Masquerade

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By Jasmin Darznik
Sunday, October 28, 2007

SHE ALWAYS SET OUT AFTER SUNSET, shrouded in the same floor-length flower-print veil she usually kept folded away in the guest room for her daily prayers. Four feet, eight inches tall, swaths of fabric trailing behind her, my Iranian maternal grandmother disappeared easily into the packs of costumed children. Before ringing each doorbell, she would draw the veil around her face, leaving only a small opening for her nose. From under many folds of fabric, she'd croak "treeeek-treeeek" -- her best approximation of "trick-or-treat" -- and present her plastic bag to the unsuspecting host.

When I was younger, we used to hit the streets together on Halloween. I'd go dressed in the Persian princess costumes she sewed for me, and she'd wear her flower-print veil. But by age 12, I'd dismissed trick-or-treating as child's play and would have been mortified to be caught out with my veiled grandmother on Halloween night. From then on, she went trick-or-treating by herself.

Over the years, she grew savvier, enlisting my mother to drive her to neighborhoods far beyond our own. While I stayed home, sprawled on the couch watching whatever horror flick happened to be on TV, my mother, long resigned to indulging this yearly foray, would trail my grandmother in our yellow Cadillac convertible as she made her Halloween rounds.

For my grandmother, whom I called Aziz (Persian for "dear one"), America was a very small place, much smaller than Iran. She didn't speak English; she didn't know how to drive; and she didn't know anyone here whom she could call on the phone. She spent her days alone in the house, cooking and puttering, arranging and rearranging the contents of her suitcase, and, for her sole pleasure, watching the perfectly coiffed heroines of "Days of Our Lives" -- despite her inability to understand what they were saying -- until I came home in the afternoon.

But once a year on Halloween, Aziz stepped out of the house to prowl the streets and reenact the games she had played with her eight siblings in the alleyways near her childhood home in Tehran. When she was a girl, she and the neighborhood children performed the Persian New Year ritual of pulling sheets over their heads and knocking on their neighbors' doors with wooden spoons, while carrying pots to hold the treats they were given. She'd been a child when the Allies invaded Iran in the early 194os. Though food was scarce then, children knew they could count on treats for the New Year -- a date, a tiny lump of crystallized sugar, some raisins. Halloween reminded my grandmother of those games -- and of that generosity. Better still, on Halloween, Americans, around whom she was always shy and more than a little frightened, would suddenly become unwitting playmates in her game.

At the end of the night, I might duck into her room to say goodnight and find her spreading out the evening's plunder on her bed, inspecting each piece of candy with her reading glasses balanced on the tip of her nose. She laughed as she recounted the details of her trick-or-treating to me. She could easily be cajoled into sharing a miniature Baby Ruth or Almond Joy, and we'd sit side by side on the bed chewing candy until my mother appeared in the doorway to summon me to bed. By the next day, the rest of the candy had disappeared into the recesses of Aziz's suitcase.

MY PARENTS AND I LEFT IRAN IN 1979. One by one, my relatives also left for Europe or the States, but my grandmother stayed on. My grandfather had died, and my grandmother ran a beauty shop in Tehran -- the Lady Diola -- and lived in a small apartment behind the salon. She loved the Lady Diola, and she loved the streets and squares and alleys of the city. Even during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when bombs and air raids rattled the city for weeks on end, she refused to leave Iran permanently. The only reason she ever left at all was to visit us in America.

After we came to the United States, my parents bought a 20-room motel off a highway in Northern California. They worked in shifts, my father at night and my mother during the day. I spent most afternoons and weekends at the motel, but when Aziz came to visit, she walked me to school and then back home every day. She cooked me stews and saffron rice and told me Persian fairy tales.

Each time she visited, my grandmother brought the same weathered leather suitcase smelling of mothballs and another scent that I could never place but that for me was the essence of the afternoons I had once spent with her at the Lady Diola. The suitcase was stuffed full with ruffled silk blouses, knockoff Chanel suits and pantyhose mended many times over at each toe. As soon she got to the house, she would unpack a sweater, two or three prim little house frocks and a pair of rubber house slippers. Her fancier outfits would appear only on nights when my parents' friends came to dinner, otherwise spending the rest of their stay in America in the same suitcase in which they had arrived.

During the course of the visits, this suitcase would inexplicably expand to accommodate not only several more piles of girdles, sequined party dresses and coats with matted synthetic fur collars, but also huge stashes of toothpaste, razors, dish soap, shampoo and every department store makeup sample she managed to fish out from the cabinet under my mother's bathroom sink. These were the years of the Iran-Iraq war, and such items would have been hard to come by for most Iranians. For my grandmother, they made up a treasure trove. Her Halloween candy would take its place among the toiletries, clothes and everything else she hoarded for her return to Iran.

After a few months here, Aziz's suitcase would grow so fat that she and my mom would often spend the day of her departure taking turns sitting on it in an effort to force it shut. The Ritual of the Suitcase could go on for hours, and it became my mother and grandmother's way of arguing about my grandmother's insistence on returning to Iran.

"Why are you dragging all this back again?" my mother typically would start, bearing down on one corner of the suitcase while snatching vainly at its clasps. "I just don't understand you. There's nothing left back there, don't you see? What kind of home can you have there when your children have left?"


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