I was born in Abadan, Iran, sometime in 1946 or 1947. In those days, the record-keeping wasn’t all that good. When I was nine months old, my grandmother took me from my mother and gave me to my aunt. She took me to Tehran by train, and I was then supposed to become my aunt’s child.
My mother was married at age 9 to a man twenty years older. She was constantly pregnant and had many children, some dying right away. My father totally dominated her; she made no decisions of her own. Giving me to my aunt was the only one she made without him.
My aunt was a widow and always wanted a child. Women in her milieu got married to have children. She felt like an outsider, lonely without children and without a husband. I basically became the meaning of her life. She paid as much attention to me — more attention — than any mother could. She was great.
When I was 4 or 5 years old, my aunt was talking to one of our neighbors about another neighbor who left her blind baby in a doorway, so that the man who wanted to marry her wouldn’t object to her blind child. She had to abandon her blind child. That left such an impact on me that later that day I asked my aunt, “Is something wrong with me that my mother gave me away?” That was my first real awareness that my aunt wasn’t my mother. I mean, I knew it, but it wasn’t on my mind at all, just somewhere in the background of my head.
And that’s why, when I went to elementary school, I started fabricating stories that my mother had died. And then that my father had died.
I just didn’t want people to think, “Well, why was she given away to her aunt?” I didn’t want them to ask that question, “If her mother is alive why is she living with her aunt?” I must have developed some hostility toward my mother, too, almost wishing she were dead. Looking back now, I feel that. Because I know in college, I told someone my mother died of cancer.
When I was getting to be 9 years old, my father resigned from being a judge and became a private practice criminal lawyer. He started working in a home office and then became very aware of family life. He wanted to claim everything, so he told my mother he was going to take me back from my aunt. My mother objected, but my father went to get me, anyway.
I was at school when he showed up. I’d seen him only once before in my entire life. I was terrified; I thought he was stealing me. And then he said, “Don’t you recognize your father?”
He said, “I have spoken to your principal, and you’re not going to school anymore. Don’t throw a tantrum.” And put me in a taxi right then and there, held my hands down so I wouldn’t open the door. And the next thing, we were in an airplane. And the next thing, we were in Ahvaz. And the next thing, I was in my parents’ home.
My aunt tried to come after me, but the airplane was on strike. Then she had a total nervous breakdown. She was hospitalized for six months.
My mother didn’t really function as a mother. She hadn’t gotten attached to me at all. She was completely attached to another daughter, two years older than I was. It created a lot of sibling rivalry, between all my brothers and sisters. She was very distant from me, totally cool and distant. I never called her “mother.” My father would actually drag me and put me in front of my mother, forcing me to say, “Mother, I love you.” But it didn’t work. I wouldn’t call her “mother.”
I was always haunted wondering why she gave me up. All of my life, actually.
The reason I eventually got closer to my mom wasn’t anything she said to me. It was more that, from this cultural perspective, I really started feeling sorry instead of angry. And also because my aunt loved my mother — and my mother loved my aunt — so through that I began to forgive. I mean, they really loved each other. That’s why I accepted that part of it really was generosity between sisters.
After my father died, my aunt and my mother moved in together. They lived with each other and died a couple of years ago. When I visited, I would see both of them, but I always continued to call my aunt “mother.” Even when I’d forgiven my mother, I couldn’t call her “mother.”
Nahid Rachlin is a fiction writer and author of the memoir Persian Girls. This article appears as told to Libby Copeland.