THE GOOD DAUGHTER
A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life
Like all the photographs that came with us when we left Iran, this one was as supple and as thick as leather. Its edges were tattered and white creases coursed through the image. I might easily have mistaken it for just another old picture, but this one was nothing like the others.
The girl in it was my mother, Lili, and though she couldn’t be older than fourteen, someone had rimmed her eyes with kohl and darkened her mouth with a lipstick so deep it looked black in the photograph. Her dress was satin, pulled taut across her torso and pinched at the waist, and her shoulders turned in awkwardly where a wedding veil skimmed her body. The groom at her side, a man who was not my father, a man I’d never seen before, wore a grey fedora, and his right hand encircled my mother’s waist with surprisingly elegant fingers.
A bride, I realized with a start, she’d once been this stranger’s bride.
Nearly astonishing as this revelation was my mother’s expression in the photograph. Eyes fixed on the distance and lower lip curled, she looked as if the next shot would have shown her crying. I had never known my proud Iranian mother to look like that.
I sat stunned, gripping the photograph between my thumb and forefinger, unable to look away. It was late in the afternoon, five weeks after my father’s funeral, when this photograph fell from a stack of letters whose Persian script my eyes could no longer follow. A photograph hidden, forgotten, and now found. Iranians would likely shrug at such a discovery, lift their eyes toward the heavens, and sum up its meaning as gesmat or destiny, a word I’d hear often in the days following my father’s death. It was, my mother told me, gesmat that had brought me back to California. I hadn’t seen her in nearly a year when she called to tell me my father was in the hospital and that I had to come home. . .now. I left my apartment on the East Coast without even packing a suitcase. He died before my plane landed in San Francisco, but I returned to my parents’ house still unready for tears.
Then, three days after the funeral, I drove my mother to the airport. Together we watched my father’s body, housed now black-ribboned coffin, being hoisted onto the plane that would carry him across the ocean to Germany, the home he’d given up when he moved to Iran in the sixties to marry my mother. The sky that morning was a rare December blue and nearly cloudless. Gesmat, she whispered as the plane arched out of sight, and at this, finally, I cried.
We’d been a world of our own once, my mother Lili and I, a constant, intimate twosome beyond which I could imagine nothing, least of all myself. Then we came to America and I started turning into an American girl. That’s when she began telling me about The Good Daughter. The Good Daughter lived in Iran. She didn’t talk back—as I had learned to do in this broken-down place. Actually, she didn’t talk much at all. The Good Daughter listened. She understood—always—about manners and modesty. She didn’t wander off to play in the streets by herself. The Good Daughter sat by her mother’s side and heeded her mother’s words. When a man looked at her, she lowered her eyes at once. And she was very, very pretty, with a sweet face and long, flowing hair just like the maidens in Persian miniature paintings.
Over the years The Good Daughter became a taunt, a warning, an omen. When I spoke immodestly, when I wore my skirts too short or let boys flirt with me, I was not my mother’s real daughter, her Good Daughter. “If you become like the girls here,” she’d say, “I’ll go back to Iran to live with my Good Daughter.”
For a long time I thought The Good Daughter was just a story she’d made up to scare me and make me into a good daughter, too. I didn’t want anything to do with The Good Daughter of my mother’s Iranian world. The less I resembled her, the better it suited me. By the time I found the photograph of my mother as a young bride, I’d left home, as girls in this country always do and no good Iranian daughter would ever do.
And yet for forty days after my father’s death I stayed in my parents’ house, smiling and nodding like The Good Daughter of my mother’s stories while her friends dropped by in the afternoons in their lace-trimmed veils and carefully made-up eyes. “What will she do now?” they whispered to each other, and for forty days I served them tea and quietly watched them eyeing her for clues.
The house was empty on the day I found the photograph, the funeral rites complete and the visitors long-gone. The platters of dates and oiled pastries and fruit had all been cleared away and cardboard boxes lay scattered on the floor of every room of the house. I worked long into the afternoon, packing up my mother’s clothes, bills, letters, and leather-bound photo albums. In one of the spare bedrooms I came across my father’s books of Rilke, Kant, and Khayyam and also my grandmother Kobra’s prayer shawl, rosary, and her gilt-trimmed Koran. In my old bedroom closet I found the gypsy dolls my grandmother sewed me years ago in Iran and a Persian picture book defaced by my own childish scribbles.
My mother and I were alone in the house where she could no longer afford to live, and when the photograph slipped loose from a bundle of letters, she was upstairs sleeping with an open bottle of Valium on the table beside her bed.
I carried the photograph to the living room and sat cross-legged on the floor for a long time, staring up at the large black-and-white portrait of my parents on their wedding day. Tehran, 1962. She, raven-haired with Cleopatra eyes, plays Elizabeth Taylor to my father’s blond and slightly sheepish Richard Burton. I grew up with this portrait and all the stories my mother loved to tell about her wedding to my father. Every pair of eyes, she always told me, had trailed her on the day she married her damad faranghi, her foreign groom. As proof of who she’d been, of what our country had once been, she hung this picture in every home we ever had in America: the tract house in Terra Linda, the five-bedroom house on the Tiburon hills, the villa on Richardson Bay. If, for many years, someone had asked me to tell them about Iran, I would have pointed to this photograph of my parents, as if every story began there, in that moment.
Now I’d found a photograph that had survived revolution, war, exile, and something else besides: my mother’s will to forget the past. Although I couldn’t yet imagine the stories it would tell, I slipped it between the pages of a book, and carried it three thousand miles away.
“Maman,” I began.
Six months later I was back in California, sitting in the new in-law unit my mother had managed to carve out from her Spanish-style villa. The rest of the house was rented out by then, and she was living in two small rooms cluttered with everything she’d salvaged after my father’s death. She’d given up entertaining her friends, said the space was too cramped to serve a proper tea, so what was the point of inviting anyone over anymore?
By then I’d looked at the photograph so many times I could have drawn its every detail from memory. Who, I’d wonder again and again, was the man at her side? What had happened to him? And why had my mother never told me about their marriage?
For a long time her grief over my father’s death, and my own, had made it impossible to ask her these questions. Six months had passed and still I didn’t know how to begin.
I cleared my throat. “Maman,” I said at last and held the photograph out to her.
She glanced down at it and then scanned my face, trying to decipher what, if anything, I understood and what she could still stop me from knowing. She shook her head and continued drinking her tea. “No,” she mouthed finally, averting her eyes. “This has nothing at all to do with you.” She set her cup down, snatched the photograph from my hand, and left the room.
When I was back on the East Coast, she called me one day and accused me of rifling through her things. I’d stolen the photograph from her, she said, and there was just nothing else to say.
Then she started sending me the tapes. The first one arrived in springtime, a few weeks after No Rooz, the Iranian New Year. Eventually there would be ten of them. That year my mother Lili would sit alone in her house in California, speaking the story of her life into a tape recorder for me. The tapes always came marked up in Persian, and I couldn’t make out much more than my name when I opened the envelope and found the first one. Tracing her script with my finger, it occurred to me that I didn’t even own a cassette player. The next morning I headed into town to buy one, and with that her story began to pass like a secret life between us.