Say Hello to Your Mom

I cringed through the most awkward dinner of my life when I was 13. My mother took her children and boyfriend to share a meal with my father’s conservative Iranian parents.

The entire evening felt wrong. I greeted my grandparents on the sidewalk, lost on the amicability between them and my mother. My dad wasn’t there, because he actually understood what divorce meant — this felt like his parents were cheating on him with their former daughter-in-law. The adults made small talk in fluent and broken English, trying to act like their relationship was normal. I internally scoffed at the idea and took out my early teen angst on my food, crushing mediocre pasta with my molars. These facets of my family were not supposed to like each other, and they certainly weren’t supposed to go to dinner and act like everything was fine.

Everything was not fine, and it hadn’t been for years. Nothing was normal about living multiple lives, and that night’s bridge only complicated what had already crumbled. Why did these opposing family branches get along? Why were my grandparents on a twisted date with their ex daughter-in-law? How could they love the woman who left their son?

******

Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce, affecting even the people who aren’t splitting up. At some point, we’ll all be introduced to divorce, whether it’s our own, a relative’s or a friend’s. Divorce wrecks more lives than a marriage can illuminate, and it’s a plot that keeps repeating.

Separation came into my life in first grade. I didn’t fully grasp the entirety of this divorce my parents were getting, but I knew it shook up my routine. Two houses, multiple toothbrushes and a slew of new people I could have done without at that age. Boyfriends. Girlfriends. Counselors — it turns out that family therapy sessions aren’t normal either. My dad’s tears and my grandparents moving into our guest room. Having to keep mothballs in my mom’s new kitchen because we’d find tiny eggs in our cereal boxes. Moving to another house again. Eating dinner at restaurants instead of home. Everything changed by splitting in two.

It didn’t get easier as I grew older. In high school, I’d wear dirty uniform khakis for days in a row because I’d left the others at the wrong house. My social life tanked because my parents wanted to spend time with me on the weekends. “If you wanted to see me all the time, you shouldn’t have left dad,” I’d snap at my mother. The angst settled a little college, where I finally got to sleep in the same bed every night.

******

I believed divorce didn’t happen in Iranian culture. I didn’t know any Iranian couples that got divorced, and maybe that stemmed from the arranged marriages that still occur. The truth is that Iran runs under Islamic law, and Islam isn’t too keen on divorce. Culturally, divorce just isn’t discussed, and until recently, wasn’t an attainable option for women, who weren’t a large part of the workforce. They risked losing everything — their children, financial stability, dignity.

Before the Iranian Revolution, the Family Protection Act and later Family Protection Law sought to balance the relationship between husband and wife. But once the return of Sharia law repealed that progress, the workings of marriage and divorce zoomed into the past. Instead of people, women became possessions stripped of the right to divorce and win custody of their children. By the time these laws relaxed, my grandparents had been living in the U.S. for almost 15 years. A few grandchildren and years of fighting later, the 20th century ended and their first son’s marriage closed its doors.

******

Both of my parents worked full-time, so caretaking defaulted to my grandparents, who were already watching my sister and me as our mom finished her college classes. I consider my grandmother a third parent, and I’m convinced I saw more of her growing up than I did my mom or dad. She fed us chicken and rice and held up a line of cars at school because she always came to pick us up early. There were times when my sister and I resented our mom, who often came later than she promised. If we were staying with our dad, we could go straight to his house and get on with our lives, but otherwise we waited at our grandparents’ house for what felt like eons.

My grandparents never shared our resentment, gently telling us not to groan as they set another fruit plate on the kitchen counter. Despite everything, they loved her and it puzzled me. It took too long to realize that they were preserving the relationship for us, not her. Even my extended family in Maryland loved her, despite not seeing her for years. Early conversations on every visit drifted to her wellbeing, and before we left for the airport, a thickly accented request met our ears: “Say hi to your mom.”

Eventually, my grandparents worked up the courage to invite her to spend time with them, time that wasn’t marked by one party toting the kids to a different house 20 minutes away.

Public outings, like the mediocre Italian dinner, were cringeworthy, but private meetings actually bred fond memories. One night, the five of us met at my aunt and uncle’s new house to eat a meal my uncle killed himself. Somehow, I remember, my grandmother’s portion of buffalo had gone missing without entering her mouth. We found it hiding under a piece of flatbread and while she feigned surprise, we all laughed like a normal family.

******

Here’s what I know. My mom says it wasn’t a real marriage. My dad grimaces whenever I bring it up. They dated for six months before he proposed, and I wonder if a longer trial run could have prevented their marriage. Maybe their age difference was too great. They definitely weren’t right for each other.

My stance has flipped as I’ve grown. For years, I sided with my dad because I felt he’d been betrayed. Then I realized my mom lost her 20s to a bad relationship and only wanted to be free. These days, I have sympathy for both of them.

I also know that I’ve become cynical. I ridicule my high school classmates who get engaged, and I’ve started coining divorce hashtags, preparing for the inevitable. I’m afraid to let people in because I don’t want to end up betrayed or miserable either. I’ve already surpassed the ages my mom got married and gave birth to me, and at the rate things are going, I’ll probably beat my dad too.

******

Iran is catching up with the West on divorce laws, and these days the country’s divorce rates are slowly climbing. More women can economically sustain themselves, so they can actually leave without jeopardizing their status. Liberated women even throw divorce parties.

However, the new class doesn’t represent the old school. The last time my family went to Maryland, a cluster of relatives remained absent from the celebratory Saturday night dinner. My father’s cousin and his wife were in the midst of a divorce, and the couple and their children faded from family get-togethers. The younger guests whispered about the missing party while the seniors ignored the difference. Everyone knew about the dispute — the scandal — yet our discussions were hushed. Despite what was going on, we couldn’t distress our elders.

******

In October of 2012, my sister called to tell me our mother and stepfather would move to San Antonio the following year. The consequences of a military marriage were finally real. We were losing our mother.

That December, my clan was in town for a massive family reunion — 50 Iranians in one house on any given night kind of massive — and they were disheartened to learn that the distance was increasing. That week, all my sister and I wanted was a chance for my extended family to see my mom again — the amehs and amoos that loved her so dearly were only getting older, and within six months she would be even more disconnected. Instead of relaying the message, we wanted our relatives to say hello to her themselves.

My parents don’t agree on much outside of scheduling, and when they do, they start blaming the other for whatever it was that forced them to communicate in the first place. This time was different. None of their children had gotten into trouble or attempted to weasel her way around a rule. All we asked for was a chance for our clan to say hello and goodbye in person; without realizing it, we wanted to feel normal.

She agreed, and then he agreed, and we almost couldn’t believe it. How long had it been since this much of the family was actually together? We set the reunion on neutral territory, a private party at a restaurant not too far from our awkward dinner’s venue seven years before. It was a far better option than the house they shared for a very short time; neither could feel encroached upon or violated, senses that become all too familiar once the papers are signed.

The rest of the family arrived first — it was our dinner, after all — and the anxious part of me feared she would change her mind. I fueled my nerves with complimentary bread and checked my phone with anticipation, desperate for verification, a message that the surprise that would touch so many people was on its way. And then she walked inside. Heads turned and smiles broke on kind, elderly faces. As she approached our table, the first in a series of reunions, my sister and I broke into tears.

There’s a fantasy among children of divorce. No matter how harsh the fighting was or terrible a match they are, there’s always a secret hope that parents will get back together. We want the people who created us to care in a way that may have never existed. My sister says the only thing you want is for them to love each other again and be a normal family. Even when your parents move on and find better partners, you hope that one day they’ll finally get along.

That holiday dinner was the closest my mother and father have come to a truce, and I can’t recall a more significant meal. On this night, my sister and I got to see both of our parents without being dragged back and forth or getting caught in their hostility. That night, all of that disappeared for an hour. Not one sly look or quip from either parent. Elderly Iranians chewing steak and smiling to see the woman who birthed nieces they loved. A warm conversation between my mother and great aunt Parvaneh, who I may have never otherwise known was so eloquent in her second language. Grateful tears and a slight sense of peace after years and years of tension. And finally, a realization that love overpowers hate.

******

I don’t like admitting that things became less hectic after my mother moved halfway across the country, but after a childhood spent navigating joint custody and the ruins of a relationship, I welcomed the simplicity. In adulthood and past joint custody, life stops feeling like a giant game of tug-of-war. I’m reaching the point where I can see my parents on my own terms and quality time with either branch of my family doesn’t feel political. And at least this time when we’re scheduling for the holidays, there’s no question of where I’ll have to stay.

After the dust settles and the breakup that shaped your life most — your parents’ — finally feels neutral, you stop dwelling on your own relationships in such a hateful manner. You can learn a lot about relationships from your parents’ divorce. In my case, I realized that you can’t let sadness or hate engulf you, whether you’ve placed your hand on the plug after years of misery or feel like you’ve been betrayed after doing everything you could to accommodate your partner’s needs.

My views on romance haven’t suddenly changed, but I find myself caring less when an endeavor goes awry. My befuddlement at the relationship between my grandparents and mother wasn’t worth all the angst, and even though I inherited the streak of Persian rage, harnessing my energy towards negativity is pointless.

“Be better, not bitter,” my mother told me. Now I finally understand.

My parents were not meant to be married, but maybe they can be decent. In the years following that Christmas dinner, I’ve noticed some neutrality between them, and while that’s not always true, it’s far better than the eons of nothing. My mother’s relationship with my grandparents will exist as long as they do, and on her most recent visit home, she stopped by to see them on the way to her own parents’ house. Explaining that we couldn’t take any food and loosely planning for the five of us to take a trip to Vegas felt comfortable.

These days, my mom steps into her old house more often for the sake of her newest Sedghi relationship, a friendship with my four-year-old half sister, Ana. My mom’s bond with my dad’s child, one that doesn’t carry her blood, is a lot like her relationship with his parents: amicable, casual and everlasting. My mother always thinks about other people, and it’s especially true with the family she never really lost. Ana doesn’t know her as “Sarra and Lea’s mommy” or “Daddy’s ex-wife,” but instead, “my friend Kim.” She will never grow up seeing her as an enemy or betrayer. Despite all the history, a toddler and my grandparents can see my mother for who she is. They see past a divorce and appreciate a woman’s love.

******

From May 2016