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.