As a child, my mother feared that I wouldn’t be brave. She desperately wanted me to learn how to swim, but I was too scared. When she pushed me on the swing in the playground, she pushed me hard enough that I felt like I would fly out of the seat. When I yelled for her to stop, she laughed and said that nothing would happen to me. When we went to my cousin’s beach house in Northern Tehran, she carried me by force into the Caspian Sea, swimming far away from the beach, away from the shore where my cousins played with sand. Then it was just the two of us, moving through the waves, me holding onto her waist, she pushing us farther out. And suddenly my head was under water, just for a few seconds.
I remember the shock, the darkness and the salty waters as they entered my lungs and ears, and the moment that I came back above water, followed by the fear that my mother would let go of me. I held onto her with all my might. It didn’t make sense to me why should would do such a thing, when she knew how scared I was.
In a country of banned dreams and arbitrary arrests and executions, in a country where freedom was not a privilege but an illusion, my mother found her liberty in the sea. She was always first to go in, and last to come out. My mother intimidated me with her bravery because I knew about her daunting past, her five years of imprisonment in an Iranian prison, and her siblings who were executed fighting for freedom. I didn’t learn the details until I was much older and my mother and I had immigrated to the States. It was in America that my mother found her true self; and with that, she began to reveal bits of her past that as she dug through suppressed memories.
Seventeen years have gone by since our immigration, and sometimes, when I am writing, or thinking about what we used to be, I think about my mother in my childhood.
And this is the image I have of her in Tehran:
She is making black cherry jam in the kitchen and the warmth of the stove mixed with the summer heat is making her sweat. But she works diligently, adding cardamom and vanilla extract to the pot of boiling cherries. She does this every year in late June. She looks peaceful, like she can make jam indefinitely. I am sitting at the yellow, round breakfast table, waiting. Time is not yet significant, for the days are still long, and I am fascinated by the idea of being a grown up, and I am craving it, just as I crave the jam I am about to eat with my baguette and butter. I do not know that this is the last time I would see my mother as a housewife, making black cherry jam with patience. I am unaware that my mother is dreaming of America as she makes this jam, while I daydream about growing up. It is only in that kitchen of the apartment we later sell that the two of us are impervious to the world outside, to the struggles we later must accept, the separations we must endure as we take on new identities as immigrants. In our little Tehran kitchen, there is only the sweet smell of jam that lingers in the air, tangible even years later.