Watching Over Me by Roia Tina Ferrazares
Watching Over Me
by Roia Tina Ferrazares
“I am surrounded by people but I feel profoundly alone. I have no Farsi to explain my pleas, so I yell and I cry, loudly enough that I’m sure Lygeia will hear me wherever she is.”
Watching Over Me
by Roia Tina Ferrazares
I am six months past my third birthday and a tiny anchor on a long chain of hands as I am pulled by an aunt, a cousin and my half-sister Lygeia through the noisy streets of Tadjrish, Iran in the early morning on our way to my first day of school. My red rubber boots barely make a sound on the cobblestones of endless alleyways, and I take three steps for every one of my sister’s. No cars move in the narrow streets, just people I do not know, disappearing in different directions. The decision had been made to enroll me with my eight-year-old sister in the local public school. I look up at the back of my sister’s head as I follow, her wavy shoulder-length hair bouncing around her shoulders. I am aware that I am about to embark on an unknown and grown-up adventure, and in that moment my sister could surely serve no greater purpose than to be my life preserver. I cling tighter to her hand.
Our life in the United States was on full pause for ten months so we could move in with my grandparents, an uncle and his wife and baby, and a young village girl who is their maid in a big white house surrounded by high walls. Up to this point, my days had been all about following Lygeia around the fruit trees and gardens. There were almonds pods to pick up off the ground, balls to throw, games to invent. Although my Persian family spoke no English, they were affectionate and I wanted for nothing. I barely missed my parents, and had no desire for rules or structure as long as Lygeia was within reach. School, on the other hand, was set to interrupt all that.
My mother sought to appease me by buying the oversized satchel which now sits on my small shoulders. I already own an orange nylon backpack that I had carried on the plane from the States. I had been allowed to bring as many toys as I could carry in that bag, so I knew its dimensions intimately, its seams which I felt around with searching fingertips as I reached for crayons during our long 18-hour flight. But knowing how much I needed something to distract me from the idea of school, my mother had walked from booth to booth, with uncharacteristic patience, while I explored the cavernous, covered bazaar from the safety of her grasp until I had found just the right one. I stood there with the stiff leather bag folded tightly in my arms and waited for my mother to begin noisy negotiations with the leather seller, until he finally accepted her money and we could weave our way back out of the noisy maze.
When I brought it home that night I practiced opening its heavy metal clasp over and over until I was satisfied I could do it by myself, and then filled the satchel with a few drawing pencils and a sheet of my grandmother’s feathery light airmail stationary. In the early light of morning, rising from the crib which had become my bed in Iran, it was the placing of that satchel on my shoulders which captured my attention, as my aunt whisked us away.
I hold my sister’s hand tighter and fear that every step I take brings me closer to the moment that I would have to let go. My aunt, whose flowered headscarf is the only part of her I can see, doesn’t speak. She has no words that I can understand anyway; my Farsi is limited to short demands for water and milk. Her presence is of no significance to me except to pull this long chain of hands from which I am floating behind.
“Sissy?” I call out to Lygeia. She turns to look down at my face.
“How long is school?”
“Not long. Mom said we’ll have lunch there and then we’ll be home by three.”
“It’s in the afternoon.”
“It’s later, that’s all. Don’t worry.”
I feel tears begin to well up in my eyes and a whine escapes my lips. I don’t want to eat lunch at school.
“Why can’t we go home for lunch?”
I had already suffered the injustice of being rushed through my morning ritual of breakfast with my grandfather in the courtyard, the salty white cheese and tart cherry preserves barely settled on my tongue. A glass of steaming tea, the color of my sister’s auburn hair, had been removed from my hands and left to become lukewarm, the crumbly white sugar cubes left to rest on the glass saucer instead of dissolving slowly in my cheek. The loss of that slow and familiar pace amongst the cherry trees has left me feeling irritable and raw. I squeeze my eyes tight and let myself be blindly led.
It is the sound of children’s voices that makes me open my eyes again. It is a steady hum through the grey bars of the iron gate before us, a chorus of playground noises swirling in gusts. I know these sounds: I recognize them from my sister’s school back in the U.S., when my mother and I would arrive to walk her home. I have only ever approached these sounds from a distance, but I don’t have a chance to protest as we hurry right into the eye of its storm.
I call out to Lygeia, but her attention is completely captivated by the scene in front of us. I know she can’t hear me, but I say it anyway: “I wanna go home.”
I see as she does the swarm of dark heads, which flow in every direction all around the schoolyard. Once through the gate, with only a few parting words, my aunt is suddenly gone. I am stricken with the worry that my sister may not know the way home. My cousin, a first-grader, strolls confidently onto his turf. Emboldened by his pace, my sister follows him, dragging me behind her.
There are so many of them, and as they draw closer I can make out their voices and the language I can’t understand. Letting go of Lygeia’s sweaty hand, I grab a fistful of her t-shirt and bury my face in her back as they begin to close in around us. I moan and seek comfort from the weight of the satchel on my shoulders hoping it will keep me from floating away in the swarm. So many voices. It feels unbearable to peek out from behind my sister, my pillar of courage, but I do. I realize my socks have slipped down and I can feel the cold rubber of the boots on my calves.
Will it be afternoon soon?
A woman’s voice. Could it be my aunt? I see a black-shrouded figure. I have seen others dressed like her at the covered bazaar as well as my grandmother wearing something similar, but of thin pale-grey cotton, as she prays in the quiet of a dark spare room of our house. This woman’s scratchy voice rattles at the crowd around me. A single fleshy hand emerges from the blackness and with a wave it parts the sea of children. I let my sister pull me along as I hold on to her shirt and follow her up the front steps of the school.
We are led to a room along a long hallway, and I am directed to sit at a wooden desk in the front row; my satchel is removed and hung on a hook on the wall too high for me to reach. When my sister is pulled away, I see I’ve made her t-shirt moist and stretched out from the pulling. Alone in the room now, I sit stock-still and wait. And wait. And wait. And then I jump as a very loud bell rings over my head and children begin streaming into the room like a flood. I’m frozen as I watch the others and they watch me. Some of them hang bags near mine. They are all so big.
Books are handed out and the other children speak in unison as they turn the pages, paying no attention to me squirming in my seat. I manage to hold my tears until lunchtime when the black-shrouded woman brings in a large aluminum pot that is so big I could fit inside of it. Steam rises in columns from the pot as she places it on the table directly in front of me. I know this smell: it’s the same stew my grandmother cooks, the one with tiny pieces of beef and balls of dried lime floating on top. At this point I no longer care about staying quiet and silently coping with fear and boredom. I am surrounded by people but I feel profoundly alone. I have no Farsi to explain my pleas, so I yell and I cry, loudly enough that I’m sure Lygeia will hear me wherever she is. I am inconsolable until eventually she is summoned to squeeze in beside me at my desk. I sense she is unhappy about it, but the feel of her next to me makes me feel brave enough to eat my stew and rice. This ritual is repeated day after day for months and I remember little else except the consoling sight of my satchel hanging on a hook as if it is watching over me.
It was many years later, when I became a parent myself, that I reflected on the absurdity of that experience. What was I doing in a public primary school classroom? My parents have never given me any explanation for why they enrolled me, a non-Farsi speaking three-year-old in a school where the expected enrollment age was six. My cousin tells me that some days I was carried to the principal’s car to nap while the other children did their recitations. He recalls bringing his friends around to the car to watch me sleep; evidently having American cousins offered him caché. This idea of throwing one’s child into the deep end could have been a parenting strategy if there had been much thought put into it, but I don’t believe there was. My mother was back in her childhood home with her parents after a long six years away in the United States, returning with her American husband and stepdaughter, and me, her American-born, half-Persian child, and she was happy to leave my care to others. I have a distinct memory of her from that year in Iran: the crack of dice against the wooden backgammon board and her soft chatter with my grandfather. She was not so much distracted as immersed: an only daughter of a large family now able to abandon responsibilities and once again surrender to their love and care. My American father spent most days wandering out with his camera. He was like a child in Disneyland, enraptured and captivated. He too had little time to concern himself with me.
At eight, Lygeia was bold and thriving and school made perfect sense for her. Without her around to watch me, though, I would present a problem. Where she went, I would have to go too.
My sister tells me that the other children sometimes threw stones at us in that schoolyard, but that’s a part of the story I’ve conveniently forgotten. An elaborate fantasy about my satchel watching over me kept my mind engaged, and gave me a sense of control in a situation in which I was given none. I now realize that learning to cope without my parents, and then without my sister, was a lesson in resiliency that I took with me through my life. A resilient child can become an overly self-reliant adult though, and while I appreciate the strength and love of my family and community, I don’t lean on them as often as I could. In this pandemic, I’m remembering what my three-year-old self understood implicitly: the tantrum that brought my sister to me was a small price to pay for the feel of her familiar warmth next to me at that desk. Of all the memories that stuck with me from those ten months, it is that one that is the most brilliant. While the leather satchel that had been bought to appease me back in Tadjrish served its purpose, it was those teachers, my cousin, the principal, and my sister that had all been watching over me too.
Years later, as an 18-year-old, I followed a similar path, this time of my own choosing, and disappeared into the unknown. Another backpack accompanied me through six countries and many adventures, some dangerous, others mundane. I rode trains and ships. I hitchhiked. I slept in castles and in train stations. I disappeared in a way that would be much more difficult in the age of the internet. I was fearless until I ran out of money in Amsterdam and used a fist full of tokens to call my mother and beg her to wire a ticket so I could come home. It turns out this Persian girl has limits, and when I felt myself losing my grip on the bar, I learned my safety net had been there all along.
Featured Image by Kaz Carr via Pixabay
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roia is half-Persian and was born in the United States. The year she spent in Iran, 1970-1971, provided her first memories, and she writes about it on her blog, Persianchyld. She is currently a manager at UC Berkeley.
A prose and short story writer, Roia has found that her connection through her Persian mother with Persian language, food, music and poetry are the most profound and influential in her writing. Her writing grapples with Iranian-American identity formation in the diaspora. More of her work can be experienced at www.persianchyld.blogspot.com.
Photograph by Aisha Ferrazares