News

First Person: My mother's house

 

By Donia Bijan/Special to The Almanac

Every day for nearly 20 years, I drive or walk by the apartment complex on Sharon Road on my way to Safeway, or to the post office, or the dry cleaners, and every time, I wish the same wish, that my parents still lived there, and every time, this wish will not come true.

Across the street is La Entrada, where my son went to school from fourth to eighth grade. Down the street is the shopping center with a pharmacy and a Starbucks, and several other merchants that have come and gone over the years.

Except for fresh paint, very little has changed about the facade of Sharon View Apartments. It was brown, now it is burnt orange. The two-bedroom unit on the first floor nearest to the stairwell will always be my mother's house. It can only ever be called that even if my parents moved into a house and then a condominium after living there for seven years. It was the first place I entered when I came home from college for Thanksgiving. It was my first home in America.

My son is far away at college now but in the five years at La Entrada Middle School, with every pick-up, I wished for a parallel universe where he walked across the street to his grandmother's house for an after-school snack, for help with homework, or just to watch TV. To me, that imaginary scene is how the world should be – the one place where you can drop by unannounced and stay as long as you like.

I tell myself that my son cannot miss something he never had, but this absence of grandparents in his day-to-day life was like a hole in the middle of our house that we covered with a rug and stepped around, but sometimes it swallowed us up.

Sometimes we talked about moving.

Lately, I walk by my mother's house with different scenarios playing in my head. I make the same wish for her to be behind that door and pull me inside. In one scene she makes tea and we nibble on Digestive cookies. She says that I have lost weight, that I swim too much and eat too little. I put my head on her lap and tell her that I miss my son. That he is grown and far away. That his room is dark. Then, she says it's how it should be and I accept this. She reminds me that I did the same at an even younger age. That my suitcase was always packed.

In another scene, we uncork a bottle of wine because I finished my novel. I confide in her that it took two years to write it and days for it to be rejected. She speaks my nickname. "Tell me." So, I tell her the title and the story, and why I wrote it, and how I cried for the characters who are now homeless. She asks to read it. "Maybe you need to sit longer with your story." I ask to stay a while longer.

Some days, I wish to knock more urgently than others. Yesterday, I told her that someone I love is very sick. How he looks to be wasting away. The radio played Schumann, a piano wrapped notes around us. Today, her face lights up with news of a baby. Soon she will be a great-grandmother and I will be a great aunt. She hops, forever spry.

I want to tell her these things in the house on Sharon Road with the swimming pool where we swam parallel laps sideways for seven summers, talking all the while. Our pool is still blue. A few yellow leaves float on the surface.

In Safeway, see me standing too long before the freezer studying the ice cream. I consider pumpkin but buy mint chip. I always buy mint chip. Her favorite, so it is mine. Home from college for the summer, we ate mint chip and watched old movies on channel 20, side by side on a couch she gave me when I moved into my first apartment. Hear her sigh and announce Ava Gardner, Jimmy Stewart, Lauren Bacall as if she's seeing them for the first time.

We live here now. Sometimes we talk about moving.

The neighborhood changes. Bigger houses go up. I hear Mom's apartment rents for a sum that makes smoke plume from my ears. On a warm day in fall, I walk by with a package to mail and peek through the fence at the balcony wondering if any of her plants have survived. To settle in, she composed a lush little garden in planters and containers. Azalea, gardenia, hydrangea, and half-dead plants she carried home, where in time they flourished. It made her happy nursing them, making a patch of earth hers. At Christmastime, she hung blinking lights on the ficus tree. Few people rented these units longer than a year – they certainly did not plant gardens or put gourds by the front door or leave gifts of cranberry sauce for neighbors. My mother, she lived for giving.

Across the street, small noisy children spill out onto the sidewalk. They carry enormous backpacks, poster boards, California Missions dioramas, Thanksgiving crafts. A boy named Sam crosses over, asks if I've seen his grandpa. I like his papier-mache turkey and tell him so. I keep him company or he keeps mine. Leaves the color of amber at our feet. Moments go by, and sure enough, there's his grandpa. Sam, mindful of me, yells "Happy Thanksgiving" over his shoulder. I wait for the sound of their voices to fade.

Only this morning, we talked about moving.

Donia Bijan is a Bay Area chef and author who left Iran in 1978. She ran her acclaimed restaurant, L'Amie Donia, in Palo Alto for 10 years, and is the author of a memoir, "Maman's Homesick Pie," and a novel, "The Last Days of Cafe Leila." She lives in Menlo Park with her husband, the painter Mitchell Johnson, and their son.

Donia's mother Atefeh Bijan, an outspoken women's rights advocate and former member of parliament, left her native Iran in 1978 on the eve of the Islamic Revolution. A resident of Menlo Park for 25 years, she was a registered nurse at Kaiser Permanente. In 2004, she was struck and killed in the crosswalk in front of her home on Santa Cruz Avenue.

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