By Leila Christine Nadir
For the first two and a half years of my life, it was just my mother and me. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks from Marion Elementary, where my mom taught Special Ed and where I would one day go to school. An elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Jansen, owned the house, and they lived in the larger unit around back. I remember few details from those years, but I know they had a dog, and that the separation between our apartments must’ve been porous. My father told me that, after he returned from Afghanistan, I once crawled down the hallway, and when he followed after me, he found me on all fours, eating out of the Jansens’ dog’s dish. Gross, I know, and sort of embarrassing, but this is how a memoirist pulls together the past.
Years later, after we had moved out, my mother and I drove by the Jansens’ every weekday on our way to and from school. Through the passenger window, I’d stare at their white house and think that maybe I could remember playing indoors beside the large picture window I was now seeing from the road. If the weather was nice, the Jansens would be in their front yard, sitting in lawn chairs, sun-hats over their grey hair, watching automobiles motor by. My mother always told me to give them a wave. She had only nice things to say about them. Look at them sitting in the sun. They’re so sweet. Good people. My mother liked to take care of the elderly, check in on them, see how they were doing. She liked for them to say, What a good girl, God Bless. But even after a decade of driving by their house every morning, every afternoon, we never pulled into their drive. She had lived in their house. I had lived in their house. For years. And for a while, my father and the others had too. But we never stopped to say hi.
The Jansens knew too much. That’s why she stayed away. And that’s exactly why I wanted to talk to them. I wanted to interview anyone who had answers—I still do—anyone who will look me in the eye, take a deep breath, say, What do you want to know? The first questions I’d ask: When I was one, two, three years old, what did I like to do? Was I happy? Was she? Were they?
As a child, I didn’t know what happened, so I put together a story with whatever information I could find. I needed something to believe in. Those years were perfect, I told myself. I lived with my mother in the Jansens’ house. On Walworth Road. In the little town of Marion. We didn’t know anyone, so it was just the two of us. It was a good time. Way back, in the beginning, when everything had been okay. No, not just okay. Perfect. Everything was perfect. Before everything changed.
My mother’s formal title was Special Education Teacher Grades 4–6. She was the first in her family to go to college—though she hadn’t wanted to go. She’d barely paid attention in high school. She told me that, during her senior year, she’d counted the days until she’d never have to sit in a classroom again. When her parents pushed her to apply to state schools an hour or two away, she reminded them that nobody needed a degree to be a housewife. Look at the women in the family, her mother, her grandmother, every aunt. And she already had a good job—selling perfume, I think it was—at Boscov’s (the biggest department store in downtown Binghamton). But her parents were the children of Slovak immigrants, and they were catching on to the American Dream. Every generation, another step. And they hadn’t raised their daughter to ask questions about their plans. Before my mom left for home for college, her mother pulled from the kitchen drawer some clipped newspaper articles that she’d saved to make sure her daughter stayed on track. The Woodstock Festival had just happened, several days, maybe a week, earlier, in mid-August. To my Slovak-Catholic family, which didn’t have a rebel among them yet, hippies must have looked like pure evil, like demons rolling around in mud pits, throwing away their chances for a future. Her mother pointed at the image. She didn’t explain. She didn’t warn. She stated fact. “You will not drop out of college like these kids hopped up on pot.”
Four years later, my mother was teaching Special Ed in a trailer in an empty field next to the Marion Central School parking lot. New classrooms were on their way, but there was no other space at the time for the kids with learning disabilities. In the winter, the wind whipped through the trailer’s siding, and I’ve seen photos of my mother standing at the chalkboard in gloves and a winter coat. That’s all I know about her life beyond me in those years. A cold trailer and kids at desks. The rest of her life seemed to revolve around me—though adults’ lives are never as simple as kids think.
Mom told me we knew no one in Marion but each other. For my daycare, she left me with one of the Jansens’ neighbors. After a few months, the neighbor’s plans changed, and she suggested her friend, a woman named Carol, who was looking for something to do because her youngest had just started school. Having no choice, if she was going to keep her hard-won job, the first professional job in the family, my mother dropped me off at this stranger’s house. She didn’t know what else to do. Her husband was missing. All family was three hours away. Monday through Friday, as the sun was rising, Mom handed me over Carol’s concrete doorstep with a bag full of bottles and cotton diapers. At 3 pm, Aunt Carol—we began to regard her as family—handed me back, bottles emptied, dirty diapers rinsed and sealed in an old plastic bag. And then, I liked to tell myself, Mom and I played together the rest of the day.
Mom made a scrapbook. Did she do this for herself? Did she do this for me? I’m not sure. My first smiles, my first giggles, my first run across the Jansens’ yard—all were documented with photos, and the details handwritten in the box next to First Word, First Steps, Favorite Toy, Favorite Food, on special note cards made for babies’ early years. My mother was aware of time, conscious of how fast everything changed, but she followed others’ rules for what had meaning. Favorite Toy, Favorite Food, What Makes Me Laugh, Favorite Song. These details do not help me now. What I’d like to know: When was the first time I heard my father’s voice on the phone?
As a child, I searched through the photos for clues. A series from my first birthday. Chocolate cake smeared across my face, and my clumsy fingers stuffing another handful into my mouth. And a series of dress-ups. I’m propped up on pillows and posed in pink tights and a pink ruffled dress, with a pink barrette in my hair. Almost every day of my life, there, she and I. No other kids, no play-dates, no family. Just me, and behind the camera, the shadow of my twenty-four-year-old Mom. What I’d like to know, How often did he call?
She wrote captions as if she were me. She took on my voice. In her captions, I’m always talking to her, about her, thinking about her. There are no independent moments. Everything I do relates back to Mom.
Let’s throw my toys all over of the floor since Mommy just picked them up!!!
Just one more cookie before bed. Please, Mom….
What a Bad Girl I Am, jumping on the bed!!!!!!!!
Uh oh, Mommy caught me again!
Mommy’s going to be so impressed with how clean I’m going to get this room.
For that last one, there are two photos. One of me reaching my fingers up for the handle of the vacuum on unstable tippy-toes, stretching high, looking up, focusing on my goal. And the other shows me rubbing a rag on a table, my eyebrows furrowed in deep concentration, seemingly lost in thought, not looking at the camera, not noticing my Mom at all. They look like moments to be taken seriously, yet between the photos, my mother wrote my name in bubbly cursive with multi-colored markers. Instead of dotting the i’s in Christine Michelle Nadir, she drew four dramatic red hearts, romantic, bursting with sincere hallmark love. What I’d like to know now, Did she worry he wasn’t coming back?
I ran across some writing by Javier Marías. He wrote, “In literature as in life, we don’t always know what is part of a story until that story has reached its conclusion.” I often wonder if I’m choosing what I remember, or if the memories choose me. In one photo, I am one-year-old, splashing in a blue kiddie pool in our front yard, squinting in the sun. Bulges of baby fat roll over the strings of the rainbow bikini my mother has tied around my waist and shoulders. There is a postal stamp stuck on my forehead. A bright orange stamp, larger than most American stamps, with black Persian and Arabic script along its borders. I look up at the camera, maybe my Mom called to me, and as the shutter snaps, my hand slaps the water, sending a shower into the air and me into ecstasy. The caption reads, in my voice, of course, A letter from Baba came today! I didn’t know, because I had never met him, and I had no experience with the concept, that Baba referred to my father. It is Persian for Dad. In the photograph, I am happy to be splashing in a circle of cool blue water on a hot summer day. In the caption written by my mother, I am excited about a man I don’t know exists who wrote a letter I didn’t read.
We don’t know what’s important until we know the end of the story. I am a light brown baby named Christine in a rainbow string bikini, on a green American lawn, with Afghanistan and Allah-i-Akbar, Allah is Great, stamped on her head.
Leila Christine Nadir is an Afghan-American writer and artist whose work focuses on evolutions of memory, identity, food, and environment. She is currently at work on a memoir titled Bad Muslim, about the colorful marriage of her Afghan-Muslim father and Slovak-Catholic mother. Her essays and criticism have appeared in North American Review, Asian American Literary Review, American Scientist, Leonardo, Aster(ix), and Hyperallergic. She teaches at the University of Rochester as Lecturer in Environmental Humanities.