Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Special Needs Family Members and Governmental Agencies

This blog is for parents of special needs children of all ages. If you have a diagnosis of a physical or mental disability for your child that makes it difficult or impossible for them to function in the “normal” world there are things you need to do. First of all, make multiple copies of medical/psychological findings. Even if your child's disability appears obvious to you, there are people in Washington DC who aren't as observant.

Your child may well qualify for financial help from Social Security and from the Department of Developmental Disabilities.

Next go to the Social Security Administration and apply for Social Security Supplemental Income. The Administration may send you to a psychologist to verify your child’s disability. Be sure to make multiple copies of those findings, too. You think they will keep this information in a file or computer, but don’t bet on it. If you qualify for SSI it may come medical coupons to help off-set some of the medical costs associated with raising a special needs child.

You may also qualify for Respite Care and depending on the level of your offspring’s disability it may be a life saver. It is difficult to find qualified Respite Care givers, but if your child is in Special Education classes there may be Para educators in your child’s school who do Respite Care evenings and weekends or you may know college students who are familiar with our child and can get signed up to do Respite Care.

As your child gets to middle and high school age, get him/her signed up with the Department of Developmental Disabilities. As your child receives training in school toward a job, monies will be available to help support them in a job when they exit public school. If you are lucky, your child will find a compatible job before that support runs out. Depending on your child’s disability you may have to decide between quitting your own job to take up the slack in supporting your child’s job or giving up on employment for your child. I know more than one parent who has chosen the latter route.

With employment will come extensive record keeping of pay stubs and a roller coaster of SSI amounts on monthly checks. In the event that your child becomes unemployed getting your SSI payments restored to their original amount may take you one to two years depending on the cooperation of your child’s employer. You may have to make a career of sitting on hold trying to speak with a human being to convince your child is not working.

The most frustrating part of dealing with the Social Security Administration is when they decide that your child needs to be reevaluated to make sure they have not been cured of their disability. We ran into this when my daughter, who has Down’s Syndrome was sixteen. We had moved from California where we were receiving SSI payments to Washington. When I attempted to get her payments moved to Washington the office in Astoria Oregon, the nearest to our home, decided that she needed to be reevaluated. I couldn’t believe that a governmental office would ask a family to prove that a child still had a genetic anomaly—had not been cured in the night. I assured them that should I awake some morning to find my daughter “cured” they would be the first to know right after the Pope. It didn’t matter.

The entire process of Social Security finding a psychologist to test my daughter took six months. In the meantime we lost her benefits. Simultaneously I lost my job and during that time we lived on unemployment and my meager savings. Finally we got an appointment to see the psychologist. He called to schedule the visit and told me that I would be leaving my daughter with him for a couple of hours. I could go shopping or something since he had no waiting room. No way was I going to leave a handicapped young woman with a strange man, psychologist or no, alone for two hours and I told him so. Well, he told me, I’d have to wait in the hall. When we arrived at the office and I knocked on the door the psychologist opened it, took one look at my daughter and said, “They didn’t tell me she has Down’s Syndrome. This will take about 15 minutes for me to fill out the paperwork.” It took about ten.

It was another month before we received a check for seven months worth of SSI payments, sans interest. In the meantime I’d exhausted our savings, had a car on its last legs, and literally pounded on the counter of the Astoria Social Security in desperation over not having the money. That office now has Plexiglas to prevent irate recipients from doing that or worse.

When my daughter exited the public school system at age 21, no one bothered to tell us that I could receive Parent Care Provider money for continuing to care for her. After initially registering with the Tacoma DDD after moving from Nachotta to Gig Harbor they contracted with a private agency to support her in employment for a few years. After that we were largely ignored until we got a new case manager. That is when I discovered that I could have been receiving Parent Care Provider money for doing what I consider to be my job, caring for my daughter at home. Even after it was offered to me, something of my grandfather’s pride that prevented him from going on “the dole” during the Great Depression, prevented me from applying for two years. Finally I decided that it would be a good idea in case something happened to me so my husband could step into the position or one of her brothers. If you have a special needs child who has reached majority age and you are still caring for him/her at home do not hesitate to apply. We’ve had good case managers and bad ones and the yearly evaluation takes an afternoon, but if you’re lucky you can do it over a pot of tea with a nice person.

Now my daughter is nearly 38 years old and Social Security is once again wanting to determine if some miracle has happened and she no longer has Down’s Syndrome. Why, in this age of computers, recipients who have a genetic condition that prevents them from functioning in the general population cannot have their files coded as such is beyond me. Why they can’t read the findings of the psychologist in Astoria in 1987 and see that she has a condition that is not going to improve, in all likelihood will worsen over time, is also beyond me. So once again I have to prove that she is still mentally and physically handicapped. Paper trail. Parents, be prepared. Don’t assume that only an idiot could doubt your child’s disability. There are idiots working at the Social Security Administration.
If you have difficulty either with a governmental agency or your school district PAVE in Tacoma can be an excellent resource for sorting out problems.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Urban Archeology

When I began reading Your Money or Your Life at the end of last year I dug out the old gray ledger with the dark red corners and decided to put it to use keeping track of my money per the program Dominguez and Robin set forth in their book. My ledger begins on page 75. It is an old one I bought at the Barn Sale on Fox Island. Old things appeal to me, especially if I get them at a bargain. I don’t know what I paid for this because it sat in a stack of books in my bedroom for who knows how long.

I have to wonder about the person who owned the ledger before I did and how it came to be on Fox Island. Where did the first seventy-four pages go and what did they represent to that person? I found hints within the ledger. Whoever ripped out those pages did not discard all of the information. On pages 84 and 85 there’s entries from December 1956 for the purchase of a used stove for $40.00 and sidewalk and driveway repair for $85.oo made at 7123 N.E. Klickitat, presumably in Portland, OR and paid to Frank J. Kortas. In January of 1957 there’s an entry for a used bedroom set for $50.00, furnace repairs for $12.12 and the Oregonian Newspaper for $3.42. In the back of the ledger I found receipts from Fred Meyer for $3.49 paid with $5.00 on May 23rd and forty-nine cents paid with a dollar bill on June 1st. On the back of that one is a Fred Meyer coupon for five cents. I wonder if they’d still take it at our Fred Meyer. It says it is only good for thirty days after receipt, but there’s no year on it.

There’s a shopping list that looks like it might have been for a lumber yard. “One outside corner” followed by a five and a four, but no indication what the numbers referred to. “Two 12 foot strips” and “bead” and “covering.” Apparently more than their furnace needed repair. Lastly I found a receipt from the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon for a payment made by Mildred Compton in the amount of $10 for a patient named Mabel Gorr or Garr.

Oregon State Hospital in Salem I discovered was and is a psychiatric facility. Why was Mabel there and who was she to Mildred; a sister perhaps? It is well known that many people hospitalized in those days, particularly women, may not have been suffering from anything more than what today would be diagnosed as a chemical imbalance. What happened to Mabel? Did she die in the hospital and never have a life?

The discovery of the Oregon State Hospital receipt led me to look up the place and I discovered that it was the scene of a mass poisoning in 1942. On the evening of November 18th nearly 500 patients and staff became ill after having eaten scrambled eggs which were served for dinner. Almost immediately the diners began to suffer cramps, vomiting and respiratory paralysis. Forty-seven would die and 467 were sickened. In the end it would be discovered that one of the cooks had given a “trustee” (trusted patient) the keys to the cellar and asked him to bring powdered milk up for the scrambled eggs. When people began to get sick the cook realized that the patient had mistaken cockroach poison for powered milk, but didn’t come forward until it had been determined that the frozen egg yolks used in the dinner were not spoiled. Although the cooks were arrested it was ruled to be an accidental poisoning. The patient was never charged, but despite two attempts to live outside of the hospital he died there in 1984. I can’t help but wonder if Mabel was living there on that horrific night.

My ledger isn’t the first or the most interesting thrift find. In 1992 my husband and I were shopping at a thrift store in Tacoma when I happened on two high school yearbooks for Ilwaco High School. We have a home in Ilwaco and my children attended Ilwaco High for three years. These yearbooks dated back to the early 1960s and although I did not recognize the name of the original owner of the books I recognized many of the names and faces on the pages. It was a hoot and I had to buy the books. Over the years I’ve enjoyed showing them to my friends on the Long Beach Peninsula, but I’ve dusted them long enough and I plan to take them to the high school and see if they would like to house them. If not, maybe the Heritage Museum would. Unfortunately, my friends and I are becoming museum quality.

The strangest discovery I ever made in my second hand shopping was a baby book. As I said, I like old things and once when I was at the Fox Island Barn Sale I stumbled on to what appeared to be an unused blue baby book dating from the 1950s. Not yet a grandmother I purchased it anyway since finding a book so old and unused was a novelty. One of my son’s shares my passion for old things and when his wife became pregnant in 2003 I decided that this was a good opportunity to give the baby book a home. I hauled it out of my armoire where it had spent several years and flipped through it to make sure there was no writing when I discovered a page had writing on it. Damn, I thought, wouldn’t you know it? Then I did a double take. The information that was filled out for a baby boy born in 1955 was for one of my brother’s in-law!

The name was unmistakable. The entry had been made before my father-in-law had changed the spelling of the family name in 1956 to supposedly make it more pronounceable. I could not believe my eyes. We took the book to my in-laws who had lived in Bellevue at the time and now lived in Bothell and my mother-in-law did not believe I’d bought the book on Fox Island. She did not remember the book and with seven stair-step boys who could blame her for not keeping up with baby books, but I know very well where I found it. Like the ledger which had traveled from Portland to Fox Island and the year books that came from Ilwaco to Tacoma, the baby book had made a journey from my mother-n-laws hands (she finally decided my father-in-law must have taken it to Goodwill) to who knows whom and ultimately to mine.

I consider my curiosity about discarded things to be a kind of urban archeology. Although I’m becoming better about collecting things my natural curiosity will probably keep me wondering about how and why some things like family pictures and baby books get discarded in the first place and about the lives of those to whom they belonged. Not wanting my own things to suffer such a fate I’ve already sent my cousins their baby pictures before my children toss them in the garbage or send them off to Goodwill, too!

Homage to Betty Mahmoody

Part VI

In the summer of 1987 the world my children, mother, and I had known for six years had fallen apart. Separated from, but not trusting my estranged Iranian husband, I knew that I could not make it on the small paycheck I received from the Alameda County Library System as a clerk. Because of having seen Betty Mahmoody interviewed following her experience with her young daughter in Iran and having spoken to both the Center for Missing and Exploited Children with whom she was now working and the United States State Department, I genuinely feared for the safety of my four year-old son. My Iranian in-laws had left my home, but not the area. Their visas were good until December, but before then my father-in-law would want to make sure that my husband had divorced me and I was loathe to take a chance on my husband having even one unsupervised visitation with our son. So far I’d insisted that he only see our son in a public place with me present. These meetings were highly stressful for all concerned and our son celebrated his fourth birthday, not with a party and cake at home with balloons and merriment, but at McDonald’s in a celebration that was painful for all the adults.

I’d made my decision to return to Washington from California and put as many miles as possible between myself and my Iranian in-laws. My husband did not want me to move our son so far from his control and was unwilling to help, but rather insisted that I stay in the Bay Area. For six years I had been homesick for the green of the Pacific Northwest, missed my extended family from which I’d already lost my grandmother. My ex-husband was coming to help me move my four children, my mother, and me back to familiar territory. Instead of King County where I’d been raised I was headed to Pacific County on the Southwest Washington Coast. This was where I’d spent my childhood summers and always wanted to live. I had an aunt who lived in the family summer home full time and a cousin who lived there, too.

My aunt and cousin had sent me copies of the little local weekly paper and I’d poured over employment and rental ads. There was few of either. My hopes had been raised over the posting of a school district position in a school library, but although my experience outstripped the person they hired, the fact that she was already a school district employee trumped my years in the Fremont Main Library. And house rentals seemed nonexistent. But my relatives were encouraging so we’d packed our boxes, reserved a truck, and I’d picked up my ex-husband from SFO. With the date of our divorce mediation growing closer, all that remained was for me to pack the truck and drive off into what I hoped was a sunrise, but there was one more thing I had to do that I believed would protect my son or at least protect me.

I knew that as soon as my husband discovered I’d left with our son he’d attempt to come after us. I’d seen enough of his bad temper to not doubt that his aim would be to take him away from me as I was taking our son away from him. The difference was that he could get on an airplane and be in Tehran without anyone stopping him. I did not want to just “disappear” and take all of us away from all family connections. That was exactly what I felt I would have to do if we were to live on the run. The notion of us all taking on new identities and living in some strange place where my husband would not think to look was exhausting. I did not want to make myself a fugitive and more than that I didn’t want to make fugitives of my children.

So I came up with the notion of writing a letter to my husband. In my mind it was like leaving a note on the kitchen counter about running an errand. In it I explained that continuing to live in the Bay Area, surrounded by his family but none of mine, was untenable. I told tell him that I was going home to Washington and even got as specific as telling him that we were headed to the Long Beach Peninsula. He knew that I had an aunt there, but didn’t know exactly where she lived and I knew that there were places on the Peninsula where people could disappear. Moreover, no one had a street address there. Either they had a rural route address or a post office box depending on where they lived. My aunt had a PO Box and so I included that in my letter.

It boiled down to the fact that I was taking our son to Washington. Not only was I telling my husband about it I was giving him an address to which he could write. It was a gamble, but I had neither the money nor the time to do anything else. I mailed it registered mail with the receipt to be sent to my aunt’s PO Box. I didn’t want my husband to be able to say he hadn’t been informed of what I was doing. Now we had about 24 hours to get as far away from the Bay Area as I could.

The next question was whether or not our nine-year-old Buick station wagon was going to make the nine hundred mile trip to Washington. I’d spoken on the phone to my best friend in Oregon and she had advised me to change the coil before leaving so that we wouldn’t have that quit on us in the Sierra Mountains. She made it sound very easy to do and told me to have my ex-husband do it as soon as he arrived. Perhaps it would have been easy for someone with rudimentary knowledge of car engines, but by the time he had put the new coil I’d purchased into the car it bucked and chugged all the way to the gas station where the mechanic put the sparkplug wires in the proper order with only mild laughter and without charging me too much.
I’d given my notice at the library and lined up a young couple who worked there to help my ex-husband and I load the truck. Anything that belonged to my husband before we were married or were gifts from his parents was tossed into a closet.

My ex-husband is a master at packing. We worked through the day and into the night packing the largest U-Haul I could get with our worldly belongings. We culled things that wouldn’t fit and gave them away to the neighbors. We slept on the floor that night before getting up in the wee hours of the morning for a quick breakfast and left the keys to the house with the next door neighbors.

My ex-husband had made himself straw-boss and I was too exhausted physically and emotionally to argue with him. He drove the truck with one of the children with him and I drove our overloaded station wagon with my mother and the rest of the children following behind, all the time looking in the rearview mirror. Our trip was relatively uneventful. We honked and pumped our fists when we crossed the California-Oregon border. Oregon might not be home, but it was like being back in the neighborhood.

We camped that night in Bend which was where our only hitch happened. When my ex-husband went to drive to a nearby store and get some—probably beer—the car wouldn’t start. I dissolved into a puddle of exhausted tears as I contemplated having to create a life for my family in Bend since it seemed we weren’t going any further. Ex-husband hitched a ride to town where he found a mechanic and arranged to have a tow truck come the next morning to get the car. I fell into the first real sleep I’d had in weeks blessing my parents and the fact they’d sent their credit card with him.

As we drove away from our old life toward the unknown of a new one I couldn’t help but wonder at my husband’s reaction to my letter. He would borrow his cousin’s car and drive incredulously to our rental house where he would find only his own things. He would be furious. His parents would fuel his fury and he would have the support emotionally and financially of his more well-to-do cousins. He might go to the police or an attorney. I had plenty of time to contemplate what he might do and what might happen. We weren’t out of the woods yet.

We drove hard, only spending the one night in Bend on the road. Even though it was summer twilight was deepening into night when we crossed into Washington. We had driven to the Oregon Coast and come through Seaside to Astoria. As we paid the toll to cross the Columbia River and climbed the high rise on the Oregon side I could barely make out the Douglas firs on the Washington side four miles away. Home. “There it is,” my mother whispered. Tears ran down our cheeks.

Although there were challenges ahead, challenges of finding a place to live and a job. We put our things in storage so my ex-husband could drive the truck to Portland and get a flight back to Seattle. The day we unloaded the truck into the storage facility an old friend and Vietnam veteran came loping down the street from his parents’ house. We chatted a bit about where we’d been the past 15 years and then he said, “Don’t worry Goospies [short for Mother Goose]; there’s plenty of places on this peninsula to dump a body. Nothing’s going to happen to your little boy.” Fortunately I would never have to take him up on his thinly veiled offer.

I spent days and days looking for both a house and a job and was on the verge of moving my family from my aunt’s home to Ft. Canby State Park as she was ill with undiagnosed Lupus and needed up away when my cousin found us a house in Chinook. Shortly after that I found work at the bakery in Long Beach.

In October 1987 Not Without My Daughter showed up in the window of the bookstore across the street from the bakery. I bought two copies, one of which I sent to my husband with a note telling him that this was the reason I’d left California. While what my children and I lived through was nothing to the story of Betty Mahmoody and her daughter, her story was the reason that I was very, very scared.

During that time a scathing letter from my husband arrived to my aunt’s mailbox. He was angry and from the wording of the letter I concluded that he’d consulted either an attorney or the police about charging me with kidnapping, but to no avail. He asked me to call him which I did from a payphone across the street from our house on Highway 101. I refused to tell him where we were living. My aunt’s mailbox was in Ilwaco and her house in Seaview. I worked in Long Beach and lived in Chinook. I felt relatively safe or at least until the day the bicycle arrived.

One day there was a knock on the door of our rental. When I opened it there stood a UPS driver asking if I were me. Yes, I answered hesitantly. “Sign here,” he said and left a large package with the name of the sender being my husband. To put it simply I freaked out. We had no street address so how had he found us? We had no telephone so making inquiries had to wait until I was at work when I called UPS. They said that their drivers on the Long Beach Peninsula just knew where people lived and that there would be no way for my husband to trace the delivery point. I went back to looking over my shoulder.

My husband had asked me to talk to our son once per week so we arranged for a certain time on Saturday evenings for him to call the phone booth. We got a PO Box in Seaview and he began to send child support payments. My ex-husband was in the midst of a divorce and payments for another child with his second wife and so was no more reliable as a source of income than he’d ever been. When I applied for my daughter’s SSI to be transferred from CA to WA they decided that they needed to have her examined to make sure she hadn’t recovered from her disability. While I worked at the bakery I was able to actually save some money which saved our lives when I got laid off just before Christmas and Social Security decided that my daughter might have had her Down’s Syndrome magically go away.

By December my in-laws had moved to Seattle to my brother-in-laws and my husband decided to come for a visit. I wanted very badly to refuse, but I also wanted to keep him on an even keel so I agreed. He drove to Seattle with his cousin whom he left with his brother and parents and then drove to Chinook. He stayed one night and I “slept” on the floor in front of the door to the bedroom my son shared with his brothers while my husband slept on the couch. When he left the next morning my son climbed to the window on the landing overlooking the driveway, leaned his head on the window and with tears running down his little face whispered, “Bye Bubby,” his name for his Baba. It tore my heart out, but not for a minute did I regret taking him away from a situation that I considered dangerous.

In February, two months after their visas had expired, my in-laws returned to Iran. My husband did not go with them. His visits became twice a year, his phone calls weekly, and his child support checks like clockwork. I made one foray into the notion of picking up where we’d left off, but he just shook his head.

But the story has a happy ending. At my high school 20th reunion in 1989 I became acquainted with a gentleman whom I’d gone to school with from seventh to twelfth grade. This incredible man fell in love not only with me, just the way I am, but with my family and in August of 1990 we were married. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. When my husband arrived for Christmas 1989 he spent three days and nights crying and begging me not to divorce him. When I asked if he would call his parents in Iran and tell them he wanted his family back he just looked at me. I was calling his bluff. There was no way I was going to trade unconditional love from a man who grew up where I did, shared memories with me and who loved all of my children and I knew there was no way he was going to stand up to his father. To my knowledge I’m the only one who ever did.

My husband continued to be a houseguest even after I was remarried and gradually we became friends again. Finally, when our son seemed old enough and my husband and I had instructed him how to place international telephone calls we let him visit his father in California without supervision. As hard as it was to let him go, I felt that I owed it to my son. Sometimes when you deny a child a thing it becomes an obsession.

When my son was a high school student a letter from his grandparents in Iran arrived. Clearly his uncle in Seattle had furnished them with the address. “Well,” I said, “either we move or answer the letter.”

“You answer,” my son said. “They are nothing to me.”

It took me several weeks and torn up letters to write to them and I still don’t know why I did. I knew that my son was safe and old enough to not be kidnapped and not foolish enough to go to Iran where he could be drafted. I believe that I felt sorry for my ex-mother-in-law. She had remained silent during our entire ordeal. She knew where her place was and she stayed there, but she was a mother and a grandmother and with 10,000 miles between us I could afford a tender heart so I for a while I wrote a few letters and sent pictures. They told my son’s uncle that they couldn’t understand why I was being so nice to them and therein lays an example of the cultural conflict between America and Iran.

We Americans expect to be liked and are flabbergasted when we are not. I was flabbergasted that my Iranian in-laws did not like me. They are flabbergasted that I can forgive them. When I discovered a letter to my son from his grandfather saying that they wanted to hear from him not his mother I stopped communicating with them. Perhaps America and Iran will never be able to communicate because we come from such different cultural mindsets.

Through it all I’ve never doubted his father’s love for him, what I doubted was his ability to stand up to his own father. When he was 24 my son went to California to try out living there and keeps his father, who has never remarried, company. Our son will be 26 in July. Recently, I asked him if Bubby had any plans to visit Iran. “He won’t go, Mom. “ I hope not. He never missed a support payment even when he was part of the bursting bubble and had no job. I finally had to tell him to stop paying when our son graduated from high school. Should he ever get stuck in Iran we’d be hiring a hit team to go after him.
If I have a regret about this entire episode it is perhaps that I protected my son too much. When we first arrived in Washington he would talk about the night everyone was yelling and the police came and how his brother had held him in his arms. I thought that little almost four-year-old knew what was going on. He never asked questions about that night or anything else. When he was a junior in high school he wrote an essay to the prompt of his name and ethnic background. His teacher called me to her classroom to show me his assignment. In that essay he mentioned that he did not understand why I had taken him away from California and his father. What little he'd gleaned in family conversations over the years he did not believe. He did not believe that his father would have ever done anything to hurt him. That night I explained, in a far briefer fashion, the story I have told here and it is to him that I dedicate this story. Until he is a father he cannot understand the depth of love a parent's heart can feel nor the fear. Having a child is truly like having your heart out walking about outside of your body. I could not let my heart be taken to Iran. I could not allow even the possibility of that.

Betty Mahmoody and her daughter Mahtob have lived under assumed names since their return from Iran. According to more than one website, Mahtob, who is nearing 30, has never again seen Moody who is described as an aging doctor who longs to see his daughter. One website, obviously run by a Persian, claims that Betty’s rendition of the events of their time in Iran is twisted and that Betty was happy there. This is another example of cultural conflict, but I believe Betty and honor Mahtob’s decision not to communicate with her father. Betty and Mahtob suffered in ways my children and I did not. Because of their bravery, Betty’s bravery to tell her story, I kept my son safe.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Homage to Betty Mahmoody

Part V

When Betty Mahmoody got to Iran with her husband and their small daughter, “Moody” as her husband was called, began to change from the loving American husband and father he’d been in Maine into a dictatorial Iranian man, ultimately becoming a monstrous stranger Betty believed would kill her. Trapped in a country with no American Embassy, she was beaten and locked up when she refused to stay in Iran. To buy time she finally agreed to attempt to become a good Iranian wife and make a life for the three of them, all the while searching for a way out. With the help of a shop keeper she met in a Tehran bazaar she was able to make a harrowing trip north and west through the Elbruz Mountains, the last leg of which was done on horseback through the snow, something you don’t see in the Hollywood rendition of her book Not without My Daughter. The title of Betty’s book refers to her refusal to leave Iran without her six-year-old Mahtob. Because of Betty’s bravery to go on American national television and tell her story I kept my wits about me when I went toe-to-toe with my Iranian father-in-law. They had arrived and decided that my husband was to divorce me. Moreover now they were saying that I could not return to Washington with my son.

I was shaking as I dialed 911 and was connected with the Union City Police Department. I explained as briefly and coherently as possible what was going on and asked for my in-laws to be removed from our house. I said that I wanted protection because my Iranian father-in-law had threatened my mother. The dispatcher said that an officer would be sent to help sort things out.

I know it sounds prejudiced, but I was relieved to open the door to two big Union City Police Officers looking very, very American—one so tall he had to stoop to get in the door. I was hoping that the sight of these two big policemen would put some fear in my father-in-law and it seemed to as he shut up immediately. Iranians don’t have a good relationship with law enforcement people. The CIA trained Savak under the Shah had been ruthless. The Revolutionary Guard that replaced them had not been an improvement. At this point my husband had dissolved into a puddle of tears on the floor.

I explained what was going on and the officers asked some questions. It seemed that as long as my in-laws had not broken any laws they could not be made to leave our house much less the country. As long as their visas were good and they didn’t do something illegal they could stay. The fact that my father-in-law had threatened to hit my mother wasn’t enough to get them removed to a motel. Well, I wasn’t going to stay in a house with people plotting to break-up my family. What if they talked my husband into returning to Iran and taking our son with him? I just wanted away from these people, particularly my father-in-law. I told the police that I wanted to take the children to a shelter. They gave me some phone numbers and I went to the kitchen to make some calls.

The phone numbers proved unhelpful. Either the shelter was full or wouldn’t take my thirteen-year-old son from a previous marriage. Twelve was the cut off for males in shelters for abused women. I wasn’t going to have any of the four children split from me. The situation was nightmare enough. I went back out into our front hall. “Did you find someplace to go?” one of the officers asked me.

“Yes,” I lied. “Can I get a few things?”

“Make it quick,” one of the officers said. “We need to get back to catching bad guys.” They are here, I thought, you just don’t realize it.

Quickly the children, my mother and I dressed. My thirteen-year-old took care of his youngest brother and I got my daughter ready to leave. We basically got into the car and left with the clothes on our back, not even thinking to take toothbrushes. We did not know when we would see our house or our belongings again, but in that moment all I cared about was getting the children and my mother away from my father-in-law.

We drove to the bank where I got what little money was in our checking account out of the ATM, about $200. Then we drove to a motel, but when I heard what it was going to cost for just one night I decided that I didn’t want to drain what little we had that might have to serve as gas money to get back to Washington. My mother was ready for us to just drive away right then, but I wasn’t walking away from everything I had, including family heirlooms that were of no value to anyone but me. I had to find a way to get my in-laws out of my house and I knew that if we ran that night it would mean having to really disappear.

That night we spent in the car in the parking lot behind my mother’s Episcopalian church in Castro Valley. None of us slept. The children were quiet in the back seat while my mother and I talked about what to do. I nixed the idea of running away. If we did that it would mean going somewhere where no one knew us and we knew no one. It would mean cutting ourselves off from all our friends and relations for my husband’s extended family had the means to look for us and might be looking for us right then.

When morning came the priest let us into the church to use the bathroom and the phone. Immediately I called the State Department in an effort to get my in-laws visas, the visas I’d two weeks earlier been begging for, revoked. I explained my fear of losing my son and was advised to have my son’s name red-flagged in case my husband applied for a passport for him. Since I didn’t have a custody agreement they couldn’t prevent him from getting the passport, but they could call me if he applied. “Frankly,” the woman on the other end of the line told me, “your husband won’t bother getting an American passport. He can go to the Iranian Interests Section of the Algerian Embassy and get your son an Iranian passport and get on an airplane with no questions asked. Don’t let him be alone with your son. We’re glad you called us before you lost him. Most parents don’t call us until their child is gone and we can’t do anything about it. There are 10,000 American children being held outside of the United States by foreign, noncustodial parents and we can’t help them come home.”

That night we slept on the floor of another church parishioner, but it was clear that we were not really welcome. The next day I was abke to find a homeless shelter that would allow us to stay together as a family, but we needed more than just the clothes we’d left the house with so once again I called the Union City Police and asked for an escort or “stand-by” to the house so I could get a few things. This time the officers were even more impatient than the night we’d left and I rushed through our bedrooms grabbing tooth brushes, diapers, and clothing as well as our photograph albums. I later discovered that my husband had removed most of our son’s baby pictures from them. He knew me well enough to know what was important to me.

“Where are you going?” my husband asked. He’d not gone to work and looked as bad as I felt.

“I’m not allowed to say. They don’t want crazy husbands showing up. I’ll call you.”

Our accommodations at the homeless shelter were not luxury. They didn’t even look clean, although they handed us clean sheets and blankets. It was a 1950s house in a non-descript neighborhood not that far from my work. I’d called to explain what was going on and that I didn’t know when I’d be back to work.

We shared a bedroom that had a double bed mattress on the floor and a set of bunk beds. There was one other family staying in the house. The rest of the “clients” were recovering drug and alcohol folks. No one was allowed to be in the house during the day except during lunch, the theory being that everyone was to be out attending AA or NA meetings or looking for work. Breakfast consisted of huge bags of day old pastry donated by a local grocers. Our roommates, mostly recovering substance abusers, devoured them with lightening speed.

Everyone had a job and took turns helping to cook and clean up. No one was allowed to fix themselves evening snacks. During the day I took our family to parks so the children could play. We bought bread, lunchmeat and mayo and picnicked in the park. This was frowned on by our “housemother,” but the drama of our particular situation was enough to get us some slack.

The only phone for client use was in the living room so there was no opportunity for private conversations, but I called our house each night and spoke with my husband. It always went along the line of where are you? I can’t tell you. When are your parents leaving? I’m working on it. Are you taking my son away? I thought that if my husband could talk them into moving to one of his cousins’ we could straighten things out. I thought I knew my husband well enough that sanity would kick-in, but gradually dawn began to break about why he hadn’t wanted his parents to come. He knew something like this might happen.

One day I managed to get an appointment with a lawyer at a legal aid society. Ironically she had been in the Peace Corps in Iran in the 1960s and my story did not surprise her in the least. She had seen something similar happen in a family with whom she had lived there. The son had been in love and became engaged to a girl the family did not approve of. A family meeting was called and he was hounded by all of his relatives until he was convinced to break off the engagement. A picture formed in my mind of what had gone on that night at my husband’s cousin’s house. The lawyer advised me not to agree to unsupervised visitation if we did in fact get a divorce. I drove back to the shelter feeling like a stranger in my own land.

We spent the Fourth of July, 1987 in the homeless shelter. The shelter had a party for everyone with hotdogs and hamburgers in the barren backyard. I stood out there watching the Blue Angels roar overhead and thought how ironic it was that this was America’s birthday and I was living in a homeless shelter because my Iranian in-laws refused to leave our home.

After a week in the shelter the day I had been praying for arrived when my husband told me that he and his parents would be moving the next day to his cousin’s house in Santa Clara. I was mildly disappointed that he was going with them, but not surprised. Clearly the veneer of Westernization had been just that. It had been peeled away to reveal a stranger whose culture was at logger head with mine.

The children were excited we were going home. I was, too, but also I felt creepy. For over a week my in-laws had had free reign in my house. If I was missing photographs what else might be gone? And what were we going to do? I’d promised my husband that I wouldn’t go home to Washington, that I would try to get a position with the library system that had more hours and find a house I could afford somewhere, but even before the words were out of my mouth I was pretty sure I’d lied. More than anything I wanted to go home.

I felt like McArthur returning when I walked into our house. We opened all the doors and windows and let out all the bad energy as well as the smell of someone else out of our house. I discovered that my in-laws had taken the brand new towels I’d purchased for the master bathroom in honor of their visit. They wouldn’t move to a motel, but they were willing to take my towels as though our house were one. It turned out that besides the pictures my husband took that was all that was missing. Almost immediately I went to the liquor and grocery stores and got boxes. One way or another we were going to have to move. Without my husband’s income we couldn’t afford even our blue collar neighborhood.

In self defense I will say that I did attempt to find a position with more hours and cheaper living quarters somewhere. We drove all the way over the Altamont to Tracy and I interviewed for a library position there. Houses were a little less expensive than the $900 per month we were paying in Union City (remember this was 1987), but not much and there were none for rent the day I interviewed. Maybe they sensed my lack of enthusiasm for moving to another strange town where I would know even fewer people than I did in Union City. Maybe they looked into my heart and knew that if I was going to uproot the children again it was going to be toward home, not uncertainty. I began to plot my own journey back. I wouldn’t be making it on horseback, but my rattletrap 1978 Buick station wagon wasn’t much better. I wasn’t even sure it would make it, but I wasn’t going to be happy until I’d shaken the dust of California from my feet.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Homage to Betty Mahmoody

Part IV

It has been thirty years since the Iranian Revolution, twenty-five since Betty Mahmoody went on “vacation” with her Iranian husband there and spent eighteen months on a terrifying journey home. It has been twenty-two years since my own Iranian in-laws were stopped in The Hague on their way to the United States. My husband wanted to take our four-year-old there to see them. Having seen the Barbara Walters interview with Betty in 1985 I was uneasy about him taking our son without me and we could not afford for all of us to go. I thought that the best course of action was to try to get them to the US where I believed my son would be safer. I decided to appeal to the Consulate in The Hague.

I finally reached the officer who had interviewed my in-laws and denied them visas.

“Your father-in-law is a jerk,” he told me. I was horrified and told him so. What was the United States doing paying the salary of a man who would call my husband’s father names? I should have paid closer attention, but I was desperate to prevent my husband from taking our son to the Netherlands to see his parents.

“Excuse me,” I said. “You are a representative of the American government and therefore a representative of me,” I told him. “My husband and I don’t pay taxes to pay you to call my father-in-law names.”

“Well, he was very demanding and nasty and your mother-in-law acted like she was going to die if they didn’t get the visas,” he went on.

“Well, she has a heart condition,” I told him. “She was looking forward to coming to see her sons and her grandson. Can you see why she would be upset?”

The consul officer told me that he’d reconsider the matter and in another day we heard that they would be arriving on their original arrival date, June 17th, 1987. After June 16th my world and that of my children wasn’t the same.

Conditions in our house deteriorated rapidly after we got my in-laws home from SFO. Their disappointment in practically everything was obvious from the beginning. Our car was an old station wagon that wasn’t fine enough for them. Our house was a perfectly good rental, furnished with a combination of my mother’s furniture, mine, and garage sale finds and definitely beneath their status. They were disappointed with my older children, one of whom has Down’s Syndrome. They were even disappointed in their beautiful grandson who at not quite four was refusing to be potty trained. Most of all they were disappointed in me. I was neither young enough nor pretty enough, not svelte enough and way too outspoken for their son.

Not speaking Farsi was a definite handicap for me. I had had one quarter of it at the University of Washington before I had to quit school, but that wasn’t enough to know exactly what the heated discussions between my husband and his father were about. My father-in-law spoke English well enough and although my mother-in-law claimed to not speak English she laughed at jokes and seemed to understand conversations in English. I will never know what kind of relationship we would have had if we could have communicated.

I had taken several days off from the library to settle in the in-laws, but was happy to return to work and something that seemed familiar since my home no longer did. It was full of tension and my husband and I were sleeping on our torture-rack of a hide-a-bed so in addition to the stress of the presence of my husband’s parents, we were sleep deprived. “How are things at home with the in-laws,” my supervisor asked me. “Not good,” I replied on the verge of tears.

I realized that after six years in California I had no real friends. I had been so busy keeping trying to manage a large family on little money and just get from one day to the next that I had neglected me. In those days before cell phones and email communication with my father and grandparents had been through letters since we couldn’t afford phone calls. My father would call occasionally when he hadn’t heard from me because he knew that I was likely to be silent when things weren’t good. I sucked it up and hoped that we could make it through a few weeks of hell and then my in-laws would be off to Seattle to stay with my husband’s brother.

We might have made it somehow, but only a few days into their visit my father-in-law decided to have a little talk with me about why my husband seemed so unhappy. It started out with “Why are you so fat” and went downhill from there. Had we had a wonderful relationship I might have been better able to defend myself against the little man who I came to think of as the little ayatollah, although he was not religious. After our “talk” I was stupid enough to think that we’d actually cleared the air a bit and that things would get better. I was thinking like an American. My forthrightness with my father-in-law had laid the groundwork for what was to come.

We had picnicked with my husband’s extended family where my mother, children and I were largely left out of conversations and left to our own devices. I mentally kicked myself for having not learned more Persian because I was pretty sure much of the conversation was about us. It was excruciating and I was happy when it was over, but a little surprised when the next day my husband announced that he and his parents were going to his cousin’s for a dinner and that the rest of our family was not invited. I remembered wonderful dinners with his cousins when his aunt and uncle had been there, but was at confused about why we all weren’t invited. As the evening wore on I began to have an inkling about that the reason was that we were the topic of the evening.

When my husband and his parents returned it was very late and he was pale and seemed upset. When questioned as to why he was upset he said, "We are getting a divorce. It is decided." I was stunned. “Don’t I get any say in this?” I asked.

“No,” he told me.

“Can’t we talk about it? Get some counseling? You can’t just say that you’re going to destroy this family without my having any say about it.”

“It is my family’s wish. I need to be a good Iranian son. I have to do what my father asks. There is no argument,” he told me as he began to cry.

“You need to be a good American husband and father,” I told him, shouting now. The whole time my father-in-law was also shouting at my husband in Farsi.

I threw up my hands and said, “Okay, if this is what you want, but I want you to pay for a rental truck to get my family back to Washington. We are only here because of you.”

“Okay, okay,” my husband sniffed, but then following a torrent of words from his father began to back-peddle. “I don’t think I want you taking my son all the way to Washington. Please, let’s just go to bed and get some sleep.”

“Do you think I’m going to be able to sleep now that you’ve turned our lives upside down?” I turned and looked at father-in-law and said, “Well, you can at least ask your parents to go to your cousin’s house so we can have our house back.”

“No!” shouted my father-in-law. “We are not leaving. If anyone is to leave it needs to be your mother before, I kill her, and your other children, especially this one,” pointing to my daughter Amy who has Down’s Syndrome. "If they leave, we leave.”

“Where do you think my mother and children are going to go? You could go to a motel for at least one night. “

“No, this is my son’s home and we are not leaving.”

“This is our home and you’re threatening my mother,” I said. “We’ll see who’s leaving.”

This time I called the Union City police.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Homage to Betty Mahmoody

The Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah is thirty years old and my son headed toward twenty-six. I muse over what the world would look like now if President Jimmy Carter had been a better diplomat and less of a friend to the Shah at the time of the Revolution. Already we had had a difficult relationship with Iran because of our support of the Shah and his despised secret police the Savvak which had been trained by our CIA and former Nazis following WWII. Could the American relationship with the country of Cyrus the Great been saved if Carter had been willing to talk to Khomeini? Would the American embassy workers have been spared 444 days of captivity and Ronald Regan not elected? Would the Revolution gone in a more moderate, democratic direction? What would our relationship with Iran and that part of the world look like now? In 1986 the relationship was nonexistent. And finally I cannot help but muse over what my life now might look like.

Part III

In July of 1986 Barbara Walter’s interviewed Betty Mahmoody on the television program 20/20 and ended my fantasy of visiting Iran with my two-year-old son whose father is from Iran. Betty recounted how she’d agreed to visit Iran with her young daughter and Iranian husband and wound up being forced to stay against her will and undergo a harrowing escape over the Elbruz Mountains. This was a wakeup call for me. Although I would not be traveling with my husband because he was afraid the Iranian government would be loath to see an American trained computer programmer leave when Iran had suffered such a brain-drain following the revolution, what I had not realized was that the day we married I became an Iranian citizen and subject to its laws. There was no guarantee that I would be allowed to leave Iran with our son when our visit was over.

The next time I spoke on the phone with my father-in-law he told me he didn’t want me to come because Esfahan had been bombed again. It was too dangerous. I told about the Walter’s-Mahmoody interview and he told me that it was a lie, that Americans are loved in Iran and that I had nothing to fear from the Revolutionary government. It was only Iraq I needed to be fearful of. I did not argue with him. What was the point? I wasn’t going so who cared if he thought ABC was a tool of the American government?

With the kabash put on a trip to Iran I began to lobby for my in-laws to visit us. My husband was diametrically opposed to a visit from them. In my fantasy my in-laws would come and fall in love with our big family. I swear, if I didn’t know better I would think I must have been on drugs. In my Pollyanna desire to heal my husband’s relationship with his father I was deranged.

Meanwhile, the next best thing—in fact the best thing, but I didn’t realize it at the time—happened. My mother-in-law’s sister and her husband came to visit my husband’s cousin in Santa Clara in late 1986. I had never enjoyed this particular cousin, but with no extended family of my own in sight he’d been an extra face at the table on Thanksgivings and Christmas and in the meantime another cousin and her husband had moved to the Bay Area with their two girls. My husband’s aunt and uncle were fantastic. I fell in love with them immediately and they seemed to like me. I still believe they did. We had many family gatherings while they were in the United States and I became excited at the notion of my own in-laws coming to visit. My husband remained reluctant. He suspected what I did not. Their visit was not going to be as amiable as that of his aunt and uncle. But I was still in my Pollyanna haze. We would be the Persian version of the Waltons exchanging recipes and culture and have a marvelous time. I would come to rue having pressed my husband to invite them, but in hindsight he could not have put it off indefinitely.

So it was all arranged. Doubtless with bribes and ransom money, not to mention leaving their youngest son behind, it was arranged that my in-laws would arrive in San Francisco in June of 1987. I had witnessed my husband refusing to talk to his father before we were married. I knew that he was reluctant to tell them that we had married, but eventually he did. He had refused to invite them to come visit us and all the time I had ignored signs as big as the ones in Times Square. There was still one more chance to be saved from disaster. They got stuck in The Hague in the Netherlands. The American consulate there would not issue them visas. My husband decided that he was going to take our son to the Netherlands and visit with his parents there. I remembered Betty Mahmoody. “Not without me,” I told him. Our son was not yet four years old. Anything could happen. What if he got there and his parents persuaded him to go to Iran instead of returning with our son. Maybe he would have gone and come back after a week or two, but there was no way I was going to risk losing my son. “We cannot afford for you to go, too,” he told me. “I will have to borrow money from my boss to go as it is. How will I ever pay back enough to take you, too?”

“Then go alone,” I told him, “but you’re not taking my our son halfway ‘round the world without his mother.”

I sounded tough, but I knew that my husband was in agony. I don’t speak Farsi, but I could tell that his conversations with his parents on the phone were emotional and exactly the way Moody's conversations with his Iranian family were pictured in Not without My Daughter. They wanted him to come. They wanted to see their grandson. I thought that on home turf I could control things. I needed to find a way to help them get their visas. I called the American Consulate in The Hague.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Homage to Betty Mahmoody

The election of Barak Obama has changed the way we look at each other and the way the world looks at us. Already President Obama has begun to heal the damage the United States has done to Middle East relations in the past fifty years and begin to thaw our relationship with the land where my youngest son's father was born, Iran. I have my own love/hate relationship with the land of Cyrus the Great.
Part II

By the time we moved to CA my husband had told his parents about our marriage and I had even spoken to his father, whose English was passable, on the phone. They said they wanted to send me gold jewelry as a wedding gift, but that the Revolutionary government would not allow gold to leave Iran. They sent a dress and a table cloth instead.

California felt like a foreign country to me. I’d lived in the Puget Sound Area for all of my conscious life and missed my extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles and most of all my father. Life in California was so different from life in Kirkland, Washington that I thought we ought to have had to have passports to get in the place.

For six months we lived in a two bedroom townhouse apartment in East San Jose, the second toughest area of that city where my boys slept in the living room and my mother and daughter in the smaller of the two bedrooms. The public park across the street from our apartment was the scene of confrontations between Black and Mexican Americans on a regular basis. We couldn’t afford a TV or cable, but opening the front drapes was our own little episode of Hill Street Blues. I kept them closed.

One day the doorbell rang. There stood two small Mexican American boys. One was bleeding. “Please lady,” the older one said, “call the police. A bunch of Black boys beat up my brother.” With absolutely no street savvy it didn’t occur to me not to get involved. I dialed 911 and when two San Jose policemen arrived they questioned the boys who seemed to know who had attacked them. I stayed out of it beyond giving my name and telephone number and explaining that I knew nothing. The police left with the boys and I closed the door. That didn’t close the incident. I actually had opened the living room drapes when I saw a parade of angry looking Black adults briskly pounding down the street and up to our front door. I opened the door, but kept the screen locked. They loudly wanted to know who the hell I thought I was calling the police on their boys. My naiveté may have helped to defuse the situation. I informed them that I knew nothing about what had happened, had boys of my own, and what would any of them do if a bleeding child showed up on their door step. What doubtless appeared to them to be complete stupidity seemed to take the wind out of their sails to find out that I didn’t have a stake in Mexican/Black relations and they left much more causally than they had arrived.

These were hard times with Reganomics not trickling down to many Americans. Some my Fiat got repossessed which freed up the carport behind the townhouse for people living in their car to park and sleep at night. As hard as it was to keep food on the table at least we had a roof over our heads. We had to make it since living in the car was no longer an option. I bought a folding shopping cart and walked the six blocks each way to shop and do laundry for six. The children were recruited to help tote things. I availed myself of San Jose’s wonderful bus system and would leave the children with my mother and ride different lines to the end just to see where things were. Bus drivers as a group are nice people and the ones I met were happy to warn me when my stop was coming up and to tell me about the city.

When my husband found work as a programmer for Epson Computers in Hayward we moved to Union City on Halloween 1981. A blue collar community that had plenty of cultural conflicts between Blacks and Mexicans itself, it felt safer than East San Jose and it was here that we had a son in 1983. In 1985 I got a part time job as a library clerk with Alameda County library system at the Fremont Main Library. I rode the bus or BART to work. I loved my job and coworkers and brought stacks of books home to read to the children.

Because of his fear of the Islamic Revolution in Iran stirring up trouble with Iraq’s Shia majority and long history of border disputes on September 22nd of 1980 Saddam Hussein launched a war against Iran. My in-laws lived in Esfahan which was bombed from time to time. Food shortages were experienced all over the country, but because my father-in-law was a khan of two villages they were able to get fresh fruit and vegetables from the countryside. The Revolutionary government ended up taking one village away from my father-in-law along with one of his pensions. Life was not good for them and for my brother-in-law who was denied permission to leave the country for heart surgery and who feared being drafted into the Iranian army despite his physical condition. Looking back on that war and knowing that before its end in 1988 Iran was drafting any Iranian male between 12 and 75 (the scene in Not Without My Daughter where Betty watches young boys being snatched off the street and whisked into the army is true), I imagine my father-in-law paid a hefty price to keep his youngest out of that conflict where old men and young boys walked through fields of landmines to detonate them. My husband returning to Iran to visit his parents was out of the question.

My husband would not invite his parents to visit us, but when I approached him about me taking our two-year-old to Iran to visit them so they could see the oldest son of their oldest son he seemed amenable. I was anxious to see Iran and for my in-laws to meet our little boy. He was so beautiful and sweet that I had no doubt that they would love him. I thought that somehow whatever rift there was between my husband and his father would be bridged by our son. My plans never got beyond the musing stage for which I am grateful. While I was wheeling groceries home from Alpha Beta and shelving books at the library, Betty Mahmoody was fighting for her life and the custody of her American child in Iran.