I knew the story of my father’s successful pursuit of my mother too well. How could I forget? He told it so many times! With his entire face engaged into what he was about to say, his hazel eyes larger than usual, faint eyebrows drawn upward, his mouth collecting water – almost to a short-distance spit, as it did most of the time while talking:
“The first time I saw your mother in her school uniform, I knew she was the one for me. Soon after that very day, I saw her again. In my boss’ office of all the places – yes, your grandfather’s! His other assistant, seeing my dumbstruck expression, said in a flash: ‘She is Baytar Bey’s daughter.’ (Bey in Turkish functions like “Mr.”, though it cannot precede a name but rather must follow it.) Not much later than a few weeks time, I was standing in front of your grandfather. I looked him straight in the eye and told him I would never marry anyone else, if I could not have the hand of his daughter!”
A critical detail in my father’s story would somehow escape his recollection, namely my grandfather’s repeated rejections: “I have no daughter to give to that man!” The insight into this minor nuance, as my father called it, was a true gift to me from my uncle, the oldest brother of my mother:
“We all forgot the count of how many times Father said ‘no’ or ‘absolutely not’ to your father, Huban. But your father just wouldn’t give up. Finally, months later, I believe it was even close to a year’s time, our father caved in and told your mom of your father’s quest to marry her. By that time, she had been told the persistence of a suitor by one of her school spies. She was naïve. She had no such experience ever before in her life. So, she was intrigued, even felt proud, I guess, and gave our mother the signal to tell our father her suitor could come forward. None of us males in the family was supposed to know about this exchange between the two ladies in the open. You know, I told you many times: it was just not proper to communicate about such things in mixed company. Neither our father nor our mother would, of course, go ahead with any engagement plans before your mom graduated from high school. They waited in the hope your mom would change her mind and reject this suitor too. They were against this union for many reasons. A fresh graduate with limited financial means, ten years older than your mom but also from a very large family with a conservative traditional household. But hey, he turned out to be okay. Still, don’t let him ever tell you or your brother how willing his in-laws were to have their daughter marry him!”
I loved my father. A childhood legacy about me was proof to that. I, as a two year old escapee from under my nanny’s hands –during a diaper changing ritual, of all possible times, marching onto the street of my parents’ temporary hometown in search of my dad’s office. To be hugged and cuddled by him, I guess. My mom was gone for the afternoon. The nanny was, after all, no one to feel cuddly toward. On the contrary, she was the cold-hearted woman who that same afternoon pierced my ears with a large pin used to sew comforter covers. She was promptly fired, my parents told me a few times. But, I had at least ear holes now to dangle gold earrings from, as was the nanny’s customary gift to baby girls –no matter how ripped my ear lobes looked! Having snuck out without the nanny noticing me, I must have been dawdling from the narrow front steps of my parents’ home onto the street, when one good citizen recognized me as the little girl of the new veterinarian in town, making me into a personal delivery item. I can only imagine the sounds I must have made as soon as my father’s arms reached out to me, most likely quickly grabbing some candy from his nearby desk to comfort me. Yet now, I was going after this sweet man with the insight I got from my uncle long ago.
I would confront my father in loving tease at every opportunity I got with a sneaky, “I know what really happened, Dad!” All along I knew too well the weakness he had for me. I always suspected he would stop the world’s ills for me, if only he could. Oh, I would play that card so often and with such mischievous pleasure. Especially then, when he least expected one of my infamous truth attacks: the moment he dared to brag about his physical features complementing my mom’s–a natural and rare beauty. She had blackish hair with auburn strands, flawless complexion, shapely and small nose (unlike mine), dark green eyes: an eye-catching, petite curvaceous woman –as I heard many people in and outside the family describe her looks. As much as I loved my father, I knew –as did anyone else who ever saw both my parents together: his physique was in no way a compliment to my mom’s.
Auntie Hikmet, my mother’s best friend since childhood–a strikingly attractive woman herself–had known about my mom’s many good-looking suitors through her own connections. Perhaps the most revealing account of my parents’ incompatibility in appearance came from her:
“I peeked behind the large wall separating the formal living room from the hallway that connected the family room to the second-floor kitchen, and I saw. No one noticed me but I saw. There they were, his hands, so dark, hairy and skinny. His face, the same. I started crying in quiet sobs. Then, with caution, not to let the old bare wooden floor squeak under my feet, I started climbing up the steps of the first landing, then the long spiral staircase, to the top floor, into your mother’s bedroom. I went out on the small balcony overlooking the vegetable garden, where your brother’s and your swing sets still stand. ‘Is my best friend really about to marry this ugly man?’ was all I could think. I let out a scream. Your mother had no idea why I was hysterical. She was out of herself from excitement that her promise ceremony was finally taking place. That her soon-to-be fiancé was in her home. Right then and there. ‘But you only met him one time in your father’s office, amid a crowd of other strangers’, I wanted to shout to her. She looked very happy, like I had never seen her before. So, I told her I was crying because I had burned my hand while steeping the tea in the new teapot. We were barely eighteen…”
A promise ceremony is a common practice, a tradition of some sorts rather, among many families in Turkey –in the countryside as well as the city. Two involved families adopt to show each side their commitment to the intended marital union. The men’s side is in charge of all the wedding expenses, while the woman’s side assumes the costs of the engagement ceremony. Before any of those official steps are taken, a modest and informal rite takes place between the involved families in the woman’s home: the men’s family enters their future in-laws’ house with trays of chocolate and bouquets of flowers to the woman’s mother (only one large tray and one bouquet, if the family is small) and the promise rings for the bride- and groom-to-be as well as other jewelry items for the future daughter-in-law along with personal gifts to each member of her family.
Thistradition was something my reliable storyteller, Auntie Hikmet, never lived through. It could not have even neared her household. Not that she would have cared much for it in the first place. She was quite a character. Not into any formalities. A bubbly personality through and through. Had she been my biological aunt, I could not have felt closer to her. She and my mother remained confidantes until death separated them. I found out from her how she–after several years into my mother’s marriage, well after my brother was born–was finally able to accept my father into my mom’s family, the Sirvans. The family that embraced her and that she took as her own after being shunned from her biological one.
(I hope you will visit again next Wednesday to read Part 2.)