Ibrahim Ethem Demirhan 1881-1963
The only man I knew and loved as my grandfather all my life lives mostly in my memories of the brief encounters with him during my childhood. As with any brief-lived memory, time distorts truth or sweeps a forgiving brush over the creases and jagged lines, softening the remaining images.
My sisters and I called our grandfather Dédé, grandfather in Turkish. He was already past seventy when I was born, and we did not live in the same cities in my short life spent in Turkey. Thus I always felt cheated about enjoying the presence of grandparents in my life, like most of my friends had. On the other hand, the few times we were lucky to share sparkle like precious gems on a crown at the smallest reflection of light upon them.
I suspect Annecim did not care much for the relaxed discipline her parents bestowed on me and my sisters. But, having seen in raising their own children that a little leeway will not lead to any serious and irreversible harm, aren't most grandparents usually more easy going with their grandchildren? If anything, the love and the generosity of my grandparents made us love them more and cherish the few times we spent with them in Istanbul, Edirne and Ankara. Dédé, a retired military officer and a man of wisdom and modesty, had suffered much during the wars and appreciated simple blessings in life which younger people took for granted. He was kind, well-versed, self-effacing and extremely generous. He enjoyed going to the coffeehouse in the square to meet his veteran friends.
I have a faint memory of such coffee houses where elderly men gather playing backgammon, reading newspapers, or talking to each other about their bygone days. When he came home, there would always be a fresh loaf of francala - Turkish version of French baguette - tucked under his arm. My grandparents kept their bread in a steel Dutch oven, lined with a clean white linen towel and topped with a cover, but because he brought a new loaf home every day and they could not consume as fast as he replaced the loaves, the breads turned stale and often times ended up becoming chicken feed.
Grandmother lost patience and occasionally scolded him in a mock fashion for buying so much bread. Then he would patiently remind her that there were children in the house and it was better to have plenty of bread than running short of it.
But my mother told me that his reasons for buying so much bread were totally different.
An image of my Dédé stands out sharply in my memory. Whenever we sat around the dinner table, his left hand always rested on his portion of bread placed next to his meal plate, covering it as if someone might take it away from him. That hand never moved away from the bread unless it was to break it into bite sized pieces and put it into his mouth. Like the wings of a mother bird, protecting its young one, his cupped hand protected his bread until the very last crumb.
Annecim explained to me that it must have been a habit he developed during the War when he survived days, even weeks without bread and survived by eating corn cobs for sustenance. He had suffered much hardship and known hunger and humility. So being able to buy a fresh francala a day was probably the greatest luxury in his life; and offering it to his granddaughters – one of his deepest joys.
When I juxtapose a mental image of the emaciated soldiers, walking for days on end, cold, hungry and in pain who rejoiced at the sight of corn cobs which they could stone grind and combine with water to bake on fires they made to bake some sort of bread for nourishment, over the memory of the teens to whom I taught how to make bread in my final teaching years, I feel sickened to my stomach. I used to proof yeast and pass it around for them to smell, see, and understand what raised bread – that wonderful staff of life which they so often took for granted.
My students, after taking one whiff of the bubbly liquid in the measuring cup would yell out in a dramatic, spoiled manner that is so characteristic of their generation, "Eeew! It smells like puke!" Or, "Yuck, that's so gross!"
I could almost hear my Dédé's bones rattle in his grave somewhere across the Atlantic Ocean.
My grandparents circa 1923
Besides the appeal of the large garden, there were other things at my grandparents' house to arouse my curiosity and make me want to discover further – like the secret room upstairs, locked to my sisters and me. Its prohibition only fired up our curiosity and challenged our imagination to fabricate stories about what might lie beyond the door. What was in there? Why weren't we allowed to enter?
Were there ghosts and skeletons or precious jewels and beautiful gowns left from the Ottoman court tucked away so no one would know where they were? Annecim said her mother stored her trunks of unused stuff. Clothes she no longer wore, collections from places she lived in and traveled through in her youth, things she no longer used but could not part with.
I saw the pack-rat mentality, the obsession for collecting stuff and keeping them in trunks in my mother too as I grew up. She would buy sets of linens, silverware, towels, fabrics, gifts and stuff them in the trunks that came with us from Turkey. She said they were for our wedding chest when we got married. She had dreams of her daughters completing their university education, returning to Turkey and making marriages with young men worthy of our family. She was preparing (çeyiz) hope chests for her daughters, because she did not have one of her own when she got married. When we returned from Holland with her carrying a fourth baby, her wish to bring back the paraphernalia for that unborn child were dismissed – so she was trying to compensate for her lost hopes by ensuring that her daughters would not leave their paternal home just with the dress on their backs like – she did.
Next to that secret room was my grandparents' bedroom with their high bed and white, lace-trimmed pillows as a distinct mark of my grandmother, reminder of another generation. I wondered what would happen if they fell off such a high bed during their sleep, because I was terrified of heights even as a child. My fear of heights combined with a fear of speed prevented me from enjoying things most children do. I hated going on a Merry-go-round or a roller coaster at entertainment parks. I even gave my parents a very difficult time in Paris to get on the elevator which took us to the top of Eiffel Tower, because I sensed that as soon as motion embraced height, I would become violently sick. I learned to cope and live with it but as a six year old, I had no idea about vertigo nor of the impact it would have later on in my life.
Our stay at my grandparents that summer came to an abrupt end. The memory is vague like a dream which tries to return in bits and pieces and as quickly it enters, it is dismissed by the mind. I try to capture what I remember and try to make sense by arranging pieces in some order, giving them a beginning, a cause, and an end- but like dreams, what returns to me does not make sense by itself out of the continuum of its context. All I remember is that my sisters and I heard a commotion upstairs and we ran to follow our curiosity.
It was the first time we ever saw our mother and her parents yelling at each other. The words that were exchanged are nonexistent in memory because of the shock of witnessing Annecim and her parents shouting. I began crying, but must have become hysterical because I remember Dédé approaching with his hand extended out to cover my mouth. For the first time in my life I had experienced fear.
Whenever I try making sense of what happened then, all that return to my mind are an outstretched hand and a pair of wide open blue eyes approaching me. Whatever caused the rift between them remained unanswered because Annecim, like she has done with her selective memory, decided not to acknowledge that episode in her life. I can only surmise what might have happened and piece together a connective tissue to help me understand the larger picture.
As I look back and try to fit this vignette to surrounding events, all I can come up with is that the argument was about the old, wooden house. They may have asked financial help for repairs, Annecim must have refused. She wanted her parents to live in a modern place rather than look after an aging home. Anneanne had two half brothers – our great step uncles, who'd be interested in the house and could help her to fix it, but she didn't want to owe them anything, and she wanted to leave the house to her only living child, Annecim.
Annecim, on the other hand was probably not interested in an aging house in Eyüp, but then when has younger generation been successful to explain such touchy subjects to their parents without hurting their feelings or bruising their sentiments regarding their family heirloom?
After this confrontation we didn't stay at my grandparents. Annecim called a taxi and took us to a hotel until Babacim flew in from Diyarbakir to collect us. My sisters and I were very quiet, as if we had done something terrible ourselves which caused such an unexpected, sudden departure from our grandparents' home.
I feel that my sisters and I didn't get enough of our grandparents, that somehow we should have been together more often, but some unknown force or unavoidable fate prevented us from spending more time and having more sustained, tangible memories beyond those of a few summers in their garden and of their visit in Edirne. I feel cheated that I don't have any letters or written memories from my grandparents or the fact that I don't even know where they are buried.
Yet I remember them with a palpable longing, and honor my beloved Dédé every year on Veterans Day.
Füsun Atalay ~ Copyright © Will of my Own - 2011