My Mother's Aunt
More than half a century ago, in a male-dominated society in the Middle East, lived a courageous woman. She had no education, was a single mother of two, worked at different jobs, and raised two very successful children all by herself. This amazing woman who challenged the society, defied its archaic rules, and treasured her own financial independence up to the end, was my mother’s aunt.
Because of lack of schooling, she could neither read nor write, but she had the courage and the iron will to get jobs in order to support her family, a rare occurrence over seventy years ago in a society where women were treated like second-class citizens. She was a lion-hearted woman. When I try to visualize her, for some very strange reason, I think of her as the female version of John Wayne. Maybe it was her physical features that reminded me of the actor. She was tall and muscular. Her eyes were small and penetrating. Most definitely it was the shape of her mouth and thin lips that resembled John Wayne. She was not particularly attractive. Her grayish hair, reaching her shoulders, was usually pulled back with a rubber band, or sometimes shaped into a bun. I don’t ever recall seeing her wearing make-up - not even lipstick. She was plain-looking with a full round face. Smack in the middle of her face was a big nose. A round pinkish-colored wart was nestled on the left side of her nose which was hard to ignore. She had a quick tongue with a temper to match. Her husband had divorced her when her two children, a boy and a girl, were toddlers.
My early memories of my mother’s aunt go back to the time when she rented the small house adjacent to ours, and in essence she became our next door neighbor. By then, her daughter was attending a boarding school and was training to become a nurse. Her son was already grown and had a job.
Even with no education at all, she had held a series of employments, from being a nanny at the home of a well-known government official to managing the laundry section of a boarding school for a teacher training college. She also served, as she put it, as the “keeper of the keys” for the science labs in one of the prestigious high schools in her hometown. I’m sure she was given other duties besides being the keeper of the laboratory keys! Although she had no formal education, her innate smarts and her sheer determination to be independent had landed her different jobs and had made her a favorite person at whatever institution she worked. The official whose children were raised by her had secured her a permanent government job, making sure Dear Auntie drew regular paychecks. So, she was officially hired by the department of education and retired after thirty years of service.
Dear Auntie, or “Khaleh Joon,” as we affectionately called her, was also known as “Queen of Clean.” Her dwellings were absolutely immaculate. Because she was so impeccably clean and tidy, her visits to our house made my mother feel a bit anxious. Mother made sure the contents of the cabinets were organized and that the house was cleaned up before her aunt arrived. Regardless of Mother’s agonizing moments of getting everything into shape prior to her aunt’s visit, when Khaleh Joon arrived, she invariably re-organized the closets and the cabinets. Everything in my mother’s closets would be taken out. Khaleh Joon then sat on the Persian rug and meticulously inspected and organized every article of clothing. She neatly folded the contents of Mother’s underwear drawers and then moved on to her party clothes and evening wears. This activity not only kept Khaleh Joon busy, but also gave her a chance to find out what new clothing item my mother had acquired. Khaleh Joon was very curious and a bit nosy about this sort of thing. But, she was good at organizing and re-arranging, and usually by the time she was done with her self-imposed task I could see a smile of gratitude on my mother’s face.
Upon her retirement, Khaleh Joon was available and willing to help out family members for various occasions, such as weddings, huge dinner parties, or the birth of a child. Khaleh Joon’s expertise, patience, and know-how always came in handy. When my youngest sister was born, Khaleh Joon came and stayed at our house for a few weeks to help run the household.
Mother’s aunt was also a fabulous cook and passed her skills on to her own daughter. On occasions when she invited us to her tiny place for dinner, we knew we were in for a treat. She always had an assortment of stews – eggplant with lamb, herb stew, meatballs in pomegranate and walnut sauce - all served over steaming saffron rice. Homemade chutney and jams were her specialties, which she served with flat bread. For dessert, she had various melons in season, along with traditional candies and cookies.
Khaleh Joon zealously guarded and preserved her own financial independence. This was truly something to behold, given the era and the country in which she lived. She was not schooled, but she had learned a lot in the college of life. She was organized and managed her household budget well on whatever she made. She invited relatives for meals, gave gifts to the children for the Persian New Year, and, as I learned later, she had even purchased a cemetery plot and had arranged and put aside funds for her own funeral service years in advance.
One story told by my mother sums up Khaleh Joon’s strong and fearless character. One night a burglar came to her house. Dear Auntie’s sharp hearing alerted her of the presence of an intruder. She immediately set out to catch the burglar. The man had tried to flee, but somehow, this lion-hearted lady had managed to grab the burglar by his testicles. With her strong, mighty hands she had held on and squeezed ´til the neighbors and the police arrived.
She was illiterate but not ignorant. She had no formal schooling but was far more intelligent than some who were schooled. Khaleh Joon had wisdom, common sense, and had experienced life. Above all, she had guts! She was a unique lady and a feminist in her own way more than half a century ago. Ironically, only recently did I learn of her actual last name, “Hamedanchi Azad.” Apparently, everyone called her “Mrs. Azad,” The word Azad in Persian language means “free.” A befitting name for a woman who was truly free up to the end!