My paternal grandmother was 9 years old when she married my grandfather. Or this is what I was told — until recently, when my dear uncle, who possesses a treasure trove of familial information, informed me that she was thirteen. What is, perhaps, more certain is that she had not yet had her first menstrual period. Her father had extracted a promise from the young groom to refrain from consummating his marriage until his wife “became a woman.” Whether my grandfather kept his promise or not, no one will know for certain. Not that her grandchildren did not ask. We were curious, wanted to know, prodded her in jest and when she refused to answer, we changed our tactics. We insisted on interviewing her as if for an important historical book that might thrust the entire family into fame. In answer, her blue eyes twinkled as she flipped her silk Parisian scarf off her knees, waving it in our faces and shooing us away. My grandfather was nine years his bride’s senior, himself a young man of 22. Still, if I had to bet on it, I’d say that the ethical man I came to know as an adult would have kept his promise to his father-in-law.
My grandmother fell asleep on her wedding night and had to be awakened and coaxed to her new home. Now, before you start screaming “child abuse” at the top of your lungs, remember that that was a different time, a different country, and a very different culture. In Iran 94 years ago, Jews lived in Mahaleh, the Jewish Quarter. Parents lived with their married children and grandchildren in the same house, cooked together, ate together, slept — well not together — but in their respective bedrooms. Unless it was summertime and the hot weather sent the entire family out onto freshly watered balconies, rooftops and gardens, where mattresses were spread out and the entire family slept under the star-struck sky. So, my just-married grandmother moved in with her mother-in-law, father-in-law and other members of her husband’s family. Her parents, too, lived nearby. At the crack of dawn, she’d toss her chador over her head and run to her parents’ home, where she spent a good part of her days. She would have spent her nights there too, I’d guess, if an adult wouldn’t have coaxed her back to her new home.
As hard as it is for us to fathom this today, my grandparents developed deep love and respect for each other. They were married for 66 years until my grandfather passed away in Los Angeles in 1984. No husband and wife could have been more different. He was a doctor and historian, a highly educated man. Her signature was her fingerprint. Yet, they remained in love up to the very end. The only time I witnessed my grandfather lose his composure was when my grandmother was in pain, whether because of something as serious as passing a kidney stone or as trivial as a headache. This man, whom we all tiptoed around in fear of agitating his surrounding aura, would suddenly turn into a child, who didn’t know what to do with himself.
My grandfather was an author, a researcher, a man who had no time for old wives tales. His wife was superstitious. She believed in the evil eye. She warded it off with seeds of rue and cracking an egg while reciting the names of supposed enemies. Heaven forbid any of her family members would commit the mistake of wearing black stockings, pantyhose, or even the sheerest of nylons in her presence. Black nylons were a symbol of bad luck and meant to be worn only during periods of mourning. If any of her daughter-in-laws or grandchildren had the audacity to wear black, she’d hook her forefinger into the offensive object and, with one quick, expert motion, rip the offender. Oh! She was quick! And she was fast. No fabric was immune to her rage. Needless to say, we learned not to wear black in her presence. My grandfather was tall and stately, his wife hardly reached his shoulders. But her European elegance made up for her height. On their trips to Paris, which was often, she would purchase meters of the most delicious fabrics I’d ever seen, silks, chiffons, and delicate laces so colorful and fine I loved to nuzzle my face in them. Her Iranian seamstress sewed them into her design of preference, befitting her ample figure. And there was the eternally present silk scarf, not to cover her hair — no need for that after Reza Shah came into power and banned the chador — but to cover her knees when her silky skirts rode up flirtatiously.
Accepting of her eccentricities, my grandfather would do his own thing, tapping on his ever-present typewriter. She, too, allowed him his ways, which encompassed the recording of historical information he spent a lifetime collecting for his three volumes of The History of the Iranian Jews.
Was theirs an arranged marriage? It certainly was. Were they different in every imaginable way? You bet. Yet they managed to build a relationship based on love and trust. I wonder whether that was possible only because divorce was not an option at the time.
My grandfather signed the first copy of The History of the Iranian Jews with a message to me. Not long after I left Iran, I reached out to a friend and asked for two things to be sent to me in America: family photographs and the autographed copy of my grandfather’s book.
The photographs arrived concealed in boxes of pistachio. My grandfather’s books came too, but not the autographed one. Was I foolish enough to lend it to someone? I’m not certain.
Now, in the age of Huffington Post, Facebook and Twitter I’m reaching out to all four corners of the world. If anyone happens to be in possession of a Farsi copy of The History of the Iranian Jews by Dr. Habib Levy, autographed to me in Farsi, please, please mail it to me. I promise to pay the mailing expenses as well as send you signed copies of all of my novels.