Auntie Hikmet had a tragic story. When she was merely a teenager, she had abandoned her privileged home environment for an older and uneducated man with no secure financial future. Her family had dominant status in their social circles in wealth and high education and was made up of well-known individuals. With her privileged background, it was unacceptable to seek intimate association with such a person she had fallen in love with. Her family was wrong. Her future life was filled with love, prestige, and financial success for her husband. Still, any communication attempt with her family had met with rejection. She shed tears as if they could repair the broken tie to her family. Each time, though, after she would get a hold of herself, she would shake her full head of gorgeous thick brown hair –as if to shake her tears away, direct her dark brown eyes at me, and repeat the same advice I had heard her give to her two daughters and son: marry only for love. Until his end at a late age, she was indeed with the only man she always loved.
In Auntie Hikmet’s opinion, my mother did not heed her advice. Her true feelings about my parents’ marriage must have been obvious to my father. Whenever the subject came her, even after her death, which my mom mourned openly, and for very long, my father would show nervousness. He would straighten up, if he was sitting; sit, if he were up; not knowing what to do with his big hands or feet. One would think his worn-out armchair in the den or his throne-like, ancient reading chair or his most favorite left-side seat in the new sectional sofa in the formal living room had some iron bars sticking out; or the carpet throughout our flat had logs on fire. His face wearing an almost pained expression, he would then change the topic into his story.
“We had to have a chaperone,” he would tell me, pride in his voice and approval in his hand gestures, for his bride-to-be had apparently had a proper upbringing. I heard my dad often use this remark. Also, many aunts and uncles in our extended families talked about a proper upbringing for a girl. Then they would embark on either giving an approving nod and a smile over one or shake their heads with a frown on their faces over another, adding, “tsk tsk” to their generous diction of criticism. I would brush off these comments, thinking I would have to figure them out later. As for the chaperone topic, I never needed to ask anyone. There was a physical display in our own home all along. With their rusted silvery frame and a faded gray color paper lining, several black and white photographs decorated the two largest walls in my parents’ bedroom: from the night of their formal engagement ceremony and their outings in Ada (the big island in Istanbul). In all of the enlarged photos, the appointed chaperone was either sitting underneath a large tree branch or on a picnic bench or standing inside a gazebo, close to its open gate, but always a few meters behind my parents, looking intently at them. I had seen the same woman –on much smaller print, in numerous other pictures in my parents’ albums. In each picture, she had a similar outfit: a tailored, light-colored suit with the skirts reaching well below her knees, black shoes with high heels, a tasteful hat with a thick brim and a flower on one side and a colorful scarf around her neck, with her medium-length brownish hair showing off in inward curls. In the large Ada picture, she had her legs tucked to one side of her body, looking uncomfortable inside what appeared to be a very tight skirt that reached to her ankles. No slit of relief in sight anywhere. With her upper body in as upright of a position as it could get, yet, her lower body in an awkward, rather forced and somewhat of a scrambled pose.
Neither of my parents appeared annoyed about being watched. Both seemed gleeful. Their accepting demeanor began to bother, even aggravate, me as I grew older and began to notice more and more how men seemed not to be susceptible to the judgment of “proper” and “improper” by a man or a woman. Anyone was yet to comment about my father having had a proper upbringing, including my mother.
Looking through photo albums was my most favorite hobby next to reading novels on love. One day, I discovered a collection of family photos befitting of a library’s rare collection section, however in a far more urgent need for preservation. The pages looked so frail and the black and white pictures so faded that I knew I was on the verge of unearthing precious treasure.
I first spotted a train station. My mother stood out with her thick, auburn-streaked blackish hair and her fair complexion, while both, her dark-skinned mother- and sister-in-laws, had what seemed to be a small blanket covering their head and shoulders. During an involved family conversation sometime later, my father told me how female headscarves were standard practice in small regions of Turkey of their time. While he sounded adamant about this practice, my mother did not say much at all. She only commented in a few words that the city of Istanbul–where she went to school–was different in many aspects. But, this was the main train station in Afyon, my father’s hometown, supposedly also a city in every definition of the term. I had not argued with my father at the time of our family talk on this subject. I surely wasn’t going to argue with him now, in his absence, when I was so involved in my photo-album espionage.
So, I turned back to my exciting project to notice how the oldest of my father’s seven brothers overpowered everyone around him with his impressive height and statuesque posture. (He was a very good-looking man, the only attractive one among all the siblings. My poor aunt had been dealt the worst card!) His dismissive facial expression seemed aimed at the three women of that Turkish past. The smirk of his lips reminded me of Clark Gable’s. The condescending look in his eyes and his body language of arrogance were all in sync with what I encountered later in my life: you, woman, are below me. I knew then I wasn’t going to ever forget that uncle.
(Please stop by again next Wednesday for the last part.)