Hoping others will understand
IN 1949 my mother emigrated with her parents from Lithuania to America. She was 10 years old. On the long sea voyage to New Orleans she tasted her first orange. Not knowing how to eat the orange, she bit into its skin and was surprised at its bitter and unappetizing flavor. Thirty years later, my father emigrated to America from Iran with his new wife and two young sons, my half brothers. I was delighted. Having been raised in the United States by my mother after her divorce, I hadn't had the chance to know my ``second'' family.
But for my father and stepmother the move had a bitter and unappetizing quality. Like many of the Iranians living in the US today, they were displaced by the 1979 revolution in Iran. Their country was dear to them, and they had no desire to leave it.
I visited them in the middle of one March at their home in southern California. They were preparing to celebrate the Iranian New Year (No Ruz, meaning New Day), which occurs on March 21.
Spring is a time of renewal, and, according to Iranian custom, every physical thing should reflect freshness, joy, and hope at the New Year. So together we cleaned the house from top to bottom and filled it with plants and freshly cut flowers. We bought new outfits. We washed all the sheets and towels. We germinated seeds of wheat in water, awaiting tender green blades to confirm the arrival of spring.
In spite of the approaching holiday, or perhaps because of it, my father and stepmother were melancholy. They made long calls to Tehran, where loved ones remained. Normally active, my father watched television and hid behind his books. My stepmother busied herself with the children.
Celebrating a holiday in a country that ignores it is a lonely experience. Part of the fun of Christmas, after all, is to see the streets and houses decorated with lights, to hear carols in every store, to feel the bustle and excitement of shoppers.
On March 20 we arose early, dressed the beds in clean sheets, and dressed ourselves in clean clothes. We decorated a side table with the traditional Iranian centerpiece, including our sprouting wheat and apples, vinegar, garlic, gold coins, pudding, and hyacinth. A mirror set behind these seven items made the centerpiece complete.
The number of items is of ancient significance. For the Zoroastrians, No Ruz is the seventh of seven important feasts. The creation of the universe was said to have occurred in seven stages: first sky, then water, earth, plants, animals, man, and fire. Originally, each of the items of a traditional centerpiece represented one of the creations. And in the Persian language, Farsi, all the items begin with the same letter.
In modern Iran, No Ruz is a national holiday celebrated by people of many faiths, including Muslims like my family.
I remember feeling stiff and solemn in my new clothes as we waited for 11:56 a.m., the moment of the spring equinox, which is celebrated like our New Year's Eve. We gathered in the living room and listened as an Iranian radio station broadcast the countdown. At zero we all shouted, clapped, and kissed one another. There were tears in my stepmother's eyes.
The next day, officially the first day of the new year, was reserved for visiting relatives. At my uncle's house we drank tea in tall glasses and ate plenty of Iranian candies, puddings, and pastries. Then the older members of the family gave gifts to the younger ones. As the youngest, my brothers were given toys by everyone. Children old enough to spend money received cash or a small gold coin. The oldest members of the family, like my father, played Santa by tucking the gifts into unsuspecting pockets.
In the evening, we returned home to a subdued sort of dinner. As usual, my father and stepmother tuned in the BBC news via shortwave radio, hoping for encouraging news of Iran. After the broadcast the mood was dark. ``It's not that we're unhappy here,'' my stepmother said, ``but we feel rootless. How can we plan for our future, and for our children's future, when we don't know if we can ever return home?''
Thirteen days after No Ruz we had a family picnic. We admired the piercing green of spring leaves and threw our newly sprouted wheat into running water. Would it take root and grow healthy and strong? With the proper care, would my family do the same?
It's been three years since that visit. Now, when I observe my younger brothers, the latest in a stream of first-generation Americans, I can't help smiling. They come home from school shouting American expressions, but they refuse to speak their native tongue. I find it touching and sad that one of my brothers has adopted an American name so that he won't feel different from others. My father and stepmother are reconciled to making a permanent home in the US. This New Year will be more bittersweet than bitter. They'll celebrate it with the memory of other holidays in Iran, hoping their children and those around them understand.