(My mother in Tehran, in the 1970’s.)
Every blog begins with a story, right? This is a short telling of mine and really it is the story of my mother.
She was born in the 1950’s in Tehran, Iran to an Armenian, middle class family. She is one of five children, a boy and four girls. Her father owned and ran a dry cleaning business in Iran, and her mother sadly died when she was twelve years old.
Her father remarried, choosing her mother’s sister for his bride, as was traditional enough in those times, but also because after the death of her sister, she had moved in to care for the children while my grandfather worked. Men in Iran of his generation were not typically known to cook, clean and wrangle children, after all. This was a role for women.
My mother’s name at birth was “Shenorik”, and one she loathed. “It’s an old woman’s name, like Dorothy or Mildred!” she complained to me. She began to call herself Mary once she hit her late teens, and it would become her American name years later when she fled her homeland to come here to America.
Iran was ruled by Mohammad Reza Shah during my mother’s lifetime. His rule was secular, which meant a very different political and social landscape than you see today. Women were free to wear the hijab if they wished, but it was not mandated, and so they were just as free to wear bell bottoms and short skirts. My mother usually chose the latter.
Armenians pride themselves on having been the first nation in the world to formally declare Christianity as their national religion. They did this in 301 A.D.
Mom’s religion not being Islam, there was no hard or fast ban against short skirts, makeup, dancing or enjoying a few drinks, so she indulged in all of these western things with relative freedom and safety. She went skiing. She danced in nightclubs. She rode motorcycles, had bonfires on the beach, and she was free.
Once she graduated school, she went to work in Tehran, first for a pediatrician, and then for an insurance company. It was the 1970’s then, and people from all over the world were welcome in Iran. Business was booming, and the economy thrived.
(One of my uncles made furniture for the Shah’s palace, a story he is still proud to tell us today.)
The Shah was not a perfect man. It is true, he was a dictator, a King to be exact. Many of his people saw him as quite a benevolent ruler, and he was much beloved by Mom’s family along with many other people in Iran.
One of the people Mom met in Tehran was an American man. He’d fought in Vietnam before then returning to America and working as a police officer in North Carolina. That career didn’t appeal to him for too long as he was always a pilot at heart. He soon found himself in Iran flying choppers for a petrol company.
That man was my father.
They began to date seriously somewhere around 1974, and several years later, they became engaged with the full blessings of Mom’s family. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, until the day that something happened.
It was me. The something was me. Mom was pregnant, and not quite married. Even under the Shah’s rule, this was not acceptable, and a thing that would bring great shame to her, and her family if my father failed to quickly marry her before it could be known.
My war veteran, chopper pilot of father fled in terror instead, proving himself to be less than honorable, and certainly no hero to celebrate.
(Years later, I would speak to him on the phone once. He was a jerk. I maintained contact with my grandmother and aunts for several years but never met that side of my family.)
Left without many options, my mother fled Iran for a country she had long admired. A country with music, movies and culture she had always enjoyed and longed to become part of.
She fled to America with me in her belly, and was granted religious asylum on the grounds that she was a Christian fleeing what, by then had turned into the Islamic revolution of 1979. I was born in San Francisco, and that is how I am here now to write this blog. (I have citizenship in Iran by sheer virtue of being born to an Iranian citizen, but I have never visited, and refuse to do so while this vile regime stands.)
Blessed with good American friends she had initially met in Iran when one of them was there on business, Mom had some help when she first arrived. Still, it was difficult and she struggled with house cleaning and childcare for work until she was able to land her first position with an insurance company here. She then worked up from receptionist to broker, the career she held for over thirty years before her recent retirement.
Were things not so medieval in Iran even under the Shah I may have been born there just as the bloody revolution was unfolding, and life was changed dramatically and seemingly forever for the Iranian people.
Today, I might have been waving my hijab on a stick instead of writing about those who are. Every single day, I am grateful that I was not.