As a child, Anne, that’s the Turkish word for mother, took us to on her grocery store run every Saturday. This wasn’t just any grocery store, but a fresh food market that required us to walk twenty minutes to reach. “Here,” she would say, “they have the best fruits and vegetables. Not as good as the ones in Turkey, but better than what they sell at the supermarket.” My milky-skinned mother was, like most Turkish mothers, picky about her produce, just as an artist is picky with his or her palette. Produce is what she created fresh, warm Turkish meals with, every day. Meals were how she showed us the abundant love and passion she had, but was forced to subdue because she was a “proper” Turkish girl. Proper Turkish girls had only two passions: cooking and cleaning.
Anne’s fresh and warm meals made my father, Baba, happy. At the age of seven, however, I didn’t have the same appreciation for her buttery and flakykavurma borek made not out of philo dough, but her own rolling pin and specially brought feta cheese. I craved fast food.
On occasion Anne would indulge this craving as she did one Saturday after we picked up our groceries. From what I remember it was a sunny day and Anne, who had a tendency toward mood swings, was in good spirits. I know this because when she wasn’t in a good spirits the arch of her dark brow would silence my brother and me into uncharacteristic obedience.
On this day, however, I dared my little brother to a race, which I knew his little three-year-old legs would never win. (My torture of men began at an early age.) I recall my mother batting her long dark lashes at us a la Snow White, “Let’s we go to Kentucky Fried Chicken today.” My brother and I erupted in excitement.
Going to Kentucky Fried Chicken was a big deal for Anne too. It was not something she could do when I was a toddler. Back then she spoke practically no English, which I wish I had realized on my first day of Kindergarten.
It was, I imagine, a first day like most others – the local schoolyard teemed with energetic children and their chatty mothers. Interestingly, one of the first things I noticed on that schoolyard wasn’t the other kids, some of whom were running around and shouting. It was the shiny lips and blue eye shadow of their mothers. Anne didn’t wear any color on her face. Nor did she stand with the other mothers who were engaged in such deep conversation that none noticed the sudden burst of tears that erupted as our Kindergarten teacher Mrs. Levin told us to line up. “Okay everyone, it’s time to start your first day of Kindergarten.” Anne just stood and stared at me, her hands inside her jacket pockets. It was as if she was the one who needed to be brave. I waved at her as I walked into the red-bricked school building.
After school, Anne was in the same spot that I had left her a few hours later, which made me wonder if she had ever left. “Look at all the things that my teacher wants us to bring to class,” I waved a piece of paper in my hand, jumping up and down. My mother had to put her hands on my shoulders to keep me still in order to see what it was I was talking about.
She stared at the list and then handed it back to me and kept walking. “So are we going to go to the store to buy these supplies?” I continued my elated dance, which had left me breathless. “We’ll have to wait ‘til Baba gets home, okay?” she said without looking at me.
I stopped in my tracks. “Why?” I whined. “I don’t want to wait for Baba.”
“If we wait for Baba it will be too late. I need to get this stuff now for tomorrow. All the stores will be closed later. I need to have this stuff TO-MORR-OW or else my teacher won’t like me.”
“OKAAAY,” Anne replied, fixing her short dark hair. She replied OKAAAY whenever she: 1) didn’t know the answer to a question, 2) didn’t’ want to answer or 3) wanted me to shut up.
“But NOOOOOOO.” I hadn’t cried earlier but couldn’t help tearing up then.
“Elmira, we have to wait for Baba. You can buy your supplies tomorrow.”
“NOOOOOO!” I started to cry. Anne did not respond.
“WHY WON’T YOU READ THIS!?” I belted out with all my red faced five-year-old might, outraged at what I assumed was some sort of punishment. “If you can’t read this, then I’m not going to tell you what the bank man says anymore.”
As early as I can remember, long before Kindergarten, Anne would have me talk to bank tellers, electricians and telephone repairmen. She would speak in Turkish and I in English. They would speak to me in English, I to Anne in Turkish. I never thought much about how or why we did this. We just did. And I didn’t like it all that much. I especially didn’t like the bank tellers who preferred to talk to other customers and made us wait; tellers who when they did talk to us I found always in a hurry to get rid of us. To this day I clench up when I walk into a bank.
After I enrolled in Kindergarten things changed. Every day after school, Anne sat down with me and had me go over that day’s lesson. She’d tell me to read her the new words and letters I learned and put them into a sentence that I had to translate into Turkish. She would sit with books and have me read to her, with her following along intently. This, I now realize, is how she learned how to speak English.
On that Saturday at the Kentucky Fried Chicken, however, Anne’s English was still rusty and unconfident, which is what I suspect the young woman behind the counter picked up on. Her long hair tucked into a red cap, bubble gum in her mouth, this woman snickered when my mother started reading off from the menu above in her heavily accented English.
“Shicken?” the server laughed at my mother. “You want shicken?”
Confused, my mother looked down at me, her face reddening. “Yes,” I chimed in. “We’d like to order the XXX-piece chicken please,” looking up at the server and my mother.
“Tell them we’d like it to go,” Anne said to me, even though we had agreed we’d eat in. She, on the other hand, wouldn’t look at anyone. She just stared into the air.