California Forum

For those of us who are far from our fathers on Father’s Day

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My Uncle Darius died not long ago. He had a stroke and collapsed in his home, alone. He had stayed behind in Tehran while my aunt went to Canada to visit their children and grandchildren. In better years, they may have lived beneath the same roof or at least in the same town but we, their children, their nieces and nephews, are the seeds that were scattered abroad to save us from tyranny.

The last time I saw my uncle was on a brief visit to Iran after 32 years in exile. I returned fatherless, motherless, middle-aged, a stranger. Yet he took me in his arms like the 15-year-old niece he’d last seen in 1978.

What shook me to the core was his voice. He was my father’s baby brother. Their voices parroted one another, so when he said my name, my pet name, “Dony joon,” my heart burst. He looked smaller than I remembered him being.

Not all of them are gone from this world. Not yet. Some are unable to cross a border to reach their families, some lay in hospice, some are estranged.

He had my father’s beak nose and I could not take my eyes off of it. My dad died in 1997 but what mysterious heirlooms he imprinted on this man, of whom I was so fond, sitting beside me drinking tea, his nose obstructing the path of a teacup to his lips.

He spoke with the same emphasis on certain vowels, the endearing accent of northern Iran – my father advising me. When his wife interrupted him, he made a face: “Let me finish!” Yes, let him, I thought. How I wanted to reach out and touch his nose, to capture the words that tumbled from his mouth into a Mason jar, to later hold the glass like a seashell to my ear when I missed my dad.

I returned home to California but I could not forget that close encounter, that feeling of holding something so dear. “Dony joon” echoed in my ears. What solace there was in knowing that so vital a piece of my father, his voice, still lived inside my uncle.

Growing up, these two brothers remained close. They married and filled their houses with children and then emptied them when one was forced to leave with his family and one chose to stay and send his children abroad. One is buried in a cemetery in California and one was buried last month, in Tehran.

The world has gone mad, lives vandalized, families ripped apart, fathers die alone, sons and daughters adrift. We try to make our parents proud, we strive, sometimes we succeed, we assimilate, we raise children who may never know their grandparents, and rarely do we mother our mothers, or nurse them when they become ill.

One spring afternoon, the awful news travels across telephone lines while I’m at my child’s track meet. All in a moment, the pendulum swings back to the street where I grew up. I know exactly where he fell. I know how the telephone rings in that house. I know the sound of that buzzer, unanswered. I know all this from 7,000 miles away.

My aunt flew home on the first flight. Home, what home? Without a husband, without children and grandchildren, it’s a widow’s lair where the survivor returns to seek her mate in a coat still on a hook by the door, his watch on the chest of drawers, a morning teacup in the sink.

She will put the kettle on. She will sit at the kitchen table to drink her tea, bitter and sweet, and she will bide her time until one day her children call her West. And so there will be no trace of anyone’s life in that house, no pictures, no linens, no teacups, no voices of our fathers. She would never come back.

So many of us will face Father’s Day without our fathers. Not all of them are gone from this world. Not yet. Some are unable to cross a border to reach their families, some lay in hospice, some are estranged.

After all, what is our duty to our fathers? Is it to arrive in time to say goodbye? Is it to call on Sunday afternoons? To remember a birthday or that he gave up ties, his hands too shaky to make the knot?

Is it to follow in his footsteps? To be patient with our children when they’re learning to tie their shoelaces or drive a car? Or is it simply to listen for that embedded voice? The voice of caution, the voice of wisdom, and of love, reassuring us that we were cherished, sometimes imperfectly, but always cherished.

Northern California author and chef Donia Bijan left her native Iran in 1978. Her debut novel, “The Last Days of Cafe Leila” (Algonquin) was published in April 2017. She can be contacted at doniabijan@gmail.com.

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