Surviving Childhood: How My Doll and I Made It
Venezia, my Italian-made doll and lovey since age four, has been through the ringer. When I showed her to my own daughter, she grimaced at the sight of her short, ragged hair and dented limbs. “Maybe we should try giving her a bath. She just needs some conditioner,” I said. I held her close and smelled the familiar musty scent of mothballs. Venezia was a survivor.
In 1980, my mother, brother, and I fled the Islamic Revolution to meet my father, who had left six months earlier to secure employment in the United States, my birthplace. The morning of our flight out of Iran, we packed my uncle’s car with one suitcase and a small duffel bag between the three of us. We drove to Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport and prepared to leave my parents’ homeland forever. I was allowed only one toy on the journey and I chose Venezia as my companion.
Mother, her auburn hair covered in a teal and periwinkle paisley-patterned headscarf, gripped our hands tightly as we made our way through the crowd at the airport. We walked toward the checkpoint when a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, a branch of the Iranian military, stood in front of us.
He knelt down in front Venezia and me, examining our wrists and earlobes. “What is this?” he shouted. He held my gold necklace in his giant palm and yanked the chain off my neck in one tug. “No, foolish child! You may not take Iran’s gold with you!” he yelled. “This gold belongs to Iran! Not to you!”
I reached for my bare neck and screamed. A group of elder mullahs looked over in disbelief.
“What are you doing, Brother? She is just a child,” one of them said.
I hid my neck from the mullahs who stared at me, trembling and inconsolable in my mother’s arms, Venezia suffocating between us.
The Third World fluorescent lights in the airport flickered off and on above us. Our mother grabbed my brother and me by the elbows and led us away from the peering mullahs. But another Guard stopped us moments later and demanded to search our mother’s purse. “Give it to me!” he said. He took out the credit cards from her wallet, two thousand dollars in cash (meant to house and feed us while in Belgium en route to the United States), and even the loose change in her coin purse. He had stripped us of everything.
We boarded the flight to Belgium, the only country to accept us. The Swiss embassy in Brussels had granted us permission to enter briefly en route to America because my brother and I were citizens of the United States. Once seated on the plane, our mother commiserated with the passenger sitting next to her.
“They gave us a hard time,” the old woman sitting next to Mother said, tucking stray strands of henna dyed hair under her chador.
“They are animals,” Mother whisper-shouted. “He tore my daughter’s necklace right off her neck!”
She covered my ears while she spoke to her newfound friend.
The old woman’s son leaned in.
“Maman,” he said. “Here is the name of the woman to whom I gave our money and jewels. She promised to call Papa tonight so he can get them from her. I hope we can trust her. It’s everything we have and we were lucky to find someone to hand it off to before the Guards took it from us,” he said.
The old woman put on her reading glasses and read the name aloud on the small slip of paper. It was the name of my mother’s sister.
Mother assured the woman and her son that their valuables were safe in her sister’s possession and the woman’s gratitude toward our family provided us with exactly what we needed – an all-expense stay at her daughter’s home in Brussels. My brother and I fell asleep to the sound of our mother’s heartbeat.
The next thing I remember, I am lying on an unfamiliar linoleum floor, holding Venezia close to my face; all of us are sprawled out on the floor with a pile of blankets and pillows. Mother’s face had drained of its color.
In the darkness, I heard the faint cry of a familiar doll. Venezia, who was attached to my hip, lay silent. I gazed around the dark apartment, puzzled. “Maman,” I whispered. “Where are we? Whose doll is crying?” “Don’t be afraid, daughter. We are safe now in Belgium,” she said, yawning. “There is a little girl around your age who lives here and she has an Italian doll just like your Venezia. You will meet her in the morning.” She closed her eyes and fell instantly asleep.
I listened intently to the sound of the mysterious doll’s cries. Suddenly, the doll’s melodic sobs turned into laughter. UNBELIEVABLE. I imagined a young blonde girl fumbling with her doll. How was she able to prompt hers to cry AND laugh? The back-and-forth continued until I could no longer bear my own jealousy. “Maman! Venezia only cries!” I snapped. “It’s not fair!” Mother slept motionless, oblivious to my plight.
Angry, I grabbed Venezia by the feet and flipped her over. I removed the disc in the recording compartment at the base of her spine, flipped it to Side B and attempted to activate a non-existent laughter. Flip, flip, flip. Nothing. Venezia took her last breath in Brussels that night. I had broken her forever. I soothed us both under the covers, somewhere between Asia and America.
When I look at her now, I feel great remorse. She’s battered and run-down beyond repair – the bath could not resurrect any shine in her lifeless mop of hair. And I would do just about anything to hear her cry again.
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