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Autobiographical Fiction, “Huban” – Part 3

Another picture: goodbye Afyon, welcome Sinop!  Goodbye black and white photographs, hello color!  My aunt (my father’s only sister, who could have used some physical features of her oldest brother) still underneath her head and shoulder cover as in the Afyon photograph, was looking up with eyes half-closed.  She was sitting next to my mom who had my newborn brother in her arms.  Several photos later, though, my aunt’s hair was in full sight, her face was a canvas for color-rich make-up and she was clad in a notably fabric-shy dress.  Sinop, however, was a tiny town!  “How come my aunt shed her head-and shoulder cover?” I asked my father the minute I got a chance.

“Well, Huban, the Turkish sea towns have always been different in many aspects.  Afyon is what it is: a place right in the heart of the rugged Anatolian land.  If my family had lived in southern Turkey, or at the Aegean coast, they would have dressed like those in Sinop.  That’s how populations adopted to the different landscapes of our country.  But in all honesty, I must tell you how I always coveted to be like the Sinopians: very comfortable with their way of life and what their women and men wear.  Afyon was never accepting to any variety in clothing for women.  So, when your aunt came to live with us, she didn’t know anything beyond what was there in Afyon to see and to do; she hadn’t seen anything beyond her birthplace.  Unlike me.  I lived and worked in Istanbul.  You know that.  I changed quite a lot after my life in the big city.  Especially, after meeting your mom, long before we were married, during our long waiting period.  Living with your mom changed your aunt also.  She opened up.  By the way, did you know your mom made her that summer dress?”

“Why?”

“She wanted my sister to keep up with the times.”

“I had no idea she could do that!”

“She could and did.  However, she wouldn’t even put it on at first.  Then, a couple of days later she wanted to try it on, only in her room and only to show your mom.  After a while, she wore it all the time!”

“What about your parents, Dad, and your brothers?  Weren’t they mad about how different she began to look?”

“Oh yes, they were all upset to get such pictures of your aunt.  But you see, as the only college graduate in my family, everyone always respected me very much, in what I did and was doing.  In any situation, for that matter.  So, they let your mom and me be; and let your aunt dress and live like the Sinopians.  You know your grandmother and all her female cousins were wearing skimpy bathing suits whenever they went on a boat ride with boys?  Not only your mother but her grandmother before her as well?  And this, not only as children but also as teens and beyond?  The locals have a saying: Sinop is the best place in Turkey for a woman to live in peace and full safety.  I am happy and proud my only sister was also able to learn modernity from us and this town.”

Since the subject had just come to my mom’s sewing skills–one among her numerous other talents-my father said: “In summer, when you have no classes, you should learn how to saw, to knit, to cook and to bake from your mom.  Like your mom.”  A proper upbringing must also mean to have sawing, knitting, cooking and baking abilities, I had concluded back then and wondered what my father’s advice was for my brother.  Didn’t Tamo deserve a proper upbringing?

My brother…With his birth weight of close to ten pounds, his simply beautiful, unwrinkled and white face, cute little nose –almost a duplicate of my mom’s, fully developed body –unlike my premature one, and gorgeously bald head (yes, baldness in babies was a must attraction back then, I was told many times), I was no contest for this darling creature who arrived here three years ahead of me.  At some point in my early years–but only after I had safely grown out of my ugly, hideous, hairy and skinny birth-shell, had my father confessed how my mother first greeted me in an almost muted utterance: “Oh, my unfortunate girl!”

I always concluded her reaction was about the obvious difference between Tamo’s beauty and my intense ugliness.  My father, though, would not say much on this matter.  Every time the subject of my birth came up, he was overcome with sadness for his wife and for his mother-in-law whom he had dearly loved and respected.  I, too, was overcome by sadness: my grandmother–only 48 years old–was at her deathbed with ovarian cancer at the onset of my mom’s pregnancy with me.  There had been too many records of deaths by this type of cancer on my mother’s side.  Still, she could not have ever imagined her own mother as a victim to this disease.  She could not talk with us about those days without stopping in the middle of her first sentence, not being able to collect herself to go on beyond.  She must have been traumatized by severe sadness, fearing her mother’s fate would also be mine–or her own, as it turned out to be.  This morbid sentence had struck her three female cousins around the same age as my grandmother.  I would have to eventually encounter the tremendous loss of my mother–she must have concluded, an ordeal she herself was facing when she was supposed to feel elated for expecting a new life.  In the way she must have felt while she was pregnant with my brother.

Ach, Tamo…

My brother’s favorite pass-time activity was to make fun of me about the type of novels I read (not very different than what I later found out to be our mother’s all-time favorite–pre-dating my birth).  It didn’t matter to him whether my choices were translations of the world classics, or the work of our own classical literary greats.  Sometimes he would almost scold me, announcing my disappointment would be of tragic dimensions if I kept dreaming up life’s realities under the influence of those “ridiculous stories,” as he called them again and again to my face.

I am no longer in contact with my brother and haven’t been for a long while.  If I had been, I would have told him in what striking ways my life events mirrored and continue to mirror those “ridiculous stories” he persistently frowned upon.  Moreover, I would have let him in on one most vital fact about me, one for which his most imaginative moment won’t suffice.  What a surreal extent our mother’s affection for and sorrow over the fate of the protagonist in her most favorite novel did and continue to intertwine with his sister’s–the life of his one and only sibling…

(Only this essay stops here.  As for Huban’s tale, it will continue.)

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Autobiographical Fiction, “Huban” – Part 2

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.)

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Autobiographical Fiction, “Huban” – Part 1

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.)

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