“Don’t bother your mother this morning,” my grandmother Shaké said. She had her back turned to us, rummaging for items in the refrigerator.
My sister Alice and I sat at the kitchen table and watched my grandmother as she stood over the stove warming milk in a cezveh. The window steamed with condensation, drops of water pooled and gathered at the lip of the seam. The blue-black sky of dawn wavered in darkness and would reveal a white winter canvas by the time we had to leave. Behind our house in the double car driveway my father was emptying boxes of tools, loose equipment, power drills, out of the passenger side of his one-seater truck. Before pulling up the small incline that reached the top of the driveway he would place two egg crates, our makeshift seats, which we would sit on precariously as he drove us to school.
We watched our grandmother crack an egg over a bowl to separate the yolk and drop it into two mugs. Then she added a teaspoon of sugar and vanilla into each, whisking furiously with more vigor than she seemed capable. Armed with an oven mitt my grandmother held the warmed milk over each cup and poured slowly, expertly whisking again with a fork. Alice and I watched as we had for many mornings, never bored of this ritual. It was a mysterious concoction: sweet, warm and fragrant, that we drank with unabated relish. Alongside the steaming cup was a large piece of kekhkeh, similar to biscotti, but impossible to crack in two with our hands. Instead, we dipped it in the steaming sugary milk until it softened and then crumbled into our mouths at the first bite.
These were the winter mornings I would always remember: my grandmother in our warm lighted kitchen and my father in the blue-black cold creating a space for us in his cramped utility truck. My mother was still in her bedroom, her absence ominous in the silent spaces between us dressing ourselves for school and waiting for breakfast.
“Hairig is ready,” my grandmother said. We had already heard his truck groaning up the small hill.
I took the last bite of kekhkeh and slipped into my coat. I threw on my backpack and held open Alice’s coat for her. Wordlessly she struggled her arms in and I knelt down to help her with her zipper.
The two of us sped towards the truck where my father was standing with the door open to help us climb in. We nestled ourselves on the egg crates, inhaling the familiar cold, metallic smell of his tools. He covered our laps with a checkered wool blanket and closed the door.
It had been months since our mother had driven us to school.
Perhaps it was part of my Armenian culture not to talk about what would happen to my mother for those stretches of weeks, sometimes months, when we were told not to bother her. The hours she stayed in bed, the curtains firmly drawn close from morning until my sister and I arrived home from school. Sometimes another part of her would emerge. Her irritability at perceived inconveniences. Her rage.
When she was well enough to pack our school lunches, the contents of our lunchbox betrayed her state of mind. Cream cheese and sugar sandwiches smeared into stale pita pockets, soda packed in a thermos that erupted from the carbonation, thus soaking the pita bread that we threw away regardless. On her good days we were lucky enough to find a Devil Dog. I would lick the cream filling along the edges, relishing the soft sugariness and my mother’s good spirits.
Given my father’s violent temper, my mother had every reason to be sad, is how I thought of it before their divorce. If dinner wasn’t to his liking, he flung a plateful of food across the room, the remnants decorating the dining room wall for my mother and grandmother to clean up. If the interior of the car wasn’t dust-free and vacuumed, we were subjected to a frenzied car ride as he hollered at my mother, who shrunk into the corner of the passenger seat, covering her head in her hands, waiting to be struck. One summer afternoon we drove with our extended family to Sunkin Meadow beach and my mother emerged from the ocean wearing her new lavender bathing suit, unaware that it was see-through. My father marched over to her and threw a towel in her face, pushing her into the sand. It was the first time I had heard the word slut.
After that summer my mother began leaving the house for hours at a time. She wouldn’t tell us where she was going and return home as my grandmother would be preparing dinner. No one mentioned her disappearances in my father’s presence. Not even my grandmother.
One afternoon my mother dropped me off at the neighborhood library.
“I’ll be back in a few hours,” she said.
I was nine years old. My concept of time all but disappeared in the depths of the forbidden Judy Blume novels and wholesome Beverly Clearly books I would compile. Inevitably, my mother would find me at a table or sitting behind a bookshelf reading.
I climbed up the library steps and pulled the door to the entrance. It was locked. I pulled the other door. It was locked as well. In complete dismay I stared at the door, looking for the posted library hours. Then I saw the notice taped to the door:
“Columbus Day — Closed.” I remembered what my mother had said. A few hours. What was a few? I didn’t own a watch. I peered through the library window and saw the clock in the dark expanse above the checkout desk. It was 12:05p.m. I thought of walking home, which was only three blocks away. When we left, my grandmother had been sitting on the couch watching television with Alice. There was a payphone across the street, but I didn’t have money. Then I worried about my mother, her panic at not finding me on the steps. I didn’t want to do anything that would incite her.
I sat and waited. At first I counted the number of people that walked past. Then I counted how many people wore sneakers, fancy heels, everyday shoes. I waited. Every so often I climbed back up the library steps to check the clock. 12:47. 1:34. 3:02. Something had happened to her. She had gone this time for good. She’d had enough of my father. And I wasn’t anything special. I wasn’t especially beautiful or talented or spunky like my sister Alice. Maybe my mother would come back. At least, for Alice’s sake.
I sat on the bottom step of the library and leaned my head on the railing, trying not to cry. When I opened my eyes I heard the honk of a car horn and then saw my mother’s blue Nissan. Shaking with relief, I ran over to the passenger seat and buckled in.
Without saying a word she stepped on the gas and drove us home. She hadn’t looked at me once or asked why I hadn’t checked out any books.
“The library was closed the whole time,” I announced as she pulled the driver’s door open.
I looked at her, trying to read her face for a trace of shock, upset.
“Don’t tell your grandmother,” she said and slipped out of the driver’s seat, leaving me in the car.
When I burst through the door and ran into my bedroom I could hear my grandmother’s footsteps coming from the hallway. She found me laying in bed, my face pressed into a pillow.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing.”
She waited until I had stopped crying. “Tell me what happened,” she asked again. I could feel her hand on my back, her gentleness.
“The library,” I whispered. “It was closed. I was scared.”
A few minutes after she left the room, my door swung open again.
“You told her, didn’t you?” My mother’s accusing silence filled the room.
I knew I had betrayed her. And I guessed she had stopped loving me.
When I was twelve years old and my sister Alice was seven, my mother moved us out of my father’s house to an apartment in Elmhurst. We were sitting at the kitchen table at home and my grandmother had served us our favorite lunch of hers: fried chicken cutlets, vinegary red cabbage salad and mashed potatoes. My mother had been gone for a week. Neither my grandmother or my father had told us of her whereabouts. Now she stood by the doorway, armed with a sense of self-assuredness that was remarkable and unfamiliar. Reluctantly, we left our steaming plates of food, too mortified to apologize to our grandmother (though it was not our fault), and rode in the backseat of the car until she pulled up to a three-family house.
“You’re going to meet someone today,” she said. “And I know you’ll like him.”
Several hours later Alice and I were in our new bedroom unpacking when we heard the front door unlock. My mother called for us.
Sitting at the dining room table was Mr. Sevag, my third grade teacher from years ago. I would find out later that they had been having an affair for five years and he had left his wife and son to marry my mother.
Mr. Sevag smiled hesitantly in my direction and gestured for us to sit down. I remembered the career day poster of Wonder Woman I had drawn and colored in for our class project. He had hung mine alongside all the other Armenian students’ work in the classroom, which boasted sensible aspirations their parents had coached them into drawing: lawyers, architects, dentists. One of my classmates had complained about my imaginary future, “You can’t really be Wonder Woman,” he said. Mr. Sevag had assured the class that we could in fact be whatever we wanted.
In the years to come, he would transition his career and become a prolific translator of the Armenian language. He would nurture my writing endeavors by reading my short stories, editing and commenting on my work with avid interest. Though I could not fully appreciate it at the time, his validation of my writing helped me regard it as an integral part of my identity.
“I know, Aida, this is strange for you,” he said. “And for you too, Alice,” he said, looking at my sister. “Your mother and I love each other and want to get married. But first, we want to know how you feel about it.”
Alice and I grew quiet; it was the first time in our recollection that anyone had asked us to speak openly about how we felt. But we were too intimidated. My mother stood over us, expectantly, hoping the conversation would end with the growing silence in the room.
“This is a lot, I know,” Mr. Sevag said after a while. “Maybe we can revisit this again soon. Do you have any questions?”
“Yes,” I said finally. My mother’s eyes were pressing down on me; I didn’t know what dreaded thing she thought I was going to say. “Where are we going to school?” It was an innocuous and reasonable question, I thought, given the circumstances and that it was summer vacation.
“We’ve found an apartment in Jackson Heights,” Mr. Sevag said. “There is a private school two blocks away, where you and Alice will be going in September.”
Alice asked other questions, more to do with how often we would see our father and whether or not he knew about the plans underway.
“I’ve spoken to him,” my mother finally said. “He knows.”
They disappeared into the second bedroom afterwards. We heard the crackle of the record needle and John Lennon’s voice singing “Woman”. My mother’s laughter. The lilt of her accent as she sang along.
She’ll be happy now, I thought with relief. We’ll have all of her, finally.
The other part of my mother emerged after she remarried. She was an aberration of her former self, yet equally disturbing. She was impatient, haughty. Mr. Sevag – Sevag, we were told to call him, tried to placate her with clever jokes during dinnertime when she would complain. Alice was a picky eater. I was too quiet and sullen. She had to take us back-to-school shopping and the mall was going to be crazy. The superintendent still hadn’t come to fix the cracked plaster in the bathroom.
Sevag would sit through these meals and oftentimes reach over to her, gently massage her shoulder as if to say, Everything is okay. You can relax now. In retrospect, he was trying to placate her for all of us. And himself. For him, she was a traumatized victim who hadn’t fully absorbed that she was no longer in danger.
“What’s the matter with you?” she snapped at me on one particular evening, when I had finished my dinner and was waiting to clear the table.
I was thirteen, and it had been a year since my parents’ divorce. I was feeling estranged from my grandmother, now that I only visited on the weekends. And it was only that past weekend my father had announced he was marrying a woman he had been dating, who we had just met. I had been mulling it over at the dinner table, deep in thought.
“What’s the matter?” she asked again.
I looked at her with a clarity that pained me. She was in her fourth month of pregnancy. There was a youthfulness in her large brown eyes, the luster of her skin. She had recently highlighted her long brown hair, which framed her face beautifully. There was nothing I could say, no honest thought, that wouldn’t have provoked her. I wanted to ask her why she wasn’t happy, what it would take for her to smile, give us a hug. It was not disappointment I was feeling, or maybe it was. A disappointment so deep and unsettling that I couldn’t name the feeling. I want my mother, I wanted to say. But I had never known a mother who hadn’t been depressed or anxious or both. Who are you? I wanted to ask her. What have you done to the person you were supposed to be? I had waited so long, so patiently.
I remember Sevag now, his troubled eyes. He remained silent and powerless, consumed with pity for her.
“Nothing,” I said.
I excused myself to use the bathroom and climbed into the empty bathtub, trying not to cry.
My mother’s depression galloped in and out of our lives like an uninvited guest. Only we could see the intruder. Never my mother. She justified her moods by recounting her unfortunate life since immigrating to America from Beirut; she was the neglected middle child of five siblings, she had been robbed of a singing career that had been offered to her as an adolescent in Beirut, she was coerced into marrying my father so her parents would be rid of her, she had suffered an abusive marriage for sixteen years, she had wasted her good years being a housewife and a mother.
I blamed everyone for destroying the person who was supposed to love me; it wasn’t her fault she had been so abused and neglected.
It wasn’t years later, after she had disowned me for moving out of the house, then again for living with the man I would eventually marry, that I realized. There were so many choices she could have made. Most importantly, seeking help for her condition, which plagued everyone she loved. Except, seemingly, her. I didn’t know yet, the word I would Google search and eventually read about at length: narcissist.
I was terrified of being a mother. I feared that I would understand my mother’s coldness, her indifference, because perhaps that’s what motherhood did to a person. Yet I also knew that fear could not be the navigating force in making life-changing decisions. After two miscarriages and an operation to remove my fibroids and cysts, I was pregnant at thirty-eight years old. By then my relationship with my mother was no longer rife with arguments and tension. Now she depended on me as support for her mental health.
On weekday mornings my phone would ring at 7am, when she would complain to me about her life’s difficulties: her brother didn’t return her phone calls, she was lonely because her sisters lived on the West Coast, her supervisor was giving her a hard time. I wished she would see a therapist. With the help of my therapist, I drew boundaries with my mother. It felt like drawing a line in sand; the demarcation was only visible for so long. I wouldn’t pick up the phone just because she called. I would ignore her multiple phone calls — what she often resorted to when I didn’t pick up the phone at the first call. “I keep calling because I’m worried something happened to you,” she would say. It seemed impossible not to take the bait, not to manage her anxiety. It felt wrong to distance myself. Cruel.
She insisted she didn’t need therapy. “I have my days, but I manage.” A paraplegic refusing a wheelchair and expecting me to carry them up the mountain.
It was the morning of my third trimester appointment with my OBGYN when the phone rang.
“Are you busy?” my mother asked.
I was slipping on my shoes with the car key in my hand, and told her about my appointment.
“Sevag and I went to see an oncologist yesterday,” she said.
“Why?” I asked. This is it, I thought. The tragic ending to her tragic life.
“He has esophageal cancer,” she said, her voice trembling. “Stage three.”
All these years I imagined she would die before him. Surely, enduring the decades of chronic mental angst and unhappiness would manifest into a terminal illness. I had thought of Sevag’s lonely years without her, visiting often to check in on him and make weekly dinners.
I settled myself on the couch, barely able to move from the shock. “Did they give a prognosis?” I asked.
I pictured Sevag sitting in the doctor’s office, helpless. I thought of when he had quietly championed me moving out to claim my independence, knowing my mother forbade it. The times I had cried in his office after another vicious argument with her. I thought of all the years I had come to him with my novice short stories, my private treasures that only he was willing to read. Not my mother or my father. How his love for my mother had withstood the twenty-seven trying years of beratement.
“Three or four months,” she said.
I counted. The same time I was due to deliver.
My mother’s kitchen transformed into a holistic apothecary of fruits, herbs, vegetables, cookbooks strewn open with recipes for smoothie concoctions said to eradicate cancer. As the baby inside of me grew, Sevag’s health declined steadily. How impossible it felt: the guilt of feeling happy for my miracle pregnancy in the face of Sevag’s impending death. And the grief of knowing the inevitable was near. He was my mentor, my friend, the best man I had ever known.
After every visit at my mother’s apartment I would return home and climb into the shower, the only place I would let myself cry. I had waited so long to have this baby, a girl, and I could not let myself think about my mother’s devastation after Sevag was gone. I wanted to take care of my baby, not my mother. Most of all, I did not want to be the depressed mother that I had been subjected to. Though I did not believe in prayer, I prayed anyway. For another miracle, for Sevag to live long enough to hold my daughter in his arms.
My phone rang on a spring morning. From the other end of the line I heard my mother’s scream. My husband and I knew. We stumbled into our clothes and drove manically to my mother’s apartment. The block was already clogged with police cars and an ambulance. I ran out of the car, jogging down the block towards the apartment building, holding my sizable belly with both hands. When I walked through the door two police officers were standing by the piano and a paramedic approached me.
“Your father has passed away. I’m sorry to tell you,” she said.
“Where is my mother?” I asked.
Suddenly, the worst occurred to me: she had taken her life.
“She’s in the bedroom with him. We can’t get her to leave the room.”
I walked down the dark corridor that led to the end of the hallway. Gently, I pushed the door open. There in bed was Sevag, laying with his mouth open, a patch of sunlight shining on his face. In the far corner of the room was the shadow of my mother. She was sitting with her legs crossed, holding an object in her hand. I thought she was muttering as I approached her.
“Mom?” I knelt beside her.
Her hair hung limply across her face. Her knees were pressed into her chest and in her hands was a tape recorder, playing a song barely audible. She was humming a tune vaguely familiar.
“Hold me close to your heart, however distant don’t keep us apart….” she sang. It was the John Lennon song from years ago. The day we had first been introduced to Sevag as her new husband.
My family members told me not to go to the funeral; in Armenian culture it was bad luck for a pregnant woman to attend a burial. When the pallbearers carried his casket to the hearse my mother collapsed in the pew and refused to go to the cemetery. She had done the same when her parents and youngest sister had died.
As we all suspected, she fell into a deep depression. When she finally returned to work she would leave the house at dawn every morning to go to the cemetery and sit by Sevag’s grave. She stopped dying her hair and ignored phone calls.
I gave birth to Sophia two weeks after Sevag’s passing. We drove to the same hospital where my mother had taken Sevag for his chemotherapy treatments, but in a different wing. As I laid in the hospital bed, the relief of the epidural finally taking effect, I thought of my mother driving off the same exit and parking the car in the same lot. I thought of how alone she was now with all of us gone, the empty rooms of the four-bedroom pre-war apartment where we were all once a family.
She would need me now more than ever.
Again, the guilt revisited me as I held Sophia in my arms. I should be mourning. I should be helping my mother. I don’t deserve this in light of all that has happened.
Then one evening in the middle of the night Sophia’s cry woke me as it had every night since coming home from the hospital. I went to her crib and held her, touched her fine hair and pressed my face to her cheek. Still, she cried restlessly. I laid her next to me on the spare bed in her nursery, stroking her belly until she stopped crying. Bleary-eyed, I turned to her. She reached to me and took my finger in her tiny fist. I would not be the depressed mother, I told myself. She was lovely and beautiful and my gift. I wanted to remember it all. I would have to grieve Sevag later, much later, but not now. I stilled the sadness within me, turned my back to it and asked Sevag for forgiveness. I’m sorry, I said, hoping he could hear me somehow, I can’t do this right now.
It has been ten years since his passing. I learned how to set limits with my mother. Unsurprisingly, the fraying rope between us severed long ago, but that is a different story. When I think of Sevag my grief is fresh, puncturing. It is what I sacrificed so that I could give my daughter what my mother couldn’t give to me.
My mother has since moved and now I maintain a careful distance. I call her on Mother’s Day and holidays. We visit her throughout the year. She dotes on Sophia and gives her love unconditionally.
My best memory of my mother is one I revisit time and again: my surprise baby shower and the smile on her face as she greets me at the door. Standing behind her are relatives who have traveled from thousands of miles away, my cherished friends, my sisters. She hadn’t spared one detail in all her lavishness in preparing my favorite meals. Despite Sevag’s sickness she had done all that for me. He and the other men of the family were gathered in his bedroom, eating and drinking. I could hear their laughter from the hallway. He was still well enough then to enjoy the day. And my mother was happy.
I have chosen to find love for my mother and accept the ways she shows her love to me. Just as I have chosen to grieve Sevag quietly, immeasurably, like a slow-thawing glacier. I think of myself that morning when my mother called me. Me standing in their bedroom, my mother’s soft singing and Sevag finally at rest. What I learned is that love and grief are not absolute. I’m glad no one told me. I found it on my own.
AIDA ZILElIAN is a first-generation American-Armenian writer, educator, and storyteller from Queens, NY. Her debut novel The Legacy of Lost Things was published in 2015 (Bleeding Heart Publications) and was the recipient of the 2014 Tololyan Literary Award. Aida has been featured on NPR, The Huffington Post, Kirkus Reviews, Poets & Writers, and various reading series throughout Queens and Manhattan. Her short story collection These Hills Were Meant for You was shortlisted for the 2018 Katherine Anne Porter Award. Aida’s most recently completed novel, All the Ways We Lied, is slated for release in January 2024 (Keylight Books/Turner Bookstore).
Art: “Sorollan Improv” by María DeGuzmán, Digital Color Photograph