Last night the woman I married thirty-two years ago walked into the living room where I was preparing my American Literature discussion for the following day on Henry James’ “The Art of Fiction.” A discussion about all that’s democratic and true, and thus pleasing, in novels and life.
“I want you to hear me out and not get alarmed,” my wife started. “Mom was exactly the age I am now when she and Dad had to leave everything behind and move to this country… I hear that in New Zealand, you can hike anywhere without fear of being accosted by snakes or other predatory beings.”
Of course, she knows that snakes aren’t predators. Still, it’s the danger she means, the taunts of “Sand Nigger” she wants to flee. The danger that a woman, whose entire family has escaped an oppressive regime, knows. The harm done to some that she loved by a government that, if her family had not been allowed into the U.S., might have imprisoned or killed them all as it did with so many others of the “Intelligentsia.”
My wife is from Iran. She received her green card in the mid-1980’s, her full citizenship a few years later. Our children were born here, in the U.S., but on the day after the election of Donald J. Trump, our younger daughter called to ask what this reality meant for “Mommy and her Persian family.” For us.
I tried to tell her that no one was going to be outcast from the country, that no one in our government would try to do that to its full citizens. I felt like I was right in saying so, then. I so wanted to be. Being thrown out might take so little effort; the process of getting in, however, has left its scars.
To have her hearing so as to obtain her green card, my wife and I drove from Knoxville to Memphis. We had to get her ID photo re-taken, so that her ear would be in plain sight. We had to testify under the portrait of then-President Reagan who had cut a deal with the very regime my wife had escaped. His smiling countenance chilled my heart. Did he appreciate the sacrifices an immigrant Iranian family made to come to America? Could he realize that in wanting to live freely and without persecution, they might also mourn the land of their own former love and dreams?
So many people were waiting for naturalization in that office, but one, looking right at me after my wife was called in, said: “We all have it bad here, but no one has it as bad as these poor Iranians.”
Soon, I joined my wife in the interrogation room. I wanted to take her hand, but that didn’t seem allowed. The very stern, white INS agent looked me up and down a minute:
“So, you live with these people? What is your contribution around the house,” he asked, as if surely I was freeloading off my in-laws, or just as surely being used by them.
Or, as if this was Alabama, my home state, back in the 1940’s or 50’s.
“I cut the grass,” I said. “Sometimes I cook, too, and help out with the dishes. But most of my time is taken up with passing my doctoral exams and writing a dissertation.”
He didn’t want to know what I was studying: the collected works of playwright/dramatist Horton Foote, known to many as the screenwriter of To Kill a Mockingbird, that work about trying to understand someone by getting inside his skin and walking around in it. Instead, he just “uh-huh’d” me and said, “You’ll get our decision soon.”
“Soon” took six months, during which time my wife couldn’t accept any job. We had moved into our own apartment by then, living off of my $480 a month graduate stipend in an old Victorian house without adequate heat. When the verdict finally came by post one winter morning, it really wasn’t:
“We need more time to investigate your case.”
I wrote back. As an American, it was my right to write back:
“Please, by all means, come to our home and investigate.”
Two weeks later, my wife’s green card arrived, no apology, no note, no welcome to the U.S.
That was over thirty years ago. Since then, my wife, who earned her Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, has helped countless individuals adjust to being displaced, even if that displacement is as simple as moving from New York City to our place of residence in upstate South Carolina. She has counseled teens who have eating disorders and/or suffered severe, familial abuse. She has worked with couples seeking to repair or end their marriage. My wife is paid well; she has been a valuable resource for our community, a contributing, productive member of our society.
But now she feels fearful about the direction her adopted country is taking us.
After we talked last night—“I could keep counseling in New Zealand; they mainly speak English, right”—we watched All In’s Chris Hayes interview an Iranian-American law professor from the University of Georgia, a woman who, as a child in Iran, was taught to shout “Death to America” by those close to her–those who both feared the Iranian regime and wanted to conform to its dictates. She wore a hijab then. Now, she teaches in one of the largest law schools in the country. Her head uncovered, her smile radiant. So much like my wife.
This interview along with others with street protestors, members of Congress, and Presidential historians gave us hope. We sent money to the ACLU. We wrote Senators Scott and Graham asking them to repeal the “Muslim Ban,” to vote against defunding Planned Parenthood, and to block the nominations of Trump ideologues like Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos.
We exercised our rights as full-bodied, sound-minded Americans.
We appreciate and love our right to do so.
And when the Commander-in-Chief fired the acting Attorney General, we did what other fearful Americans surely did: We switched over to comedy, watching three episodes of “The Office.” Michael hadn’t left the show yet, but his days are numbered. Soon, he will fly off with his love, Holly, never to be seen again.
I hope and trust that our story won’t parallel his. I really don’t want to move to New Zealand, though I would like to vacation there sometime in the future. I’d also like to not worry about danger. Mostly, I don’t.
Last night, though, I had a moment, one where I saw that in the weeks and months to come, that perhaps we would choose to, have to, pack a few bags, crate up our beloved dog and cat, and set out for another land, another home. I’m gonna fight like hell to make sure that such a turn doesn’t fork our path. I believe we’ll succeed in this fight; I believe everything will be okay.
But I know that the other fork is out there, too. That others have had to take it.
That in my wife’s life, in our life, there is that precedent.
Originally published as “Mommy and her Persian Family” on http://www.lefthooks.net/
Terry Barr’s essay collection, “Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother”, has been published in a second edition by Third Lung Press. His nonfiction has also been published in EMRYS Journal, Cowboy Jamboree, Eclectica, Sinkhole Press, The Dead Mule School of Southern Lit, and Full Grown People. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.