California Dreams, Iranian Décor
by Jasmin Darznik
Assistant Professor of English
(This piece first appeared in the Opinionator Blog of the New York Times and is reprinted here by permission)
In 1978, my mother packed two maroon, leatherette suitcases, and she, my father and I boarded a plane for the United States. Just about everyone who could leave Iran had done so already; friends and relatives had been selling off their houses for months. But “revolution” and “exile” were not words my family applied to our circumstances. We left our apartment on Pahlavi Avenue completely intact. The two suitcases suggested, if not a vacation, at most a temporary absence.
“We’ll be back in a few months, a year tops,” my mother explained coolly. It was a line she’d repeat often over the next three decades, which is to say long past the point when she still believed in the possibility.
Where, exactly, were we supposed to wait out the troubles back home? There was no question, at first, of buying a house, so instead we bought a Buick. With the suitcases in the trunk, we set off on a cross-country, yearlong tour of the States. There was a frigid February at a cousin’s house in Wisconsin, and a searing summer at another cousin’s Texas duplex. Along the way, we camped out at a succession of roadside motels about which I remember only the cigarette stink, saggy beds and the late-night news reports that drove my father into silence and my mother into tears.
By the time we reached the West Coast, the violence and chaos back home had reached a fever pitch. Two suitcases or 20, there was no going back to Iran anytime soon. The apartment on Pahlavi Avenue was sold and emptied of its contents. With no trace of our lives left in Iran, it was time to find a house of our own in America.
Money was tight. In Iran my mother had worked as a midwife, and my father as an engineer. Here, their degrees were worthless, so they used their small savings to buy the Casa Buena, a motel off Highway 101 in Marin County. We lived in the decrepit manager’s suite behind the office, until, with the first profits from the motel, we could afford our first real American home: a tiny mud-brown tract house in Terra Linda, a working-class town about 20 miles north of San Francisco.
It was here that my mother finally unfurled her best carpet, a pistachio-green Tabriz beauty that had taken up almost all the space in one of our two suitcases. She also purchased a pair of giant velvet couches that matched the carpet, but were completely out of proportion with the house. Like a woman who buys clothes in too-small sizes in hopes of losing weight, my mother bought furniture to fit a house we did not yet own. “We won’t stay here long,” she said, her voice as cool as always.
She was right; within a year, my parents secured a loan on their dream house, a few miles down the freeway in a pretty bayside town called Tiburon. The interest on that loan would soon reach nearly 30 percent, but for a while that unremarkable split-level seemed not just a bargain but a coup. It stood in a cul-de-sac at the top of a hill, with a spectacular view of Alcatraz, Angel Island and the city in the distance.
In short order my mother furnished the Tiburon house in consummately Iranian — which is to say, strenuously French — style. To accompany the velvet couches, there was now a marble-topped, gold-footed coffee table. She draped the windows with silk swags; decorated my bedroom with a white-canopied bed; and outfitted her own room with piles and piles of purple cushions. Each purchase was at once an evocation of Iran and a repudiation of the two suitcases with which she’d left.
As for me, I didn’t notice the Iranian parts of our California house at all, and then, suddenly, around the age of 12, I saw nothing else. I would have gladly traded our velvet couches for a La-Z-Boy armchair and a chintz sofa, swapped our fine silk rugs for wall-to-wall carpeting. Of course, there was no way my mother would go for that, so I did what I could: I redecorated my room. I ditched the fancy white coverlet and cushions, bought a lava lamp, and wallpapered my walls with Duran Duran and Wham! posters. The black–and-white photographs of pre-revolutionary Iran, the antiques, the carpets, everything that made my mother feel at home as she grieved and remembered and longed for Iran, I mocked with the timeless cruelty of the second-generation toward the first.
We lost the Tiburon house in the ’80s. My parents’ hard work and ambition were, finally, unequal to the interest rate, and we moved into a two-bedroom apartment at the edge of town. Undiminished, and sure it wasn’t for long, my mother piled her treasures from floor to ceiling. Again, she was right. A few years later, they sold the motel, secured another high-interest loan and became Marin County homeowners once more.
A Spanish-style house on Richardson Bay was the last house of my parents’ that I’d ever call home and also the grandest of all our houses in America: 4,000 square feet, five bedrooms, two of them master suites, an enormous sitting room and formal dining room and views onto Mount Tamalpais. Here for the first time my mother planted a garden, encircling the property with the flowers she’d loved best in Iran — honeysuckle, jasmine, roses and nasturtium.
Over the years, the value of the house nearly doubled. Then my father died in 1999. My mother couldn’t afford to live there alone. “Just sell it,” I told her again and again. But against all prudence, with the full force of her pride, she refused. Instead, she carved out an in-law unit for herself, hauled all her favorite things into its two tiny rooms, and rented out the rest of the house. The old marble-topped dining-room buffet became her makeshift desk; she took to cooking meals over a hot plate.
And then came the housing crash. Now, of course, the house’s value has fallen drastically. There’s no longer any question of selling it. It’s her only asset, the single source of money for her retirement. The best she can do, yet again, is wait it out and hope for the best. It’s a common enough story nowadays, especially in California.
What surprises me in all this is how much I have learned to love that cluttered, makeshift Iranian house. Back when I left to move into my own first place, a tiny graduate-student apartment, I bought exactly three pieces of furniture: a futon, a chair and a desk. This lack of ornament, this refusal of any discernible history, was to me the sum of perfection. “But where are your things?” my mother wailed on her first visit. Now, I grieve every time she makes another trek to a pawnshop or consignment store, selling off one of her carpets or side tables.
Whenever I visit, she still insists on making me tea in her beautiful brass samovar, steeping it the old way, the Iranian way, with rose essence and cardamom. When she burns wild rue for good luck, I chide her for her superstition, but in the end I’ll always relent, ducking low so she can circle the smoke over my head.
Like so much of our American lives, it defies prediction and common sense, but we have been happier in that house than either of us could have imagined when we set out with our two suitcases more than 30 years ago, looking for a home we could never quite afford or imagine we would finally find.
Jasmin Darznik is a professor of English at Washington and Lee University and the author of “The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life.”