SHE ALWAYS SET OUT AFTER SUNSET, shrouded in the same floor-length flower-print veil she usually kept folded away in the guest room for her daily prayers. Four feet, eight inches tall, swaths of fabric trailing behind her, my Iranian maternal grandmother disappeared easily into the packs of costumed children. Before ringing each doorbell, she would draw the veil around her face, leaving only a small opening for her nose. From under many folds of fabric, she'd croak "treeeek-treeeek" -- her best approximation of "trick-or-treat" -- and present her plastic bag to the unsuspecting host.

When I was younger, we used to hit the streets together on Halloween. I'd go dressed in the Persian princess costumes she sewed for me, and she'd wear her flower-print veil. But by age 12, I'd dismissed trick-or-treating as child's play and would have been mortified to be caught out with my veiled grandmother on Halloween night. From then on, she went trick-or-treating by herself.

Over the years, she grew savvier, enlisting my mother to drive her to neighborhoods far beyond our own. While I stayed home, sprawled on the couch watching whatever horror flick happened to be on TV, my mother, long resigned to indulging this yearly foray, would trail my grandmother in our yellow Cadillac convertible as she made her Halloween rounds.

For my grandmother, whom I called Aziz (Persian for "dear one"), America was a very small place, much smaller than Iran. She didn't speak English; she didn't know how to drive; and she didn't know anyone here whom she could call on the phone. She spent her days alone in the house, cooking and puttering, arranging and rearranging the contents of her suitcase, and, for her sole pleasure, watching the perfectly coiffed heroines of "Days of Our Lives" -- despite her inability to understand what they were saying -- until I came home in the afternoon.

But once a year on Halloween, Aziz stepped out of the house to prowl the streets and reenact the games she had played with her eight siblings in the alleyways near her childhood home in Tehran. When she was a girl, she and the neighborhood children performed the Persian New Year ritual of pulling sheets over their heads and knocking on their neighbors' doors with wooden spoons, while carrying pots to hold the treats they were given. She'd been a child when the Allies invaded Iran in the early 194os. Though food was scarce then, children knew they could count on treats for the New Year -- a date, a tiny lump of crystallized sugar, some raisins. Halloween reminded my grandmother of those games -- and of that generosity. Better still, on Halloween, Americans, around whom she was always shy and more than a little frightened, would suddenly become unwitting playmates in her game.

At the end of the night, I might duck into her room to say goodnight and find her spreading out the evening's plunder on her bed, inspecting each piece of candy with her reading glasses balanced on the tip of her nose. She laughed as she recounted the details of her trick-or-treating to me. She could easily be cajoled into sharing a miniature Baby Ruth or Almond Joy, and we'd sit side by side on the bed chewing candy until my mother appeared in the doorway to summon me to bed. By the next day, the rest of the candy had disappeared into the recesses of Aziz's suitcase.

MY PARENTS AND I LEFT IRAN IN 1979. One by one, my relatives also left for Europe or the States, but my grandmother stayed on. My grandfather had died, and my grandmother ran a beauty shop in Tehran -- the Lady Diola -- and lived in a small apartment behind the salon. She loved the Lady Diola, and she loved the streets and squares and alleys of the city. Even during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when bombs and air raids rattled the city for weeks on end, she refused to leave Iran permanently. The only reason she ever left at all was to visit us in America.

After we came to the United States, my parents bought a 20-room motel off a highway in Northern California. They worked in shifts, my father at night and my mother during the day. I spent most afternoons and weekends at the motel, but when Aziz came to visit, she walked me to school and then back home every day. She cooked me stews and saffron rice and told me Persian fairy tales.

Each time she visited, my grandmother brought the same weathered leather suitcase smelling of mothballs and another scent that I could never place but that for me was the essence of the afternoons I had once spent with her at the Lady Diola. The suitcase was stuffed full with ruffled silk blouses, knockoff Chanel suits and pantyhose mended many times over at each toe. As soon she got to the house, she would unpack a sweater, two or three prim little house frocks and a pair of rubber house slippers. Her fancier outfits would appear only on nights when my parents' friends came to dinner, otherwise spending the rest of their stay in America in the same suitcase in which they had arrived.

During the course of the visits, this suitcase would inexplicably expand to accommodate not only several more piles of girdles, sequined party dresses and coats with matted synthetic fur collars, but also huge stashes of toothpaste, razors, dish soap, shampoo and every department store makeup sample she managed to fish out from the cabinet under my mother's bathroom sink. These were the years of the Iran-Iraq war, and such items would have been hard to come by for most Iranians. For my grandmother, they made up a treasure trove. Her Halloween candy would take its place among the toiletries, clothes and everything else she hoarded for her return to Iran.

After a few months here, Aziz's suitcase would grow so fat that she and my mom would often spend the day of her departure taking turns sitting on it in an effort to force it shut. The Ritual of the Suitcase could go on for hours, and it became my mother and grandmother's way of arguing about my grandmother's insistence on returning to Iran.

"Why are you dragging all this back again?" my mother typically would start, bearing down on one corner of the suitcase while snatching vainly at its clasps. "I just don't understand you. There's nothing left back there, don't you see? What kind of home can you have there when your children have left?"

"You don't know anything about it," Aziz would reply.

"And what are you going to do when you get really old? And what am I supposed to do then?"

My grandmother was a quiet woman, always quick to head off an argument and guide others into uneasy reconciliation because it made her so anxious to have people around her argue. But at these moments, my mother could easily work her into a quivering rage. Aziz would draw herself up, placing her hands on her hips, and a sudden fierceness would streak through her honey-colored eyes. "What did I do all through the Revolution?" she would demand. "What did I do through the war?"

To this my mother usually had little to say. My grandmother had stayed in Iran long after we had left, had lived through what my parents and so many had fled. Without a husband or children to support her, she had remained in the country longer than anyone -- especially my mother -- would have imagined possible, much less desirable.

But my mother never gave up trying to make her stay, and my grandmother never gave up leaving. She couldn't accept the idea of learning to blend in, letting herself disappear into America the way the rest of us had. They argued on and on. Sometimes their quarrel reached such a pitch that they spent the entire ride to the airport bickering and, in the most serious instances, swearing they would not even say goodbye to each other.

When the time came to check her suitcase, Aziz always had a tactic for evading the exorbitant fees charged by the airline for heavy luggage. If the attendant was a man, she would bat her eyelashes and smile a schoolgirl's smile. If it was a woman, she'd shrink herself into the pitiful posture of an invalid. She was difficult to resist in either case, and her record in evading the fees was nearly flawless. But one year, she and my mother arrived at the airport after a particularly tempestuous exchange. My grandmother hauled her suitcase onto the scale by herself and then looked up hopefully at the young male attendant.

"Thirty pounds over," he said, shaking his head and frowning.

"What did he say?" she asked me.

"He says the suitcase is too heavy," I translated. Even I could tell this man would not be won over by her usual strategy.

"I'm not paying it," said my mother. "I've had it with that suitcase and all the junk you keep dragging around."

Aziz reached into the depths of her scuffed handbag and pulled out two immaculately crisp $100 bills to pay the excess baggage fee. This would have been enough money to buy half a year's groceries back in Iran. Nothing in her suitcase was worth that much, but she slid the bills onto the counter without flinching.

That was one of the years my mother and grandmother did not say goodbye to each other. I watched them both for signs of a last-minute reconciliation, but none came. Then I launched into my usual refrain.

"Please take me with you," I wailed in the last minutes before she disappeared behind the gate. I clutched at Aziz's skirts and told her she could just take me with her in her suitcase, and no one would ever know.

By then Iran meant little more to me than memories of the Lady Diola, but after several months of her constant company, I would have eagerly gone back with her. Eventually, though, my pleas became a joke between us. "I'd tuck you into my suitcase, but see how you've grown!" she'd usually exclaim. Then, pinching my sides, she'd add, "Now that I've finally decided to put you in there, you will never fit!"

Years later, we would hear of an Iranian man who had done just this to smuggle his fiancee into the United States. He had taken the precaution of punching small holes through the fabric of his suitcase, but when he opened the suitcase in America, his fiancee was dead. We were not entirely sure of the story's truth, but, even so, from then on we no longer told our old joke. It was not long afterward that my grandmother's health began to fail, and the 24-hour trek to America became too much for her. Her visits stopped altogether.
FOR A LONG TIME NOW, I HAVE IMAGINED those Halloween candies nestled deep in the cupboards of Aziz's kitchen in Tehran, waiting to be doled out in tiny increments to her grand-nieces and the neighbors' children. On occasion, her candy made round-trip voyages between Iran and America, changing planes with her both ways in Frankfurt or Amsterdam and sometimes even touching ground in Istanbul or Dubai. Some years, she would arrive months after Halloween, having missed her opportunity to gather a fresh supply of candy. We'd be sitting together in the back seat of the car on one of our summer road trips to visit relatives in Los Angeles, and she would nudge me gently and hold out a faded and softly wrinkled packet of M&Ms that she'd managed to save from her last Halloween outing. From America to Iran and back, and all the worse for the wear.

My grandmother died this year in Tehran. It had been 10 years since I last saw her. I'd always intended to visit her in Iran, but somehow I never made it back.
Every year at Halloween, I still see her winding her way through the streets in her flower-print veil. She might have looked a little strange there among the ballerinas and superheroes, pumpkins and ghouls, but that was the beauty of my grandmother's secret. She wasn't wearing a costume at all.

The Washington Post




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