My Grandmother's Lesson: Courage
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07/27/09 | Angella M. Nazarian, Author | 30 Comments

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Angella M. Nazarian, Author

I remember the first time I went to New York to pitch my book to a prospective publisher. I stood on the busy sidewalk two blocks from the office, tears streaming down my face, a scrap of paper clutched in my right hand. It was a chilly spring day and I’d slipped on the stylish 70’s black overcoat that was a keepsake from my maternal grandmother who had passed away eight years earlier. When I put my hands in its deep pockets to ward off the icy air, I discovered they weren’t empty. I pulled out a handkerchief, a small piece of the candy she always used to stash away, a note she had scribbled to herself. In her familiar quivering hand she’d written two words: Mint. Apricots. It was a grocery list. That’s when the tears came.

It took me back to the day, soon after her passing at the age of 84, when we’d gone to clean out her apartment. I’d asked my mother if I could keep two pieces of her clothing: the tailored black overcoat, and the green and burgundy checkered dress that she often wore to Friday night Shabbat dinners. She had been known as an impeccable dresser. She was petite like me and very spiritual. But the similarities stopped there -- or that’s what I thought at the time.

My grandmother was raised in a deeply patriarchal Iranian culture, where women were expected to be supportive wives and devoted mothers only. Having influence beyond the sphere of family life was uncommon and looked down upon. My grandmother rarely spoke up in front of people, and sat in what I jokingly called, “the Siberia,” or most peripheral corner of our family gatherings. Even so, she was regarded as a wise woman. If she were asked for her opinion in front of others, she would deflect the attention, giving elusive answers. “Only God knows,” she often replied.

Her behavior felt too passive to me, as if she could not break out of the feeling of being invisible. I had had a vastly different experience than she did. I immigrated to the U.S. at the age of eleven, right at the start of the Iranian Revolution. During my first five and a half years here, my parents were stuck in Iran, so I lived with my older siblings. This early experience encouraged me to be self-sufficient, determined, and independent, while being raised in the U.S. afforded me opportunities the women of past generations simply didn’t have.

I am the first woman in my family who not only graduated college, but who also went on to graduate school. In our traditional culture, it is not expected that women will work outside of the home, especially if there is no financial need. I worked because I wanted to, and much to my family’s surprise, continued teaching part-time at the university until four years ago, when I left to work on a memoir. It was when I started writing about our family experience of escape, exile, and our eventual adjustment in the U.S. that the old notions of self-censorship and self-repression surfaced in my life. Who would care about what I have to say? I wondered, finding it hard to believe that others would even be interested in my experiences. That’s when I realized that my grandmother and I had more in common than I originally thought.

But the similarity didn’t stop there. When she was forty years old and her children were grown, my grandmother, unhappy about her minimal education, asked my grandfather to get her a tutor. He did, and she worked diligently for years on her reading and writing, until she felt confident enough to write correspondence and reach out to others. She had a real zest for learning that seemed to grow and flourish. In her 80s, she hired a tutor who visited her twice a week to work on her Hebrew.

On that day in New York, wearing my grandmother’s overcoat, I felt fully embraced by her presence. As I walked toward my meeting, I somehow knew I was carrying her essence -- all her dreams, joys, loyalties, denials, doubts, and disappointments -- within me. It was astonishing to think that my grandmother began to fully read and write at the same age as I was hoping to publish a book. Mint, apricots, it meant so much to her to be able to write those words, just as it means so much to me to write about her. I knew then that others would be interested in her story, our story, and that maybe she wasn’t so invisible after all. That’s when I realized that writing our family memoir not only impacts future generations, it also has the power to bring honor and heal the unfulfilled dreams of women of generations past.

Angella M. Nazarian teaches psychology in local universities and facilitates adult personal development seminars for women. Her writing and poetry have appeared in the Hufffington Post, MO+TH and Milllenium Literary Journal. Her new book, Life as a Visitor, is due to be released in Oct. of 2009 by Assouline Publishers.

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  • Angella, thank you for having the courage to write about the spiritual/ psychological legacy that you have received and are sharing with all of us. It serves as a reminder that we are all standing on the shoulders of the women who came before us and that we are never really alone, for we carry their spirit! I am particularly moved by reaching into the pocket of your grandmother's coat and finding objects that reminded you of her! I can't wait to read more from your life!

    Posted by Rita Eichenstein, 29 July 2009.

  • As I grow older, and hopefully wiser, I am continually reminded that no matter one's cultural background, race or belief system, the one constant is how remarkable and wonderful our elders become are and that we can learn from them even if they are no longer with us. Ms. Nazarian's eloquent and poignant tale of her grandmother's overcoat and the treasure within brought tears to my eyes and tugged at my heart as I remembered special moments from my own cherished grandmother and the memories my son's hold onto tightly of my dad. Her passion for her subject matter shines brightly and I cannot wait to read the rest of her family's story.

    Posted by Robbie Curtis, 29 July 2009.

  • So many of us can identify with these sentiments. The challenge lies within each of us to search out the lessons of our ancestors, draw on their strength and find the message we want to share with the world. I have often experienced similar moments of feeling connected to my grandmother and tapped into her wisdom and grace. Can't wait to read your book and hear more about your own personal experience.

    Posted by Gaby Alexander, 29 July 2009.

  • Your words offer hope for so many of us, and help us to reach towards the future while reflecting on the past!! I look forward to reading your soon-to-be-released book, and many more to come!!!!!

    Posted by Bonnie Goldstein, 29 July 2009.

  • I loved reading this post and look forward to reading the book. I am particularly touched by the awareness of empowering that happens over generations through the experience of shared strength even more important than shared knowledge. Neither of my grandmothers could read or write in any language, but they raised families against all odds, survived wars, made new lives in a foreign country so that their children and grandchildren would be free to learn and to work and to care for themselves. My great-grand,other, a woman who died before I was born, traveled around in New York City on her own visiting her children and grandchilldren using subways and busses and using viusal cues for where to get on and off. That particular image, described to me when I was quite young by her granddaughter, my mother, pleased me enormously. She probably did more valiant things, but the idea of a little old kerchief-wearing goodie-bag carrying woman negociating the subways alone made me feel, "I come from a line of tough women!" Thank you, Ms. Nazarian, for reviving this image for me.

    Posted by sylvia boorstein, 29 July 2009.

  • it's wonderful that you took the time not only to blog but to write a book that will inspire others. Many feel we are living in tough times but looking back should remind us all that every generation has its challenges. Keep writing and we'll all keep reading....

    Posted by Diane Shader Smith, 29 July 2009.

  • I am so grateful for those who have taken the time to read my article. The words of encouragement and your positive feedback have energized me. Thank you, Angella Nazarian

    Posted by angella, 29 July 2009.

  • Thanks for your interesting blog

    Posted by carolnunggu, 28 July 2009.

  • If you really have the courage to do such thing you can really achieve what are aiming for.

    Posted by Burningsimple2009, 28 July 2009.

  • I am overwhlemed with the emotion that this blog brought forth within me. Ms Nazarian's words painted a scene in my mind and heart that connected me to the generations of women in our lives who have woven their life's experience into our souls. Their essence has enabled us to be who we are today and who we hope to become. As I read this powerful blog, I felt such depth of emotion..feelings of strength, pride,wisdom and hope that our bonds with the past continue to live through us. Ms Nazarian's words are magical and give us the beauty of faith in the power of connection and faith in ourselves- her message gave me the courage to believe that we always carry a piece of each amazing woman within us. I, now, too..will carry her beautiful words within me.

    Posted by lili Bosse, 27 July 2009.