In September 2016, I bought a plane ticket from New York to Tehran to surprise my mom for her birthday. But a week before the flight she called, hesitant and concerned, to tell me that my nanny—my mamani —was in the hospital. I called my nanny’s daughter and cried even before she spoke. What could I do from thousands of miles away? Did I imagine that at her side I could somehow stop mamani from aging and dying, and continue to hold onto her and my childhood and all the memories of a once-upon-a-time home?
I changed my ticket, determined not to miss my chance to see and say goodbye to the woman who had raised me; who had lived with us for as long as we held onto the family house and only retired when my parents moved from the large villa to an apartment. It was long after my brother and I had left Iran, I was around thirty, but in my body and memory the old family house still continues to carry the title of “home.” Mamani came to live with us there when my mom got pregnant with me.
Her husband had left her and five kids and taken a second wife. The kids lived on their own, the elder ones taking care of the younger ones. She spent her days off with them. Sometimes she took us along when she went to visit. Sometimes they visited us. I remember their presence in the house, feeding us, playing with us, taking care of us. I remember mamani being worried about them, reaching out to my grandfather and mom for support; I remember their marriages, their children’s births, the ups and downs in their lives. And they were always there for us during the important times for our family. They were, still are, family, though not family in the literal sense of the word.
Although I never learned all the details of mamani ’s life—as an adult, I began to hear only bits and pieces, always curious but shying away from asking, only learning more when someone voluntarily told stories—I owe a great deal of my emotional intelligence to her. She was an endless source of love and care whose presence implied a sense of safety and refuge. After her retirement, every time I traveled to Tehran, we would get together at her house with her children. She was like a second mother to me, and with her, I could pretend that something of my childhood was still alive and breathing.
When I was an infant, whenever she left on her time off, I would cry nonstop. No one and nothing could soothe me; neither the car rides around the neighborhood, nor the strolls to the park, nor the embraces of my mom, dad, or grandpa. The only thing that worked was holding her colorful, flowery veil, the one she wore to say her daily prayers. It was only by holding onto her cloth and her scent that I could fall asleep.
Now, almost forty years later, I was flying to the other side of the world to once again take that scent in before it was too late. I could feel my past and my home—or what already was a ghost of it—receding further and further away.
When I arrived in Tehran, my mom and I went to visit mamani in the hospital. She did not recognize us with the masks we had to wear in the ward; her daughter told her who I was, almost shouting in her ear because mamani was not wearing her hearing aids. Sitting on the hospital bed, frail and pale, having lost so much weight since the last time I had been in town, a year or so ago, she began thanking me, whispering through the oxygen mask, for going to the trouble of flying all the way here. I caressed her hand, constantly nudging myself not to cry.
I wanted to tell her it was I who should thank her—for waiting for me, for still being here, for having been here all those years. But I could not say a word. I just held her hand until the tears forced me to walk away before she could notice me crying.
During my visit, I kept returning to my memories of mamani : I pictured her cooking the way no one else in my life has ever been able to cook— piroshky , lasagna, zereshk polo , roast beef, fesenjoon , minestrone soup, cutlets, halva , and shole zard . Listening to the radio. Making all sorts of herbal mixes whenever we had a cold. Spoiling the dogs with her sweet talks and treats and caresses. Waking up at dawn to eat before fasting during the month of Ramazan, and sharing her dish with me. Going to the mosque for a congregational prayer, or on a walk on Friday mornings, or to the store to get herself no-salt mozzarella cheese. Getting on a plane with us for the first time to go visit the holy shrine of the eighth Imam. Growing sabzeh for the Persian New Year table.
The doctors suspected she had cancer. While waiting for the results of the biopsy, they sent her home. During those days of waiting, I felt the urge to go and see our childhood house for the first time since it had been sold. I imagined that by facing it, I would find closure, and it would stop continuously appearing in my dreams. Imagined I could once again write about it. Perhaps the urge had been roused in the face of losing my mamani and the feeling of home associated with her. It was as if with her body beginning to fade away from the world, I was seeking the assurance of another body of home continuing to exist, real and standing, even if it no longer belonged to us. But I didn’t, couldn’t, bring myself to go see the house. Every day, for one excuse or another, I avoided it.
At mamani ’s house, we all gathered. Waiting. Praying. As she lay in her bed, thinner and weaker than a few days before, I held her hands. She had trouble breathing even with the oxygen mask. Her granddaughter rubbed her back, folded napkins, and piled them by her side.
Mamani sat. She coughed. She lay. She stared. I asked if she wanted to watch TV. She said she did not. I remembered the days she would sit in her room in our childhood house and follow all the TV series in between running errands. She held onto my hand harder. “Don’t leave me alone,” she whispered. I whispered my promise, afraid that my voice would tremble. She whispered something back. She wanted to make sure there was enough food for everyone who visited, make sure they felt welcomed.
In the living room, her daughter told me, “Before you two arrived, she asked me to spread the cotton sheet over the sofa. She remembered that your mom is sensitive to its fabric. And she reminded me to keep the chicken broth for you. She knows you like to drink it with fresh lime juice and pepper.” I could not hold my tears back anymore.
A few days later, the results of the biopsy came in. Lung cancer. She was almost eighty. She weighed only around seventy pounds. She could not undergo chemo. She had to be taken back to the hospital. She never asked about the results, and we never told her. I was so afraid of not having her in my life, even though my share of her for the past several years had been reduced to nothing but a few visits during my trips to Tehran; hearing her voice now and then on the phone throughout the year. In one of the last messages she left on Telegram, which her daughter had helped record and send a few months earlier, she had said she would pray for me forever. I saved the message, returning to it over and over again whenever I missed her.
Every day in the hospital, on oxygen and painkillers, she breathed in; she breathed out. With less force, with more pain. We gathered around her bed: her daughters; her sons; her grandchildren; her sister; family and friends; my mom and me. She had been a mother to us all: a mother who, with her generous heart and her will to live, had survived and helped others to survive.
“We love you so much. We are all here with you. We are thankful for all you have done for us,” we whispered. What we did not say, but thought: We will forever need your love, and we do not know how to be without you.
As my departure date got closer, I wanted to hold on to the last moments with her—the last moments of belonging. I rearranged work responsibilities and changed my flight. She might not have known I was there, but I knew she was still there and I knew I could not leave.
Mamani passed away the day after my original date of departure, when the muezzin’s call to the morning prayer reverberated through the mountains, on the first day of Moharram—a month of religious mourning and rituals. She was gone, and suddenly we all felt lost and disoriented. Even the city I still insisted on calling “home” felt as if it had lost a limb or an eye or a heart or a depth or something integral to its definition as “home.” If the grief was devastating for me, I could not imagine the burden for mamani ’s own children. She might not have been the strong woman of their youth for many years, but she still had been the center that brought everyone and everything in their lives together.
The Friday before my departure from Tehran, my mom and I visited the cemetery one last time. We did the rounds, visiting the graves of my grandfather, my great-uncle, a few other loved ones, and mamani . We washed the gravestones with rosewater, left white cloves over them, whispered prayers.
I realized that going to see our childhood house that had been so much defined by mamani ’s presence, facing it devoid of the life that was once ours, would be like coming face to face with a corpse, lifeless and breathless, inside a grave. It could perhaps give me closure, but it also meant acknowledging the loss and finally saying goodbye. And perhaps I was not ready for it. I would not have the strength to do so this time.
The cemetery visit made me contemplate the relationship between burials and homes. I already had so many loved ones buried in Tehran’s cemetery, Behesht-e Zahra , and now my mamani , the first mother-figure of my life I had lost, was there, too. There was no one from my large immigrant family yet buried in America. Could it be that the bodies buried in Iran, my generational roots in the land, allowed the country to continue to feel like home despite the growing estrangement between it and me? Would my relationship to America, which had failed to feel like home despite all the years of my life there, change after my people’s bodies began to rest in its soil as well?
I also thought about how my feelings toward America had changed after my niece was born there. And I wondered how much of our being “at home” in a place is tied to our own present, how much to our ancestral past, and how much to the prospect of a future lineage.
For more than a decade, with my life outside of Tehran expanding in length and depth, I have been obsessed with the meanings and feelings of home. Sitting there by my mamani ’s grave, I wondered how much longer I would feel like a nomad in the world. How long would I continue trying to hold onto memories of home, to the hopes for a new one in America? How long would my lineage have to dwell in this new place before I, we, could find home once again? In how many different forms and voices and pages would I feel the need to write and rewrite the stories of home as I seek the meaning of homeland?