I found the sour cherries my mother hid so I wouldn’t eat them all at once. They had arrived in a scuffed-up cardboard box we had found on our front porch. Mamani had sent them to my parents and me in Michigan. Cutting through the addresses written in English and Farsi, my mom opens the box. She pulls out ajil, saffron, zereshk—snacks and spices that 22 years ago I thought were gross, weird and boring, but now I long for as I wander the aisles of the grocery store.
My mom pulls out pictures of our family in Tehran, packages of pistachios, and one last thing: the albaloo, the sour cherries.
Before I can even say anything, my mom says, “No way.”
She beckons me to go outside so she can hide the cherries.
She says, “I do not want you to eat them all at once.”
The trees, the swing set, the roof of the house are all softened by the dim, blue light of the late afternoon. It’s early spring. The muddy earth beneath my feet and the brisk air I breathe are so different compared to the cracked pavement and hot, dusty air of Tehran. But I love both these places, these two different worlds.
The last time we had gone to Iran, when my family was all together, they had put out bowls of albaloo just for me. I had eaten the cherries one by one, relishing them, the juice spilling down my chin. When I’d spit out the seeds, they’d come out completely clean, not one bit of fruit left.
My aunts, uncles, and cousins had laughed and said they’d never seen someone love cherries as much as me. I wanted to say it wasn’t just the albaloo. It was that we were all together, and the warmth of the room, and how the same sunshine that streamed through the lacy curtains and glinted off the crystal bowls was the exact same sun in Michigan. And how I felt like a part of every good thing, and that every good thing was a part of me. But I didn’t know how to say all that in Farsi, so I said nothing. And I collected my cherry seeds in one of those tubes for mini M&Ms.
I followed Ameh M., my dad’s favorite sister, to the kitchen to help her clean up. I watched her put a plastic sack of albaloo in the freezer. “It keeps them fresher longer,” I remember her saying to me.
I tiptoe into the kitchen and open the freezer. I move aside packets of chicken thighs and the butter-pecan ice cream only my dad eats. And there they are: the albaloo.
Lamb stew simmers in the pressure cooker for dinner, first quietly and then loudly. The lid begins to shake. I am at the edge of two tectonic plates: one is obeying my mother’s wishes and the other is resisting them. Even if I eat only one, it will still be a transgression, a breach of her of trust.
The pressure cooker screams and I hear the familiar crack of my mother’s knees coming down the hall. I slam the freezer door shut and run the other way to my room.
It’s bedtime. My mom and I lay side by side on my twin bed. She comes to sleep with me a little bit each night. In a couple years, we won’t be able to fit next to each other, but for now I snuggle up close and breathe in my most favorite smell: her jasmine perfume, deodorant and sweat all mixed together. I read to her, she tells me stories. We drift off to sleep.
Suddenly she sits up, gasping for breath. She breathes in and out, in and out.
“Mommy?” I whisper. She doesn’t know where she is. She thinks she’s back in Iran, and it’s the war.
“Mommy,” I say again. I pull on the sleeve of her night-dress until she lies back down and I play with her hair until she falls back asleep.
The last time we were coming back from Iran, a man at the Detroit Airport asked us to step aside. All our luggage was opened up. This was nothing new to us. Usually whatever dangerous items we brought were discarded—like the roasted pumpkin seeds my dad loved or the limu amooni my mom needed for cooking—but this was the first time we were questioned. This was after Iran Contra but before 9/11, so we lived on the fault line of an uneasy peace.
“Don’t you know this is illegal?” the airport official asked, waving the tube of mini M&Ms at us, the top open, with some of the cherry seeds still left in the bottle.
“Those are mine,” I cried out immediately. I was afraid I had sent my parents to jail. I was thinking maybe jails for small girls would be nicer than adult ones.
“Transferring seeds is illegal. Why do you have them?”
I wanted to tell him about how my dad had planted two cherry trees when I was born, and how the small red cherries we’d pick in the summer were delicious, but not in the same way as the ones in Iran. Those were much bigger, and a darker red, almost purple. I wanted the seeds so I could grow my own albaloo tree.
“I- I’m sorry,” I wailed instead. I wondered what jail I would be going to.
“Just don’t do that again,” he said as he threw the mini M&Ms bottle in the trash can behind him. We had to pick out all the other seeds that had spilled in the suitcase and then we were free to go.
I wake up the next morning and my mother is gone. I always wonder why I never hear her when she leaves in the middle of the night. I sneak to the kitchen and open the freezer. This time, I don’t think: I clutch the albaloo to my chest and run to my room.
I tell myself I’ll only eat a couple, but when the taste hits my tongue, I lose control. I keep eating and eating, hoping to capture some glimpse, some memory, of being in Iran.
I eat the whole bag of sour cherries. I don’t know what to do with the seeds, so I swallow them.
It’s the middle of the night. I sit up in bed. I throw up some cherry seeds. I run to my dad’s room and throw up in there. My dad takes me to the bathroom and I puke in the sink, and then in the toilet. Everywhere is covered in cherry seeds. The blood vessels in my eyeballs have popped, and my stomach is on fire, but at last I am done.
When we leave the bathroom, my mom is standing at the doorway of my dad’s room. Because it’s hard for her to fall and stay asleep, she doesn’t like being woken up. From the look on her face, I know she saw all the albaloo at the foot of my father’s bed.
The next day, my mom makes my dad count ten pistachios and gives them to me. She says I can only have ten pistachios a day now because they can’t trust me anymore.
I look at my dad and ask if he still trusts me. My mom says, “Don’t answer her. Just count and make sure she’s only getting ten.”
I sit by the big window overlooking the backyard, the ten pistachios in my lap. I crack them open one after the other, and suck the salt and saffron off the shells. My throat burns, but I still eat them and line the shells up in pairs across the long windowsill—just like the shoes at the entryways of all my family’s homes. When we were in Iran, we’d go from house to house, taking turns visiting my aunts, uncles, cousins and my mamani. As soon as we’d arrive, we’d grab each other by the hand, kissing one cheek, then the other, and then the first one again, a waltz of affection in three-quarter time.
I turn the window’s metal handle, opening it a little. There are small holes in the window screen and I drop my pistachio shells through them. I watch them fall on the cold, hard dirt where my dad’s mint garden will grow. I wish I had thought about doing this yesterday. Why did I swallow them when I could have just thrown them out? Why did I ever try albaloo at all?
It’s unspoken among my family, but every time we go to Iran, we know that it could be the last time we ever do. As a child, I had always assumed things would get better between the US and Iran, and we’d be able to travel freely, but now I worry things are getting worse. I had the chance to go to Iran in 2017, but I didn’t because of Trump’s travel ban (his first one, and then his second one), and I could have gone in 2019 but then the US killed an Iranian military official and then Iran had launched a missile attack. And now, it’s not only politics but also a pandemic that cannot be overcome. I honestly wonder if I’ll ever see anyone again.
These are rifts that may never heal, so you learn to live on two tectonic plates, knowing they can rupture your world at any time. You learn to live with your heart always broken a little.
It’s the dark streak of the morning, the hour only the jet-lagged know. I’m in my mamani’s room in Tehran. Gray light seeps through the drapes and the mournful cry of a lone motorbike comes and goes.
This was in 2015, the last time I visited Iran. Ameh M. had picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at my mamani’s. The car ride was long and even at three in the morning, there was traffic on the highway. The mosques were lit with white neon lights and cars honked as we sped by. It felt strange being in the backseat by myself, looking up at the high rises and the billboards written in Farsi. By now, both my parents had been diagnosed with chronic illness, making travel difficult. In the past, we had always traveled together and everyone had come to pick us up. Things are so different now.
And yet they’re just the same. I’m sleeping on the twin bed my mamani and my mom had shared. I imagine them lying side by side, the same orange bedspread covering them. My mamani telling my mom stories when she was my age and I was a seed in her belly. I feel like a part of every good thing and every good thing is a part of me. Just as the sun rises, I fall asleep and dream.
—S. Ferdowsi (Gordon Square Review)