The Three Complaints of My Mother

Suitcases, radios, and silent living rooms—these were my mother’s three complaints.

Blessed with boundless physical energy and intellectual curiosity, my mother Anahid had little patience for drawn-out nags. Nor did she have a scheming mind. Her complaints were often the occasion for a passing dramatic pose, but while they were happening, the whole universe, it seemed, was at her mercy. Her mind knew no narrow, attentive path. It was wayward and full of digressions, like her, like my memory of her.

We lived in Amman, the capital of Jordan, where my parents had eventually settled in the mid-1950s, arriving as refugees from Mandatory Palestine in 1948. In Jerusalem, my parents had been part of a thriving Armenian community whose numbers had multiplied during the inter-war years with the arrival of those Armenians who had survived the Ottoman genocide of 1915. By a circuitous route, our family had finally made it to Jordan, and to this second floor apartment on Rainbow Street where I spent my adolescence in the 1950s and early 1960s, and where my mother’s complaints flourished.

The apartment’s  front door opened onto a sizeable passageway that was our dining area. To its right was the living room, and adjoining it was the original dining area that my father turned into his study.  By the time we had moved to Rainbow Street, my father Diran had gone into private practice and had begun to make a name for himself as an architect.

The study also had a wall-to-wall bookcase, with the rolls of his architectural plans sitting rather unsteadily next to a suitcase or two. On the opposite wall was a noisy refrigerator that we had to approach quietly when he was working at his desk. Sometimes, as my infant brother or I opened the refrigerator door or took a book from the shelves, the rolls would come crashing down. My father would look up, my mother would arrive on the scene to take care of the minor disruption, and everything would return to normal.

 

~

 

My mother’s first complaint had to do with these wretched suitcases.

“Ooph, so many suitcases in this house of ours!” she would often exclaim in a moment of self-conscious frustration, looking around, scanning the top of the bedroom cupboards or the refrigerator, her hands on her hips, her feet apart and turned slightly outward.

She was right. The suitcases seemed everywhere, underneath tables and couches, on top of bookcases, in the attic. And their numbers kept growing, with each of my father’s business trips.  Often, the new suitcase would arrive with something quite fashionable and very European: a black sweater, a silk scarf, a pair of boots. My mother did not seem as impressed with these gifts as I was. For her they were an extension of the new suitcase, and suitcases were the bane of her existence. In fact, my father’s returns were often the source of a minor crisis in my mother’s life.

Tailleurs,” she would say, “this Diran always brings me these stylish tailleurs and scarves that he sees in elegant stores and on beautiful models in Paris and Rome!” She often used the demonstrative adjective before his name—this Diran, as though she were pointing to him, willing his presence.

Ever the realist, my mother had a point, really. We were a struggling middle class family, and she ran our home with a great deal of economy. Furthermore, she was, in her own words, “a simple person, of peasant stock.” Here was my father, returning from another trip with an expensive Jaegger suit, or a Hermès scarf. In Armenian, there is a phrase for people like my father. My mother would often describe him a snangatsadz millionader, a millionaire who had gone bankrupt. Besides, his stylish gifts, she claimed, were wasted on her. A diminutive man, with aquiline features, a generous forehead and cascading hair, my father had an aristocratic look about him, a distance. Behind his desk in the study, sketching away, sipping his drink, he often appeared completely self-contained, his body made smaller it seemed by the slight hunch of his back, the rustle of the vellum and its quick toss to the floor accentuating his self-imposed separation from us all.

After one of his business trips, my father came back with a suitcase that was quite different from the others.  That evening, I heard the ominous sounding word Samsonite as my father walked into the house carrying a dark red suitcase that was made of some synthetic, recalcitrant material.  The name intimated force, raw power, invulnerability. My mother was particularly intense in her dislike of this new addition to the suitcase collection.

“It’s hard as a rock, Diran, “ she said. “And it holds so little! And what a name—Samsonite!”

The Samsonite was an eye-sore alright, but my mother’s complaint was not driven by esthetic concerns. It was, I have come to believe, rooted in the past, in that recurring image of stuffing a couple of suitcases and fleeing in the night, an image which permeated the family lore, from story to song, from a few big envelopes of letters to a small cache of photographs. My parents had known, directly or vicariously, the bitter taste of displacements and resettlements: from Palestine in 1948 , yes, but also from the Armenian ancestral homeland in the Ottoman Empire whose genocidal process had thrown my then-three-year-old orphaned father and his mother on the hot sands of the Syrian desert. The death marches that had eventually taken father and son to Aleppo, and then in the 1930s to Jerusalem. My mother’s father, a prominent writer, had been a fugitive from the Ottoman police between 1915 and 1918, finally leaving Constantinople for good in 1921 for Egypt, then Cyprus, and finally Jerusalem.

In the mid-1950s, the dispersion seemed to have ended, and we were finally united in Amman, under one roof—my parents, my baby brother and my maternal grandmother. First, we had lived in a small apartment next to the Iraq Petroleum Building (IPC), and then several years later, moved to a bigger place on Rainbow Street.

My parents carried the burdens of the refugee, in different ways—my father quietly, parsimoniously, my mother, with less restraint. Beyond the hurried departure and the hastily stuffed suitcase, could it be that my mother’s vocal complaints had to do with leaving and returning, departures of many kinds, including my father’s trips abroad? Could it be that for her, these suitcases were the roadblocks to the stability and continuity that she tried, often with mixed results, to institute into our lives? She was cast now into the role of mother, holder of the fort, purveyor of parental attention and affection. But her battles with the suitcases may have been sustained by unspoken resentments; perhaps she secretly imagined herself a traveler, wayward and free?

 

~

 

As if the Samsonite was not enough, soon after its arrival, the doorbell rang one morning and two men carefully pushed in a massive radio-record player that, too, had a name–Grundig. In less than half an hour, the men had ushered into our midst what would soon become my mother’s second complaint. Its variations spread over many years and targeted a string of similar technological advances, from the Grundig in the early 1960s to the laptop in the 1990s.

We watched in utter disbelief as the men maneuvered the bulky thing into the right hand corner of the living room, took their tip and left. The Grundig was a beautiful piece of furniture, with a gold-hued wood exterior whose upper part was vertically divided in the middle into the radio and the record player. Each section had in the middle a vicious-looking lion’s head made of gold-plated metal, out of whose growling teeth hung the round handles. Underneath the turntable was a separate section for the 33- and 45-rpm records.

That evening, when my father returned home from work, he, my brother and I huddled around the new machine as my father fidgeted with the knobs, trying to find his favorite Arabic-language stations, and giving a nod of restrained enthusiasm when he stumbled on a station he recognized.  My mother set the dining table for dinner, walking back and forth to the kitchen with strident steps, trying to keep her sulking under tabs.

“Diran,” my mother said after we sat down for dinner, “why didn’t you tell me that they were bringing a new radio to the house?”

I do not recall my father’s response; he must have said something about a friend offering him a good discount on it, or that a client had brought it to the office in place of payment.

My mother’s question that night, I am sure, ended right there as was the routine in such exchanges between them though my mother must have muttered a few words under her nose. After dinner, we could not resist the radio’s magisterial pull and gathered around it again, while my mother stood a few steps behind us, looking on, disgruntled for sure but unwilling to walk away.

The minute it had arrived, I was in awe of the Grundig. It was beautiful and shiny; the sound was smooth and voluminous. No matter that I could not listen to the BBC’s “Top Twenty” on Sunday nights or play my Elvis records whenever I wanted, it was still the most exciting thing in our life, holding us all in its technological allure. Not my mother. She immediately began fussing and fretting about it—its size, its many knobs, its compartments. Who would want such an elephantine contraption in the middle of their living room? Surely, someone wanted to get rid of it and gave it to my father. When her lady friends, who visited for afternoon coffee, would marvel at its beauty, she would retort, “But look at it, it sits there in the corner as though it the lions are keeping an eye on us all.” Besides, what use it was to her? My father preferred the Arabic-language stations, and my mother’s Arabic was passable at best. She wanted the BBC News. Often, my father prevailed.

My mother persisted in her anti-Grundig campaign, albeit more mildly, long after the thing had established its dominance in our house, long after she had finally—and pragmatically—accepted it and had begun to enjoy, somewhat reluctantly, some of its benefits, sometimes discretely turning the dial to the BBC and away from the Damascus and Cairo stations. But for news junkies like us, the Grundig was a god-send around which we would coalesce to listen to the latest bulletins about the Suez Crisis, the 1958 coup d’etat of Iraq, President Kennedy’s assassination, the countless revolts in Syria. Like that, around the Grundig, we seemed like a happy family, my mother’s complaints notwithstanding.

My mother’s early anti-technological resentments extended across decades and involved the transistor radios, then the Zenith television set, and finally the computer and satellite television, all the ill-begotten children of that corpulent Grundig. By the time these last two inventions had arrived on the scene, my mother’s zeal had weakened substantially (she had also suffered several heart attacks), but the residues of the earlier campaigns showed themselves in little spurts well into old age.

The sources of my mother’s complaints against technology remained something of a mystery to me: She was, to my eyes, unconventional through and through who, to my unspoken embarrassment and bewilderment, wore straw hats and played tennis in a society were women of her class were always well-dressed, coiffed, manicured. She would often take me to the British Council to check out any book I wanted; once, she saw me reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and did not bat an eyelash. Why was she so set against anything that smacked of change, of innovation, of newness, of Western life? I was a precocious adolescent, yet I did not have much of an answer to such questions.

Now that I, too, have known the clean slate, the strange town and unfamiliar streets, the new habits of language and social intercourse, the empty house and bare walls, I can see beyond the barricade, as it were: In the depths of her heart, my mother must have believed that all this technology could be the beginning of a long list of machines and gadgets that would somehow invade our home and sabotage her efforts at creating family life–if not an outwardly happy family, then at least an animated one—that must have been my mother’s secret wish.

For her, an animated family was a family that was kept buoyant by tashkhalah, the Turkish word for energy, bustle. A family that jumped into things and seized them by the horns, that confronted problems positively, head-on, with enthusiasm—in short, all the things my father held at bay, at a distance. “Like a cat,” my mother often said of him. “This Diran is like a cat, never makes a sound.”

Even at a young age, I sensed that the real drama was more tangled and far-reaching. Behind what my mother showed and said must have simmered the conflict that cast a shadow not only on her life but beyond, across the continents of passage. Perhaps she thought that the Grundig would scatter us again, make impossible the prospect of living like a settled family, full of confidence and continuity, noise and harmony, living as though we were an unbreakable unit tossed on these dry lands—a minority family, small but united.  Yet as she persisted with her campaign against these invasions, she must have no doubt secretly had her doubts, had wanted the free life, had seen the value of the new. She must have wanted, I suspect, to embrace it all, make temporary peace with middle class comforts and conveniences, even affections.

That was my mother’s greatest, deepest fear—the scattering, the aloneness that would follow–lives and deaths dispersed across the cities and towns of displacement and exile, from the ancestral homeland, to Jerusalem, Aleppo, Beirut, Cairo, Kuwait City, and later, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Boston, all the places of settling and dying, of homes and gravestones.

As a teenager outwardly preoccupied with Elvis and the boys that whizzed down Rainbow Street in their cars, I was oblivious to all this. Besides, it was not my mother’s habit to talk of such matters.  Not then, and for many years afterwards, into old age. By then, the barricades had fallen, her zeal had given way to a quirky wisdom, and her muscles had relaxed. And on one occasion, she uttered that which she must have kept bottle up for so long. We were sitting on the veranda of my parents’ third apartment, the one they had moved to after Rainbow Street. We were eating watermelon and cheese to cool ourselves from the khamsin heat wave that had swept through the entire region a few days earlier.

She lived alone now.  My brother and I had left many years ago for the US; my grandmother had died in the mid-1980s and my father in 1996, her two younger brothers too. This was her nightly ritual, sitting on the veranda, looking out into the glitter that Amman had become. It was a night from paradise—the jasmine breeze and clear, dark purple skies. And in the center of this vernacular moment was my mother, frail as a wounded bird, her voice a mere shadow of what I had heard as an adolescent, but still a bit renegade. We talked, then fell silent, then ate some watermelon to wet our throats, then lumbered through a song whose lyrics neither of us remembered, one of those old songs we used to sing together. She improvised, I hummed along.

Then, she turned to me. “It’s just the two of us here, dear girl. They are all gone, scattered. “ Her voice had turned strangely tender.

She gave me a wink, and said. “It’s late, let’s go to bed.” She stood up–alone, unsteady, but somehow free, free of even the slightest hint of complaint.

 

~

 

The Grundig was the harbinger of momentous change in our family life. With the arrival of the transistor radio, for example, my father could, if he wanted, stay in the study, and listen to his news. Because of his great love for things small and compact, my father’s collection of transistor radios increased. Soon, my grandmother and I were the beneficiaries of the radios my father had no more use for. I could take my transistor to bed at night and listen to Cliff Richard or the Beatles on “Top Twenty,” or my grandmother could listen to the songs of her native Bulgaria, from Radio Sophia. My mother was of course not happy about all these changes. Her ideal was slipping fast through her fingers.

A small, quiet family. This what we were, or what we were becoming. And this was the source of her third, and most disconcerting, complaint: the silences.

The threat posed by the transistor radio—and later, the television set—was exacerbated by the fact that despite our love of languages, our family veered toward introspection and quietude, even my mother. While other families had big outings on Friday or Sunday afternoons, my father went to the office; I had to make do with looking at photographs or listening to the radio or reading; my grandmother would write letters to her sisters and brothers in Bulgaria.

In the evenings, after the transistors or television set would fall silent, we would be reading or doing something that did not require much talking. Again, my mother had a name for our condition. She called it babatszoomn Zakaryayi (the dumb-struck-ness of Zakaria, in Armenian). As was her habit, she often directed this third complaint toward my father, but it applied to all of us. The reference was to the Biblical character of Zakaria, whom God had made temporarily mute for some reason. She herself was not immune to this condition although during my adolescence, when she was raising my brother and me, she read less than my father. In later years, especially after my father’s death, she accomplished another reversal: she became a voracious reader of Rushdie, Kundera, and the classics of Western Armenian literature, including most of her father’s work, although she had lost vision in her right eye.  (“One will do fine for my reading, “ she had said that night when we were sitting on the veranda, eating watermelon, that night of the scattering. “I am not a visual person anyway. Neither was Oedipus.”)

When we all sat in our living room in the apartment on Rainbow Street, reading, my mother would often seize the opportunity. She would say it jokingly, but it carried a strong dose of truth. “Look at us,“ she would say, “this place is as quiet as a library!” There was something of Zakaria in us all.

Of my mother’s three complaints, the one about Zakaria’s muteness was the most difficult to parse because both my parents were highly articulate individuals. It was also the most shocking because its Biblical reference was completely inconsistent with my mother’s —and our family’s— more liberal, secular worldview. My parents were anti-clerical, and my grandmother practiced a very personal form of religious faith. Rarely did I hear them mention the will of God, or praise His glory. So where had this Biblical reference come from, and what it did mean?

The shock also lay in my mother’s reference to muteness, to an inability or unwillingness to utter, to project one’s thoughts into the world, to establish contact. Muteness suggested failure, suggested the inability to complete something, to bring a dream to fruition.

Where did this tortured image come from? Despite its opacity, my mother’s exaggerated protest about Zakaria’s temporary muteness was grounded in some bedrock truths. Perhaps it was a jab at my father who had an almost superhuman ability to turn silent and unreachable, at will. That’s what I thought, then. Now, in the fullness of time, I think it was the dark current roiling under of her complaints about the suitcases and the radios and silences: A heaviness hung over our house and our small family, a heaviness that seemed to transcend differences and tensions, that seemed to permeate every little detail of our home. Of course she resisted the muteness, and when she ran out of words or when she was bored with the task at hand, she would take out the songbook, gather my brother and me around her, and we would begin singing, an improbable repertoire of English melodies about pastoral bliss intertwined with the militant songs of the Armenian revolutionary movement against the Ottomans; we sang about the happy farmer in the dell and the gunfire of the fedayees in the Erzurum mountains.

My mother’s evocations of Zakaria must have been motivated by some dread, the terror of something big and complicated, which my adolescent mind could not comprehend much less respond to. Perhaps it was a deep, deep hunger for a primal kind of togetherness, a sheltering that would redress the dispersion, the scattering, would lift the curse of the taparagan (meanderer, nomad, in Armenian).  The dark shadow, the hidden lining, the cruel silence. Two suitcases, traveling papers, the wind through abandoned homes.

~~

 

In the late 1980s, my parents moved out of the rented Rainbow Street apartment into their own home, the one I knew only as a visitor from the US. This was the apartment my father had left one night for cancer treatment in Boston, never to return; where my mother and I had hummed a song and talked and laughed about Oedipus; the one in which my mother died in 2005, after watching futbol until after midnight.

On a gentle June night one year after her death, I returned to this apartment—the turn of the key, the step into the darkness, the smell of the dust, the click of the light switch. I am in the middle of the living room, looking out beyond the big glass doors that open onto the veranda. Amman is a wild configuration of pulsating billboards advertising the pleasures of Nivea moisturizing cream and FastLink cellular phones, of high rise apartment buildings, and cars whizzing by, their radios blaring out songs in the new globalized music, a grotesque mixture with a deafening beat. Al-Jazeerah delivers news of yet another impending war in the region.

In every room, something of my mother persists, although the targets of her complaints are gone, save for the primordial silence of this empty house and the echo, from somewhere beyond her grave, of songs we sang. Something makeshift and temporary–colorful embroidery pieces, some unfinished; a bundle of the scraps from the wool skirt that my mother had altered so many years ago, the one my father had brought back for her from one of his trips; a desk lamp bandaged with masking tape; a stamp collection my mother must have started for someone; playing cards on the dining room table, where she played Bridge by herself every night; a shoe box of her heart medications held together with a rubber band; a teapot with an unsteady handle; the cardboard boxes of maps, architectural drafts, professional journals, pencils and slide rules; silk ties that she had converted into narrow scarves for herself; and the indomitable Samsonite, its surface a dense layer of dust; an old transistor radio, surely a remnant, or a memento, from my father’s days.

Home—empty of breath and pulse, its inhabitants given back to the earth, their presence mere shadows among the quiet clutter. Here, in the living room, is my mother, still full of energy, loquacious. She’s murmuring a song, barely audible.

“Anahid.” It’s my father speaking. “Let’s have some tea.”

She puts a small snack of cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes on the marbled table, like before.  She brings the tea. My father is seated in the corner armchair, a book in his lap, the cigarette and the empty glass of scotch next to him, patrician, diminutive, self-contained, alone. He chooses his few words parsimoniously, with sharpness and occasional cruelty. She is quiet, by necessity, not choice.

What do they talk about, when they talk with each other? What mention of those who have left the home, for good? It’s just the two of us, dear one. They are all gone.

They drink, talk occasionally. Then they watch television. My father dozes off first, then my mother.

~ for Tamar

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