Farsi

There was a Persian restaurant on Roswell Road in Atlanta. Once a week we went there with five other families to eat koobideh kabob and saffron chicken and drink thick yogurt-water seasoned heavy with salt and mint. The only words I know in Farsi are the names of those foods. Joojeh kabob. Koobideh. Koresht baadenjaan. Ghormeh sabzi. Zereshk polow. We all sat, ten or twelve or fifteen of us, at the long, loud table, shouting orders at the waiter in our horrible American accents. He scribbled on his notepad anxiously, flustered and wondering how so many Americans knew the food of his country.

My grandfather always sat at the head of the table, wide-smiling at the young waiter. He calls him over, “Biya!” They speak enthusiastically, the waiter suddenly understanding our connection to Iran.

My mother never learned Farsi, and so neither did I and neither did my sister. Baba was a bad teacher, she said, teaching her unnecessary words like “monkey” (meymun), “apple” (sib) or “bird” (parandeh). “Vocabulary words,” she told us, “not a language.”

But now Baba is old. His smile is faint and he does not bubble with fast, beautiful Farsi. He talks slow, smiling faintly at the recognition of his native tongue. He is eager to speak Farsi now, aware that he will never return home.

I speak to Baba in English and he often stares blankly at me. I wonder if he is wishing for Persia. I wonder if the words would sound softer on his aging ears if they came in old Farsi. I wonder how it is to miss home, to die in Florida without ever returning to Tehran, to the Caspian Sea, to Iran.

Daddy

My daddy is a tall man, lanky and dark like a Greek god a few thousand years too late. Six foot five, really, but he tells everyone six foot four so as not to sound pompous. Five is just too many inches. When I was fifteen, he was forty-six, but everyone swore he didn’t look a day over forty. His hair is dark and tight and cut close to his head, and his beard, always shaved, is thick and grizzly and scratches against me when he leans in to give goodnight or good-morning or I’m-home kisses.

When Daddy was twenty, long before I came around, when he first met my mommy and lived in a log cabin in the Vermont woods, he weighed no more than one hundred and fifty five pounds. “Like a washing board,” Mommy called him. He had a fat cat named Sophie and an afro and wrote poetry and wore leather jackets like a beatnik and thick-rimmed glasses like Malcolm X. He met my mommy in line in the Wyndham College cafeteria; she was thin and olive-skinned with dark, wavy hair and wide bell-bottoms.

“I’ve never met anyone else who ate plain yogurt,” he said from over her shoulder, “You must be…?”

“Iranian,” she said, “And Jewish.”

Before he met my mommy, daddy took a black girl to his high school prom in Springfield. He drank cheap beer and fought, tight-fisted, with my grandpa in the basement bedroom of their ranch house on Biella Street. He played the trumpet to recordings of Miles Davis, and twenty years later stayed home from work when the jazz legend died of pneumonia in a southern California summer.

When I was a little girl, we’d pile into the minivan and drive, straight and long, down through the middle of Georgia to St. George’s Island, a little strip of beach off the coast of the Florida panhandle. Eight hours through peaches and pecans and cotton fields, and all the while Daddy at the wheel telling us that every tire scrap was a dead armadillo and laughing when little sister Alexandra, no older than five, thought Bob Marley was singing about pajamas and cereal instead of “jammin’” and “stir it up.”
St. George’s was a quiet island of young families in rental homes. By midday, we were all in the ocean, Daddy’s tall body high over the small rolling waves. He’d hold his glasses up above his head and dive, deep and long, into the murky green-blue waters, his back arching up like a dolphin’s, and his long arm sticking up into the air so as not to salt-water his glasses.

Daddy taught me to love the ocean. Mommy tried, but her skin was too sensitive to stay in long or go under or do hand stands and search for lost gold. But Daddy stayed in for hours. He taught me to roll over the waves like they were movements in a song, beautiful and rising beneath me; or an animal easily tamed, a young pony that trots fast and high and then leans, leans back into the earth.

Daddy taught me to take the waves as they came, to measure each one ahead of time and, noting its size, to prepare myself. I would either ride it high above the ocean floor, careening towards him, arms outstretched and smiling, or I would dive into the wave, arms ahead of me, prepared for contact with the dark sandy bottom and then push, up towards the surface.