Friday, September 2, 2016

Friday, September 02, 2016 - 1 comment

Deep Breaths of Home

“I don’t get to come up here all that often, but when I retire, we’ll fix this place up and this is where we’ll live.”

Ömer Abi led us through the skeleton frame of the two-story house out onto the unfinished cement balcony.  The orchard sloped away from the house in a tangle of unkempt grapevines and apricot, mulberry and walnut trees, the last of their leaves clinging to near barren branches.  Fading traces of autumn’s glory graced the foothills of the mountains across the valley from us while their peaks had been newly dusted with the first snow of the harsh Eastern Turkish winter.

“I’ve lived a lot of places in this country - they never station a policeman in his hometown.  But for me, no place is as beautiful as here.”  His eyes shone with pride.  “You could be from the ugliest place in the world - the desert, or somewhere with nothing but dirt and rocks, but if that is what you grew up with, if that is what you are used to, then no matter where you go, you always long for that dirt and those rocks.  That’s what’s beautiful to you, because it’s in you.  It’s home.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There’s an actual word in Turkish for “someone who lives far away from home” - “gurbetçi.”  It’s always pronounced with a bit of wistfulness in the voice, and the inevitable response to hearing that someone is a “gurbetçi” is a look of sympathy mixed with longing.  

Over the last couple of years, I’ve done dozens of interviews with gurbetçiler for my book project, tentatively titled “The Scent of Home.”  Some people I interview have a hard time at first coming up with words to describe their hometowns.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “It’s just your average village in Anatolia.”  But when we get to the “smell” questions, suddenly their memories are unlocked and their faces get animated.  “Whenever I smell bread baking, it’s like I’m five again, sitting beside my mom as she cooked yufka over the fire in our back garden.”  “My grandpa always smelled like goats.”  “There was this one brand of lemon-scented hand wipes my parents always used to wipe our faces...” 

The idea for the title came from a conversation with my old language helper when she talked about visiting her “hometown” as an adult.  She’d only actually lived there until she was three, but it was her father’s home and therefore hers, too.   She got this sweet, little girl smile on her face as she talked about the smell of the dirt in her grandparents’ garden, and how as soon as she smelled it, it was familiar, like home.  And she instinctively knew that was the soil she’d been formed from.  That it was a part of her, and she of it.

Last month as I was “retreating” on Bowen Island, I made a discovery about myself.  Well, actually, it was something I already knew, but it was confirmed deep in my heart.  It hit me one morning that weekend, as I sat nestled into a groove in a fat log in a little cove on the south side of the island under a cloudy gray sky.  I was watching the dark waves roll and tease the barnacle-clad shore.   My revelation:  I am British Columbian to the core.  

I may have lived outside of Canada for going on half my life, but this place is home.  It’s in my bones.  

I’ve lived half an hour from the Mediterranean for the past nine years.  And all that turquoise water is gorgeous - don’t get me wrong.  But honestly?  It doesn’t do much for my heart.  But give me rocky shores crowded with pine and fir trees, seagull laughter and the tangy smell of kelp and seaweed tossed in the black waves, and even if - or maybe especially if - it’s sopping wet with rain, I’m the happiest of campers.

I can totally echo Ömer Abi’s sentiments - no matter where in the world I roam (and I’ve roamed a LOT), no place holds a candle to British Columbia.  And I think anyone who’s been here would agree - it’s a whole lot more than a sentimental attachment to my own version of his “dirt and rocks”.  This place is all kinds of gorgeous.   

BC Day happened to fall while I was away on Bowen, and that day, my inner Vancouverite was spoiled rotten with more local beauty than my heart could handle.  

I started the day with a run around lilypad-draped Killarney Lake on a trail that winds 4 km through wet, mossy forest.  And it was the alive-est I’d felt in ages.  I love my dirt-road route back in Turkey.  (Nothing like a herd of sheep to cheer you on!)  And the path in the park behind my elementary school where I usually run when I’m home in BC holds its own special memories.  But that day, as my feet pounded the soft earth, as I burst through glistening spider webs and ducked under low-hanging pine branches and powered up hills stair-stepped with gnarly tree roots, I kept thinking, “I wasn’t built for dodging cracks in the cement and walkers on cell phones and tiny dogs in sweaters - I was made to run here!”

That afternoon, I tried something I’ve wanted to do for years and went paddle-boarding around Snug Cove and Dorman Point.  (Super fun to be “standing up on the ocean”, though next time I think I’ll try someplace a little calmer - the waves from the passing speedboats and ferries had me on my knees more often than my feet!)  Then I headed across the island to Tunstall Beach and, after a quick dip in the chilly water, I let the fading sun warm me dry, settling in to watch all the other brave British Columbians who haven’t had their skin un-toughened by that spoiler of a Mediterranean Sea swimming and paddling and wave-jumping until the sky turned dusky and the cool air sent me in search of some hot soup.

And then came the crowning moment of my already perfectly British Columbian BC Day.  After supper, I climbed the hill behind the retreat centre to watch the last glow of sunset make its way across the North Shore Mountains.  And as I sat and drank in the twilight beauty, from stage left appeared a deer.  He (she?  Perhaps I’m exaggerating my British Columbian-ness if I can't tell the difference!) wasn’t shy in the least and spent the next twenty minutes poking around in the bushes, not minding that he had a spectator as he enjoyed his dinner.

Since that day, I’ve been increasingly aware of those moments that make me think, “I am from here.  This place is in me.”  So often it’s smells.  That oily railroad track-ish scent down at the wharf in Steveston.  (And the accompanying foul odour of fish that have spent too long on the dock on a hot summer day...)  Seashells that have been baking in the sun for awhile.  The way the logs and the sand smell at my favourite spot on the dyke.  And then there’s the warbled cry of a loon over the stillness of Glimpse Lake in the early morning.    The sparkle of raindrops clinging to a fern and the soul-awakening scent of wet tree bark.  The feel of my kayak paddle skimming the still water of the Fraser on a quiet evening.  The quivering of a lakeshore alive with a million tiny frogs.   The curious sight of those little “worm piles” in the tidal pools at Centennial Beach.

I adore my “second home” in Turkey.  The “red and white” in my blood is a tumbled mix of maple leaf and crescent and star.  (Or thick Turkish coffee and maple syrup.  Except I’m not real big on syrup.  So, maybe Turkish coffee and...poutine gravy?)  But for this “gurbetçi”-girl, there are no “rocks and dirt” like the rocks and dirt I came from.  Especially when those rocks and dirt are mussel-jeweled boulders and Pacific-kissed sand.  And if there’s a seagull laughing overhead and the smell of seaweed cooking in the sun, well...that’s just about heaven.

Nefesim memleket kokar
Nefes alırım, ciğerlerim memleket dolar.
Rüzgar bir selam getirir diyarımdan
Sıla özleminden ciğerlerim ağlar.

The air I breathe smells of my homeland,
I breathe in and my lungs fill with home.
The wind brings a greeting from my land,
And my insides cry with homesick longing...

~ Şaban Daş, Turkish poet

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday, August 26, 2016 - 3 comments

All the Rings in My Trunk

When I was a kid, I always half-looked forward to, half-dreaded the annual tromp through the forest behind the camp I went to each summer.  Those days smelled of wet earth, moss and pine mingled with sunscreen and bug spray.  There would be upwards of sixty of us, laughing and singing campfire songs and generally trying to distract ourselves from our screaming calves as we ascended the seemingly never-ending “mountain”.  But by the time we’d reached our end goal - the Othello Railway Beds - all that dissipated in the excitement of cooling our feet in the icy Coquihalla and hunting for Sasquatch footprints and making our voices echo off the rocky ceilings of the abandoned train tunnels and scaring each other in their drippy, bat-infested darkness.  

When I grew up and became a counselor, the hike multiplied into a six-or-seven-times-a-summer event.  In July, I’d happily volunteer to “bring up the rear” and “cheer on the stragglers.”  Come August, my calves no longer complained and I looked forward to it every week.  

Whether as a kid on those “mandatory marches” or a teenager looking for ways to keep the kids motivated on the trail, my favourite thing about the hike was always counting the rings on the trunks of fallen trees.  (Once when my Mom and I were on that trail, we counted a trunk with over 400 rings!)  I was amazed how the path changed from one week to the next - how a big storm would bring a mammoth trunk for the campers to scale, and the next week the forestry guys (or some invisible and very zealous lumberjack?) would have sawed said obstacle into a trailside monument.  I was fascinated by the way the rings formed the tree’s autobiography - numbering the years of thriving and of want, laid out like a book for passersby to read.

A few weeks ago, I went away for a retreat on Bowen Island - a little pine-and-fir-clad rock rising out of the Pacific just off of Vancouver’s North Shore.  As I was out hiking, trail-running or sitting on the beach in the island’s various coves, I came across log after log that had been sliced crosswise to make way for a path or provide seating for sunset-watching.  And as I was examining one particularly mammoth tree’s life story, my Heavenly Daddy said to me, “I know every ring in your trunk.”

Well, didn’t that stop my heart in its tracks.

Over the course of the weekend, I let that word marinate in my soul.  I stopped to ponder every cut-through tree trunk and every time He took the revelation deeper.  He knows the story of each ring and the spaces that lie between them.  He knows the years when I was well-watered under life-giving rains, and the years when I nearly shriveled under the scorching sun.   He sees the ones when I grew a whole inch in one year and the ones when my “expansion” seemed imperceptible.  He’s been there through the years when I’ve soaked up joy through my roots by the bucketful and the ones where my trunk was watered solely by my own tears.  

He knows

He knows how I long to be a tall, sturdy oak - to provide shade and refuge for others, to bear fruit that will nourish the nations.  He’s invited me to sink my roots down deep into the soil of His heart, that His life would flow to the very tips of my branches.  He calls me “...a planting of His own, for the display of His splendour.”

My rings are His story.  Our story.

He knows.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Saturday, March 05, 2016 - No comments

Salt for the Soup

**It's been almost two years since my Turkish sister's wedding, so this is old news.  But after posting a few weeks ago about the addition of Baby Girl to the family, I realized I'd never shared this piece I wrote about the night before the wedding for a writing course assignment.  So, enjoy the prequel!


I plopped myself down on top of a large cardboard box on the street in front of my Turkish family’s apartment.  The box was stuffed with a fraction of my “sister” Didem’s Marcosesque shoe collection.  The mid-day August sun beat down on my back.  “Last one!” I declared.

Didem’s fiancé Bülent glanced at the trunk of his Qashqai, stacked to the roof with the sum of his beloved’s earthly possessions.  

“Are you going to let me pack that box or what?” he asked.

I grinned and stuck out my palm.  “For a fee.”

Didem slipped her arm through Bülent’s and smiled sweetly up at him.  

“She’s right.  I may be an only child, but she's the closest thing to the sister of the bride.  It’s tradition...”  Bülent shook his head in defeat and grinned.  He pulled his wallet from his back pocket.  All cards, no cash.

“Buy you coffee later?” he asked.


Didem’s mom, Yüksel, came out and joined us on the street.  Bülent crammed the box of shoes into the back seat, leaving just enough room for Yüksel and I to wedge ourselves in amongst the suitcases.  Didem slid into the front seat and waved up at the apartment building.  “So long, house!”  She glanced in the rearview mirror as Bülent pulled away from the building.  “Mom, no crying, okay?  I’m still sleeping here tonight, remember.”

Yüksel smiled, wiping a tear from her cheek.  

As we turned off their street, I thought of Didem’s henna party the night before.  We had held candles and danced in a circle around her singing, “Don’t let them carry me off to a faraway place in the high hills....I’ll miss my mother, my father and my village.”  The traditional song, meant to make the bride-to-be cry as she leaves her family, played over in my head as we made our way across the Bosphorus bridge.  Didem wasn’t moving to another city, but she was moving to another continent.  She’d grown up living in five different houses in the same Asian side neighbourbood, and now she, her clothes, a good twenty-five pounds of make-up and hair products, and the last of the wedding gifts were making the journey to her husband’s neighbourhood in the “high hills” of Avcılar, on Istanbul’s European side.

The trip took an hour and a half, and we spent it going over the to-do list for the day.  “Bülent will drop us down at the shops to get the last few things we need for the house,” Didem said.  He’ll go find out what time the couch is coming and then we’ll all head over and put everything away.  We’ll have to do some cleaning, too, so it’s all ready for tomorrow night.”  She laughed giddily.  “Tomorrow night!”  Bülent maneuvered expertly through the crush of cars, one hand on the wheel, one hand intertwined with Didem’s.

“What time are we going to Kuzguncuk tomorrow?” I asked.  I’d be shooting their wedding portraits there.

“Bülent will pick us up from the hairdresser’s at two...ish.    That’ll give us like two hours before his family comes to pick me up for the wedding.”

I bit my lip.  “When I went to scout it out, there were three or four different brides there - I hope we won’t have to wait in line for the good spots.”  

“It’ll be fine,” Didem said. 

“Tonight I still wanna get online with you and get an idea of what you want.”  I’d been hounding her about a shots list for a month.

Inshallah,” she replied.

I checked my phone.  Just after two.  I’d come along on the assurance that we’d head back over to the Asian side by five or six.  I wanted to be sure I had plenty of time to go over the shots list, check all my gear, and get enough sleep to get me through photo-documenting a bride and seven primping bridesmaids in a beauty salon, a photo shoot in my second language, and a wedding that was sure to last into the wee hours.  We had taken off much later than planned and I hoped there wouldn’t be too much cleaning to do...

Bülent deposited us females in Avcılar’s shopping district and we entered a housewares shop.

“So, what do you still need?” I asked Didem.

“Well...laundry stuff.  A bathroom garbage can.  Bath mats, an ironing board.... I want to get a nice set of Turkish coffee cups.  And we don’t have any tea cups yet....”

“I wanted to buy you something today,” I said.  “How ‘bout if I get your tea cups?”  Life in Turkey pretty much revolves around drinking tea, so I figured that would be a meaningful and useful gift.

“You don’t have to buy us anything...”

“I only have one sister!” I said, and I pulled out a saying I’d learned in a recent language lesson:  “I want a little of my salt to be found in your soup, too.”

“Aw, my beautiful seester!” she said in English and kissed me on the cheek.  

On the way to the teacup section, Didem got sidetracked by some little angel statuettes that she declared to be perfect for her living room.  I could see this was not going to be a quick shopping trip.  

“Do we really have to buy all this stuff today?” I  whispered to Yüksel.  “It’s already four...”

“Well, the wedding is tomorrow, so this is the last chance.”


“In Canada don’t you go out and buy all the stuff the bride and groom need?” Yüksel asked.  I explained online registries and how most couples didn’t open their gifts until after the honeymoon.

“So, I guess people don’t end up with three pressure cookers like Didem did, huh?” Yüksel asked.

“No,” I laughed.  “But I guess it takes away all the surprise of people choosing things they think you’ll like, too.”

“For us the important thing is that both families get to help put the house together.”  Yüksel said.  “It might not be the colour the bride would have chosen, but it’s special because it came from her aunt or her sister.  In the old days, Didem would have been working for years sewing lace on the edges of towels and crocheting doilies....”  We both looked over at Didem, with her bleached-blond hair and her short, strappy sundress, and we burst out laughing.  

“Good thing she didn’t live in the old days!” I said.

An hour, several hundred Lira and multiple warranties later, we were at the Japanese Bazaar - Turkey's version of the Dollar Store. Didem was outside on the phone with Bülent, who was at the furniture store.  Yüksel and I were looking at shelving paper options when Didem stormed over, hand clenched around her iPhone, fuming.

“It’s not ready,” she said through pinched lips.

“The couch?” I asked.

“The couch.”  She put her hands on her hips.  “It should’ve been done by now!”  Her voice rose a few decibels.  “I’m getting married tomorrow!  How can you get married without a couch?”  Another customer turned to look.  Didem stalked between rows of coat hangers and serving trays painted with pastel tea cups and cartoon cats.  “We ordered it more than a month ago, remember?” 

I remembered.  Long hours of visiting store after store with two sets of inlaws-to-be, reclining, feeling fabrics, testing throw pillows.  It had been the middle of Ramadan, all the store employees were grouchy from fasting and there was no water to be found.  I felt dehydrated just thinking about it.  

“When they delivered it, the L-shape was the wrong way, so we had it made again.  Then they told us it would be ready after the Sugar Festival.  Now they’re saying it’s not done yet ‘cause everyone was on vacation during the festival...  Arghhhh!!!”

Yüksel patted Didem’s shoulder.  

I smiled weakly and held up the two rolls of shelving paper in my hands.  “Polka dots or the Taksim trolley?”


We pulled into Bülent and Didem’s apartment complex just after five.  Bülent had collected us (and our armfuls of shopping bags) and taken us to the furniture store where, not surprisingly, Didem’s tearful appeal had failed to produce a couch.  We lugged all the boxes and suitcases from the car up to the twelfth floor apartment.  The furniture was already set up.  There were small appliances waiting to be unpacked and several rugs rolled up in the corner of the living room, but beyond that it looked like the place just needed a good mopping.

The fridge was empty.  My stomach had been complaining hungrily since the Japanese Bazaar and my low blood-sugar level warned me not to start climbing any stepladders anytime soon.  We decided to wait for the food we’d ordered from the complex restaurant before tackling the job of organizing the house.

“Wanna see my cooking stuff?” Didem asked.  I nodded.

“Here are the pots and pans.”  She pulled open the bottom drawer and I was blinded by the gleam of stainless steel.

“Does this mean you’re going to learn how to cook?” I asked.  

She stuck out her tongue.  “Look at this egg thing.”  She held up a frying pan with six individual grooves in it.  “Bülent’s mom gave it to me.  I have no idea how to use it, but it looks cool.  Here’s my spice rack.  I picked that out myself.  And here’s the baking stuff you gave me when we got engaged...”

Bülent entered the kitchen, telephone in hand.  “Change of plans,” he said.  “My mom’s bringing over Arnavut böreği for supper.”  The dull ache in my temples sharpened.  I love Bahriye Hanım’s flaky meat-filled pastries, but they’re not exactly something that can be whipped up in a jiffy...  Bülent called to cancel our food order and we all got to work.  Yüksel started arranging the newly purchased coffee and tea cups in the kitchen cupboards.  Bülent, now stripped down to his wife-beater, whistled as he installed the flat screen TV on the living room wall.  I was assigned the task of putting shelving paper in the hutch.  Didem flitted between the three of us, looking a little lost.  The shelving paper turned out to be more than my hungry self could handle.  After multiple attempts at smoothing, which only resulted in bubbles and crooked edges, I carried the remaining sheets into the kitchen in defeat.  

“If you want a happy sister for the rest of this weekend, someone else has to do this.” I said.

Didem hugged me.  “Forget it.  You can hand Mom glasses instead.”

Yüksel was standing on the counter, trying to fit in more glasses than a person could use in a two-dinner-party weekend.  “Are you hoping to only wash dishes once a week?”  I asked Didem.

“No, we have a machine.  I like choices.”  

After the kitchen, I moved on to the entryway closets.  They were still full of a bunch of Bülent’s brother Serdar’s stuff from when he had previously lived there.  Running shoes.  A couple of jackets.  His niece’s water wings.  I replaced them with Didem’s mountain of shoeboxes.  

It was at this point that I started to ponder an escape.  I wondered how rude would it be to bow out before Bahriye Hanım arrived with her börek?  It was just after six.  I could take the Metrobus and be back on the Asian side in just over an hour.  I’d still have a few hours before bed to get my head in the game for pictures the next day...

No sooner had I begun to map out my betrayal than the doorbell rang.   Food!

Bülent opened the door and welcomed his mom and Serdar.  “Where should I put these?” Bahriye Hanım asked, holding up two plastic shopping bags as she picked her way through the clutter in the foyer.

Straight into my mouth,” I thought.

“Mom, why’d you go to all this trouble?” Bülent asked.  

“Just a few things I thought you might need to get started.  Some of my own salt for your soup.”

Yüksel winked at me.

Didem kissed her mother-in-law’s cheek and started pulling items out of the bag.  Dry beans.  Lentils.  Sugar.  Salt.  Another dozen tea cups.  Nothing that looked or smelled remotely like börek.  

“We just came to drop these off and pick up the last of Serdar’s stuff.  I’ll go make the börek now and bring it over when it’s done,” said Bahriye Hanım.

“I am going to die,” I thought.

They left and we got back to work.  I assembled the new vacuum and started sucking up the fine dust from Bülent’s drilling, tossing IKEA plastic wrappers and stray cardboard into a garbage bag as I went.  I found an ancient fruit snack at the bottom of my purse and it temporarily put some spring back into my step.  

When I finished the living room, I joined Didem and Yüksel in the bedroom.   “Honey, you’re the tallest of us,” Yüksel put her arm around my waist.  “Can you pull down those sacks from on top of the wardrobe?”  I climbed up on the bed and wrestled down two large cloth bags.  Didem unzipped the first one. 

“Hello my loves!” she said, pulling a pair of white bathrobes.  “Feel how soft these are!”  She rubbed one against my cheek. 

I eyed the full suitcases in the corner and the empty wardrobe shelves.  I surveyed the piles on towels and linens on the bed.  My stomach grumbled.  I was out of salt and this soup still had a long way to simmer.

“I was thinking,” I said.  “By the time we eat and get home it’s going to be like ten or eleven.  You have to be up early to go to the kuaför.  You don’t want to be a puffy-eyed bride for pictures....  What if we just get everything to where it’s ‘good enough’ and then go home and get some sleep?  You’re only going to be here one night and then you’ll be in Bodrum all week anyways.”

Didem plunked down on the bed beside me.  “I’m coming home to this house tomorrow night as a bride.  I don’t want boxes and dirt everywhere.”

“Yeah, but can’t we just make the bed and make sure you have somewhere to sit?  When you get home from your honeymoon, you’ll have plenty of time to figure out where to hang your bathrobes.....”

Güzelim,” said Yüksel.  “My beauty.”  She said it in that gentle tone that I’d grown so accustomed to over my eight years as her “Canadian daughter” - the tone that kindly said, “I know this isn’t how you do it in your culture, but in Turkey...”  

“It’s tradition,” she explained.  “Everything has to be ready before the wedding.  Of course we wanted to have it ready sooner, but Serdar took his time moving out....”

“He was supposed to be out before the end of Ramadan,” Didem said narrowing her eyes.  “The couch was supposed to be here by then, too.... But, here we are, and we’re going to finish this!”  She slapped both of our legs and then in her most commanding voice said, “Back to work!” 

It would be dark soon, so there was no way they’d let me make the trek back across to the Asian side alone at this point anyway.  Besides, if I left, while it might earn them a more alert photographer the next day, it would only make for a bride and groom who got to bed even later because they were down a pair of hands.  I started folding towels and walking through the neighbourhood for the following day’s photo shoot in my mind.  

A few minutes later, Bülent poked his head in.  “Mom’s on her way - come get the table ready.”  I practically danced down the hall to the silverware drawer.  

Didem put tea on while Yüksel and I set the table.  Bahriye Hanım and her famous börek arrived just as the tea finished brewing.  She bid us “Afiyet olsun” - “bon appetit - and headed home.  

“We apparently have like twenty tea cups now, but no tea spoons,” Didem warned us.  “So you’ll have to use the ends of your knives.”  We laughed.  Bülent tore open the foil börek package, the steamy aroma of meat and spices wafting out.  Didem began to fill our tiny “thin waisted” glasses - one third strong tea, two thirds hot water.  It was a motion I’d seen her do a hundred times before as she refilled our cups during the TV and sunflower seed nights that were our routine during the months I lived with them and on every visit for eight years since.  

But this time she looked different.  The teenager I used to know - the one who wanted to hurry up and refill our tea so she could get back to texting - had been replaced by a woman.  A woman who in twenty-two hours would be a wife.  I could feel the tears coming.  

“Hang on,” I said.  “We need to take a picture!” 

“No, I’m a mess!” Didem protested.  

“This is a historic moment,” I said.  “It’s our first family meal in your house.”  

As soon as she saw my wet eyes, hers filled up, too.  “And my first pot of tea in my own house.”

Now Yüksel was sniffling, too.

“You girls!” Bülent scolded jokingly.  “Quit crying and take the picture so we can eat!”

We devoured our dinner as the sun dipped below the horizon for the night and a sea breeze drifted through the open window.  And as my hunger faded, so did all thoughts of Metrobus-escapes.  I’d been totally focused on having my own stress-free wedding weekend instead of being the sister Didem needed me to be - not the organized, well-rested Canadian sister, but the down-to-the-wire, treasuring-tradition-over-sanity Turkish sister.  I could live off of caffeine and prayers tomorrow.  Tonight, I was going to polish that house until it was worthy of a bride.

By eleven-thirty, we’d found homes for the day’s purchases, arranged the linens, and merged two single suitcases into one married wardrobe.  While Yüksel gave the kitchen floor one last good mop and Didem and Bülent closed up the windows, I snuck into the bedroom on a little errand of my own.  On a sheet of notebook paper in the prettiest letters I could manage at that late hour, I wrote out a Turkish wedding blessing and placed it on the white lace coverlet.  “Bir yastıkta kocayın,” it read.  “May you grow old on the same pillow.”

A few minutes later, having finally declared the place fit for a bride and groom, we all made our way to the door and started putting our shoes on.  Saying she’d forgotten something, Didem slipped back to the bedroom.  

“Awwwww.....”  She came out, showed Bülent the note, and threw her arms around my neck.  “İyi ki varsın, my sister,” she said.  “I’m so glad to have you in my life.”

“Me, too.”  I hugged her back. 

Darısı başına,” she said with a wink.  “May it be your turn next.”


We piled into the car.  As we left the apartment complex, Didem pulled up the Istanbul traffic website on her phone and then let out a long sigh.  “All red all the way to the bridge.”  

Bülent cursed.  

“Bülent, seriously, you have to get up so early tomorrow.  Decorating the car, going to the barber...”  Didem looked at him sternly.  “Just drop us at the Metrobus stop.”

“I didn’t just get that house ready for my bride only to have her get kidnapped on the way home by some crazy person in the middle of the night the day before we get married!”  Bülent merged onto the highway.  He turned on the radio and Didem rubbed his neck a bit and then curled up and went to sleep.  

Two kilometres before the Bosphorus Bridge, we hit full on gridlock.  At one o’clock in the morning.  

“Accident?” I asked.  

“Nope,” Bülent sighed. “Just Friday.”

It was after two by the time we limped up the three flights of stairs to my family’s apartment.  

“Text me when you get home safe,” mumbled Didem as she hugged Bülent goodnight.

I flipped on the light in Didem’s room, plugged my camera battery into its charger and headed for the bathroom.  Eyeing my tired face in the mirror, I thought, “I’m gonna need a lot of makeup tomorrow.

Didem and I normally shared her room when I came to visit.  It had been that way ever since the days of our first laboured, phrasebook conversations.  Since I’d arrived, she found the sticky August nights unbearable in her windowless room, so she’d been sleeping on the couch.  There was only a single bed in there now, so it was just as well.  I was grateful for the privacy, and the lack of cigarette smoke.  But tonight, I was going to miss her.

I tiptoed into the living room.  She was already asleep on the couch.  No sheets, still fully clothed.  I bent over and planted a kiss on her sweaty forehead.

Tatlı rüyalar,” I whispered.  “Sweet dreams.”  It was one of the first phrases she had taught me.  She opened her eyes drowsily.  

“Are you sure you don’t wanna sleep in your bed one last time?“ I asked.  “I don’t mind the couch.”

Didem leaned up, kissed me on both cheeks and then settled back onto the cushions.

“It’s your room now,” she whispered, and then closed her eyes and fell back asleep.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Thursday, February 18, 2016 - No comments

It Takes a Village, Not a Bookstore

The best thing about a delayed flight is that it means more time in the airport bookstore.

Last month, on my way up to Istanbul to meet my newborn niece, I spent almost four hours waiting for what would be just over an hour-long flight.  And so, naturally, off to D&R I went.  

I’d already made a gift for Baby Nil - a pair of tiny onesies on which I’d doodled her name and “Cutest girl in Istanbul.”  And I couldn’t resist a few extras I’d found at the pazar:  “My auntie loves me” and “My mom is super, but my auntie is something else!”  (It’s convenient that my “Turkish sister”, Didem, is an only child like me - I have no other auntie-competition!”)  I’d also been thinking about getting Didem a book - something along the lines of “What to Expect the First Year”, so I headed up to the cashier and, guessing at the translation of the title, asked if they had anything along those lines. 

Bookshop Girl quickly located the one I was looking for, but one glance at its 800+ pages told me this wasn’t a book Didem would have the patience for.  I paused, wondering if it was silly to even be looking for a book for her - she’s much more the “ask Uncle Google” type anyway.  But no, I decided, she has grown up and is a mom now and wants to do the best job possible.  Surely a resource like this would be helpful.  Maybe just one with more pictures and less pages...  

We pulled a couple of others off the shelf - less daunting, more visual ones along the same lines as “What to Expect”, as well as a couple of those “Baby’s First Year” journals and photo books.  But would Didem actually sit and write about the day they brought Nil home from the hospital, what Aunt Dilek bought for a baby gift, and about their first attempt at solid food?  Doubtful.  Pretty sure this kid’s life is going to be more of a Facebook documentary.  

I finally settled on a visual-but-informative hardcover book called “Motherhood and Baby Care.”  It had all the standard fare of baby food recipes, sleeping positions and what to do with diaper rashes.  Same price as “What to Expect” but less daunting and, equally important, way less bulk to have to squeeze into my backpack.  I paid for the book (and maybe one more for myself....) and had it gift-wrapped, satisfied with my contribution to my little niece’s upbringing.

It was after two in the morning when I finally arrived at Didem and Bülent’s.  “It’s okay,” my sweet sister whispered as I kissed her hello. “These days, we’re always up at this hour anyway.”  

I tiptoed into the living room where a perfect little three-week-old peanut lay swaddled in a hammock, eyes glazed but still awake.  I planted an awestruck kiss on her forehead and then sat and just stared at her while Didem spread sheets and a pillow on the couch for me.  

“I hope your ear is plugged up tonight,” Didem whispered.  “She doesn’t stay this cute all night long.”

Between exhaustion from the journey and the earplugs I’d been wise to pack, I slept straight through til ten.  When I woke up, I could hear female voices coming from the bedroom.  Groggy and contact-less, I padded down the hall to see who the visitor was, and smiled when I made out the kind face and silvery-blond hair of Bahriye Abla, Didem’s mother-in-law.  The two of them were bent over Nil, changing her diaper together.

“I’ll just wash my face and then I’ll come kiss you,” I whispered.  She smiled.  I’ve always liked her.

When I emerged, Bahriye Abla was at the kitchen window with a cigarette.  I chatted with her while she finished it and then we joined Didem in the living room where she had Nil laid out on a receiving blanket on the couch.

“Can you show me again how to swaddle her?” Didem asked with a pout.  “When you do it, she stays in there, but when I do it, half an hour later, her arms are all over the place.”

“I’ll tell you, but you’re going to do it yourself,” said the older woman quietly, smiling down at her grand-daughter.  “Put her a little further to the right, and then grab that corner and pull it across her.”  Didem did as she was told, pinning the baby’s left arm against her body.  “Good, now roll her up a bit and tuck it under.  Yes, like that.”   

Nil scrunched up her face and made a fist with her free hand, clearly not happy about all the rolling and pinning.  

Following Bahriye Abla’s instructions, Didem grabbed the bottom of the blanket and folded it upwards, then took the left side and tucked Nil’s other arm down along her side, and then brought the blanket across her body, tucking it under her left side.  And voila!  A snug little bundle.  With her white cap on her tiny head, she reminded me of the Glow Worm I had as a kid - the one that lit up when you squeezed it but was actually not cuddly at all, thanks to the battery pack in its belly.  

“See how calm she is now?” said Bahriye Abla.  “Think about how she was in your womb - all tightly curled up in there, feeling you on every side.  Now she’s out and doesn’t know what to do with all the freedom, with her arms flailing everywhere.  You need to make her feel safe, like she was inside.”

Didem looked up at Bahriye Abla with a half-smile.  “Well, we’ll see if I can do it again when you’re not here every day...”

“You can and you will,” she said reassuringly.  I was enjoying watching the exchange between these two.  It was so unlike so many “my daughter-in-law will never be as good as me at _______ (making lentil soup, washing windows, loving my son) ” scenarios I’ve seen here in Turkey.  The more I got to know her, the more Bahriye Abla was proving to be an unusual treasure.

“Now she’s all set for you to put her to sleep.  Get the pillow.”  Bahriye Abla picked up the little glow worm while Didem got situated on the couch.  She arranged the pillows behind her back (those patterned pillows on that blue-grey L-shaped couch that we - along with both sets of parents - spent a million hours picking out in the furniture store before the wedding two years ago), stretched out her legs and put a little blue flowered pillow just above her feet.  Bahriye Able carefully set Nil down in the crook between Didem’s legs, the pillow cushioning the upper half of her body.  

“Your feet are a little too open - put them together a bit.”  Didem obeyed.  “Okay, now you can rock her.”

I glanced around the living room.  The baby hammock sat in one corner, a little foam anti-reflux incline bed laid across it.  Behind the couch, a musical baby swing was stashed.  But here, with a motion I’ve seen in a hundred living rooms all over Turkey, Didem started rocking her feet back and forth, Nil’s head snug in the pillow, her body swaying gently from side to side.  Village or city, conservative or secular, the foolproof tradition passed down through generations prevailed over modern contraptions, it would seem.

I thought back a few months to the time I was on a plane that sat queued on the tarmac for a good half hour, a young mom in the back trying hopelessly to get her baby boy to stop wailing.  The flight attendants took turns bouncing him up and down the aisle and blankets and toys were passed back from other passengers with kids, but the infant kept screaming.  The mom was amazingly calm, considering her child was the unmutable soundtrack for a whole plane full of people.  I was trying to read, distracted by the baby’s crying, praying for peace for him - and the rest of us - from ten rows up.  

Then all of a sudden, as if someone had flipped the “off” switch, he stopped crying.  Wondering what had finally been the magic trick that calmed him, I turned around in my seat and looked up the aisle.  And laughed in wonder.  There was the mom, sitting on the floor in the back of the plane, rocking her baby on her outstretched legs.  Just like that, no more crying.  Wanting to make sure he was out for good, she began to sing a lullaby, and her voice, like an angel’s, mesmerized the entire plane into a hush.  The flight attendants let her stay down there as we started to taxi, right up until the moment she had to put her seatbelt on for takeoff.  But the Magic Turkish Leg Cradle had done the trick, and we didn’t hear a whimper for the rest of the flight.

Nil wasn’t quite as easily pacified and started to fuss a bit. 

“Remember,” Bahriye Abla whispered, “she has to feel safe.  Put your hand on her belly if she starts to cry - it will calm her down.”  

Didem did as she was told, and within a few minutes, Nil went from fussy to drowsy to conked out.  She slowed her rocking down, letting the baby fall into a deep sleep.  

“Great ab workout, huh?” I said.  

“It really is,” she agreed.  “I’ll lose this baby weight in no time!”

When Nil had been transferred to her hammock, I grabbed my phone and snapped a couple of pictures of her angel face.  

“Just don’t put them on Facebook or anything,” Didem said.  “We’re waiting until her fortieth day.  You know, the evil eye...”

I nodded.  And then stifled a laugh when she asked me to iMessage her the pictures so she could Whatsapp them to her mom, her aunts and her best friend.  Apparently the media ban only applied to those who hadn’t already seen Nil in person.**

The rest of the afternoon passed in a stream of conversation between mother and daughter-in-law about everything from how to use the little snot-sucking gizmo to clean Nil’s stuffy nose to rubbing salt water on her eyes to clean out the goop in the corners to why cotton balls in water are better than baby wipes.  And I marveled as my normally headstrong, independent little sister took in all the wisdom she could, making a few notes on her phone, with a strong peppering of “I’m so glad you live so close” and “I couldn’t do this without you’s” mixed in.

That night at supper, I glanced up and noticed a book on the bookshelf:  “Pregnancy and Motherhood.”  I thought of the neatly gift-wrapped book in my suitcase.

“Hey, did you read that book?” I asked Didem, pointing to the shelf.  

“I read most of it,” she said.  “But it wasn’t super helpful.  You could tell it was a foreign book translated into Turkish, but it didn’t fit with our culture at all. What Turk is going to follow a feeding chart?” 

She had a point.

Once Bülent was home, I pulled a package wrapped in Winnie the Pooh paper out of my suitcase and presented it to my sister and brother-in-law.  

“Winnie the Pooh was my favourite as a kid!” Didem giggled.  “I loved Piglet the most. And sometimes I call Nil ‘Piglet' for fun.”  She held the paper up closer and squinted at it.  “What kind of an animal is Piglet, anyway?”

I told her.  And watched her chocolate-brown Muslim eyes grow wide.  She dissolved into embarrassed laughter as Bülent glared at her in mock disapproval.  

“Shall we?”  She held up the package, changing the subject.

Together they tore into the present.  After the appropriate oohing and aahing over Nil’s personalized onesies, Didem immediately set about snapping a photo collage and posting it on Facebook.

The other present stayed in my suitcase the whole weekend.  

Cousin Filiz came over the next night and, upon declaring that the house felt like a hamam, told the new parents that they should turn the radiators down because, contrary to popular Turkish belief, you really can overheat a baby.  The next hour was spent discussing how she’d gotten little Atakan to finally sleep through the night, and showing Didem how to tear off Nil’s tiny fingernails without having to use the clippers.  The night after that, Aunt Nazlı and her daughter Özlem arrived, cookies and presents in tow, and expounded on the secret to preventing baby acne - washing the baby’s face in her mother’s milk - and listing the things Didem needed to arrange in preparation for Nil’s fortieth day Qu’ran reading.

Now I was even more certain I’d made the right choice about the book.  Turns out, around here, even if you live in a fancy apartment with a doorman and order take-out on the internet and Facetime your best friend to show her how much your daughter has already grown in three weeks, it still takes a village.  Not a bookstore.  Not even Uncle Google.

I was grateful for the D&R gift receipt tucked away in my wallet.  And I bet that mommy book would be right around the same price as the new Orhan Pamuk novel they just translated into English....

**Nil is now two months old and the online photo frenzy is well underway!  Just in case you thought I was breaking the rules... :)