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.

4 comments:

Lorraine Hart said...

I cannot imagine how frightening this was for you, Stephanie!

I'm glad you're getting the story out from your heart...especially glad that I already know you're safe and back home.

Stephanie Frieze said...

It was rather frightening mostly beause I could not imagine how I could live without my baby. Keeping him safe was the upper most thing in my mind, something I don't think he understands. He cannot until he has children of his own.

The story does have a happy ending, but the road was bumpy--as most of them are.

Those memories will always be apart of our family history because it is how we got to where we are today. A different path, different decisions, would have led us somewhere else.

Kim said...

You put up with a lot. Them speaking in their foreign language would not have gone over well from the beginning and I would have said something. Second of all, the in laws would be on the hideabed, not in mine. That father in law would have been put in his place right from the start too along with the husband. If they didn't follow my rules right in the beginning they would have been escorted out the door by the police and deported immediatly. The husband would have had to just live with it.

I had a husband like that once. Although his family was not Iranian, they were from a cult. I can't say the name to protect others but his parents were also rude and disgusting. His father thought he was going to run my household and even yelled at my babysitter. The baby sitter told him to F off. I was young and immature and just laughed. My then father in law walked away yelling. Needless to say my marriage only lasted a very short time, less than 2 years.

I truly hope you have let the husband go. There is no need to have that drama in your home.

Stephanie Frieze said...

Thank you, Kim. When you are concerned that your child might be taken to Iran and you don't have the means to go get him or hire someone to, you have to tread very carefully. It was after my being forthright with my father-in-law that the family decided that we would be getting a divorce. We did, but not right away. I fled to WA to protect my son and we were divorced three years later. Fortunately my son was able to maintain a relationship with his father long distance and when he was 24 he moved back to CA to live with his dad who is still there. At age 26 my son isn't going to let anyone take him anywhere he doesn't want to go and even my ex-husband has never returned to Iran. Although the experience was frightening, it ended better than I could have ever hoped for. I truly believe that Betty Mahmoody's courage protected my son during that frightening part of our life.