memory—“Life is nothing but a collision of moments” meaning, “What “I” got to do with it?” And that would be the end of the “I.”
The car rolls down the canyon and except for Frank Sinatra, nobody sings. We are halfway to the beach. Maman likes the ocean, so do we. She feels happier in the ocean iodic fresh air. She has no thyroid gland or goiter. We are going to dine in one of the seafood restaurants along the coast. Maman gets chilled.
“Sohaila please give me my shawl. It’s in my bag.”
I reach in her big black leather bag and find her black cashmere wrap. As I pass it, the memory of her perfume and stale cigarette smoke fills the car. She coughs. She reaches into her purse, digs into it, and fishes out a package of Ricola, rattling numerous medicine bottles. She takes one and extends her arm diagonally towards me.
“No thanks,” I say.
She offers one to my sister.
“I’ll have one,” she says.
I take the opportunity and start talking. Frankly, I’m kind of tired of Frankie, he is too smug in his own way, I’m thinking, “Yah, if I had millions like you did…then again, he deserved it, luck or no luck, because luck was a lady one night and boom, the rest is history. OK enough already.”
“This road reminds me of Chaloos Canyon,” I say. “It even smells like Chaloos.”
“Mmmm,” Maman shifts in her seat, rolls the Ricola wrapper into a ball and drops it in a clear plastic cup in the cup holder, then continues, “Reza Shah caused me personal grief, but I still thank him for building the canyon. Every year, it took me closer to my father when we were in Iran.”