Summers In Mashhad

By Mahshid Hager

I don’t even remember the season. I just remember walking between them and feeling for the first time that I belonged somewhere.
Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower 

My mother was born and raised in Mashhad, Iran. Her family lives there to this day. Mashhad is one of Iran’s more religiously conservative cities. After high school, my mom realized that her future prospects were limited in this town. With the blessing of her parents, she moved to Tehran to live with her uncle (apparently a family tradition!) and his family, to pursue a career in accounting. She eventually met my Dad, married him and settled down in Tehran for good.

This meant that every year, we spent a large portion of our summers back in Mashhad with my Mom’s family. I have very fond memories of my time at my grand parents’ home. As the weather here in San Diego starts to heat up and I am making my own summer plans with my family, I am nostalgic for old times, when the grown ups made all the plans and all I had to do was tag along and enjoy myself.

My mom has 4 younger brothers and 4 younger sisters. All of them lived at home with my grandparents at the time. My great grandmother, Bibi Joon, also lived there. My youngest uncle, the baby of the family, is only two years older than me and most of my other aunts and uncles were all in their preteen and teen years. This meant that there was never a dull moment in the house and that I always had someone to entertain me or play with me. The house was a modest two story building with a flat roof, a basement and a courtyard with a fountain. The whole family lived on the first floor and the family business was ran out of the basement. The top floor was often rented out to summer travelers who had made a pilgrimage to visit the Shrine of Imam Reza, the 8th prophet. Inevitably, every summer there would be some drama with the “visitors” upstairs. If the visitors had teenagers, the drama would often include a star-crossed lovers scenario with one of my teenage aunts or uncles.  As I said before: never a dull moment.   

The family business was the production, painting and distribution of small and large trinket and jeweler boxes, all crafted right in the basement and hand painted by the all of the members of the family, including me, whenever I was visiting. I don’t remember exactly who was in charge of what. I just know that on most mornings, after breakfast, we would go down to the cellar and a batch of new boxes, would be ready and waiting to have the beautiful, intricate, Persian miniature images painted on them. My aunts would show me exactly where to put the petals of the flower or where to place a certain leaf. They would say “Let’s do 20 boxes, then we can go play ALL day.” Of course, no one would keep me to it, if I didn’t want to do it or if I tired to soon. But I loved being involved in the process. It felt so grown up to have a “job” to do in the morning and “earn” my play time. 

I remember long days of leisurely playing dress-up, Monopoly or Hide and Seek. I remember afternoons out in the courtyard with the whole family having tea and fruits, honeydew so sweet, that if you ate too much of it, you would lose your voice for the rest of the day. I remember my grandmother cooking up a storm in the kitchen, preparing a meal for all of us. I would sit by her while she was chopping greens or washing dishes and ask her to tell me a story. She always has the best stories…. And I remember card games and backgammon after dinner, until way past my bedtime.

My favorite memory of summers in Mashhad is sleeping on the roof top under the stars, all of us, like sardines, right next to each other. I squeeze in between my youngest uncle and my youngest aunt and three of us would keep whispering and talking and making each other giggle until one of the adults would yell: “Enough already. Go to sleep! The sun will wake us all up early tomorrow.” And I loved being woken up by the chirping of the birds and warmth of the sun on my face. 

It was a simpler time. It’s been almost 40 years since I’ve seen that house. My mother’s family doesn’t live there anymore. The family business was dissolved many years ago. The kids are all grown up and have kids and grand kids of their own. I have cousins I have never met, birthdays, weddings and funerals I have missed. About four years ago my grandma and a couple of my aunts were able to secure visas to Germany and while they were there, I flew out to see them too. I saw my youngest aunt again after 33 years. I could see the effects of time on her face and I was aware of how strange it must have been for her to experience me as an adult for the first time. I discovered that we could still make each other giggle until way past bed time. 

Sometimes I really miss the old times. I miss the tribal living and the community feeling. Sometimes, when life gets hectic and challenging, I wish there were more relatives around to hang out with, play with and share life’s burdens with. I try hard to recreate that feeling in my life. I have and amazing community of friends who feel like family. It has helped give my kids an experience of that belonging, though it is not quiet the same.  I am not sure it can ever be the same, not in this country, not in this day and age. I know those early experiences have contributed to my secure attachment and I am beyond grateful for having had the time that I did with my extended family. I can’t imagine how much more challenging life would have been if I didn’t have those early experiences of love and belonging. 

So as I sit here, planning our 4th of July celebration with friends and Sacha’s 18th Birthday party and I think about how we want to spend the rest of our summer with our boys, I hope that it will all be enough. I hope we are enough.