by Aida Zilelian
On warm summer afternoons my aunt Seta would unfold a large, worn bed sheet from the linen closet and throw it over her shoulder. My cousin and I knew to follow her as she slipped on a pair of flip-flops – the same ones she reserved for washing her car – and left our grandparents’ three-story house. They had lived there since the 60’s, for over twenty years, and when the market had improved people sold their houses and moved to a better area of Providence. Except for my grandparents. The neighborhood had shifted from a predominantly white residence to that of an invasion of Cambodian families. Despite the heat, the children were outside most of the time, shirtless and barefoot, like living advertisements for starving third-world countries.
We walked down the block, my cousin and I ignoring the tinny drone of the ice cream truck, because we knew the fun ahead of us.
“Do you think they’re ready yet?” I asked.
“They should be,” my aunt said.
She carried herself more like an older sister with her girlish ponytail and short-shorts. My grandfather always scowled, but said nothing when she came downstairs from her apartment. It was customary and expected that a woman only live apart from her parents once she was married. Although my grandparents never talked about it, my uncle and three aunts had not only married, but had moved out of Rhode Island. I remembered my grandfather saying in jest how he wished he could buy a plot of land and build five houses on it – one for each of his children and their growing families. Since all of my Aunt Seta’s siblings were married, my grandparents persuaded her from moving out by giving her the third floor apartment of their house to live in rent-free.
We passed by the local park, where once children ran around freely, and the swings, which were always occupied, now hung limp and untouched.
My aunt’s gusto on these afternoons far surpassed the dreariness of the streets we had to walk through. There was also the usual array of characters on these afternoons – teenagers and young men, who stood outside of dime stores and eyed my aunt Seta. Mothers with their protruding bellies strolled down the sidewalks, with two or more children trailing behind, seemingly oblivious to the brutal summer heat.
After walking past a long stretch of blocks the streets grew deserted, and we knew the open field was just ahead.
“You want smoke?” A young man leaned against his beat-up convertible bug. The powder blue paint of his Volkswagen looked as if it had been white-washed by a series of bad paint jobs.
My aunt Seta smiled and kept walking. I could tell she knew him, but chose to pretend otherwise.
“Do you know him?” my cousin Siran asked.
“Just his face,” she said. “From the neighborhood.”
“He asked if you wanted a cigarette,” my cousin said.
Although Siran and I were the same age, twelve, I knew better than to believe that a stranger, especially in this neighborhood, was offering something for free.
“I don’t smoke,” my aunt said.
“So why did he ask if you if you wanted one?”
We turned the corner and the vast grassy lot came to full view.
No one must have known about the mulberry tree. Or perhaps people didn’t know mulberries were edible. There were several in my grandparents’ neighborhood. I could tell when we would walk past one because the ground would be covered with dark maroon splats of color. I always looked back, assessing the wastefulness of all the uneaten mulberries, and thinking that someone should have had the sense to gather them instead of letting them fall and get trampled on. We coveted them because like many other things, they were hard to come by where we lived in New York. And the taste of mulberries is unmistakable: mildly sweet without the tartness.
We waded through the knee-deep grass, its coarseness grazing our legs. My knees began to itch from the bugs. Siran and I each took a corner of the bed sheet and my aunt held the other two corners. We covered the ground beneath the tree with the sheet as carefully as possible. It resembled a homely-looking Christmas tree wearing an unimaginative bed skirt.
“Can I climb up with you?” Siran asked.
“No,” my aunt said. “So you can break your arm? Your mom will kill me.”
I didn’t care about climbing the tree. I didn’t trust my dexterity, and I wanted to see the shower of berries fall off and settle into the sheet.
“They look pretty ripe too,” my aunt said. She kicked off her flip-flops and mounted herself against the large tree trunk. With one free arm she grabbed onto the lowest limb and expertly shimmied up until she reached the heart of the tree. A few stray mulberries fell to the ground.
“Ready?” she said.
She balanced herself on one of the sturdier limbs and softly shook the tree branch. Siran and I watched as a small shower of berries fell onto the sheet. Like a drummer picking up momentum, my aunt shook the branches more vigorously until the sound of berries falling sounded like pellets of rain.
I was tempted to run over and start eating, but knew to wait.
“I think that’s about it,” my aunt said. “That’s a lot of berries.”
She was right. Most of the bed sheet was now covered with a lovely carpet of mulberries.
Carefully, Siran and I picked up a corner of the sheet and together with my aunt gently gathered the ends. My aunt brought the corners together, forming a loose sack that she gingerly placed over her shoulder.
This is the way we had done it for years. We would go back to my grandparents’ house and slowly snack on the berries until the only remnants were a few stray pink stains against the white canvas of the bed sheet.
The same young man was still leaning against his car. This time my aunt slowed down and I was able to absorb him in detail. His hair was blond and long and parted in the middle. He had a full beard and wore large Aviator sunglasses. I thought of the painting of Jesus Christ at our church and added a pair of sunglasses to his wholesome face. I giggled.
“No,” my aunt said and stopped in front of him.
“I’m just playing,” he said and grinned, cocking an eyebrow.
My aunt walked over to him, and he dropped his voice when he spoke. Siran and I couldn’t hear them.
“Maybe,” she said to him. “I have to see.”
We started walking back towards my grandparents’ block.
“Is he your boyfriend?” my cousin asked.
I rolled my eyes. We were at an age where any male attention prompted my cousin to perpetually assume a romantic interest. I found it tiresome, and besides, I thought my Aunt Seta was superior to the likes of a man hanging around on a random street.
“No,” she said, “but don’t tell Deh-Deh I spoke to him.”
Deh-Deh was my grandfather. It was how we referred to him in Armenian. My aunt was the youngest of five brothers and sisters, my mother being the third in line, and my cousin Siran’s mother the fourth. They had come to America when Seta was our age, and of all her siblings she had become the most acclimated to life in a new country. Her young twenty-something existence seemed sophisticated in our eyes. She was older, but not old. Commanding, but not bossy.
“What if I told you I was thinking of marrying him?” my aunt said after a moment.
“The guy with the glasses?” I asked. “Why would you marry him?” I thought she was joking or playing a game. In fact, we played a game where the question started with ‘what if’, and the questions were either silly or challenging. Like what if you woke up one day and your hair was permanently blue? Or what if you had to live your entire life knowing you would never fall in love? You had to answer the question as honestly as possible.
“He’s handsome,” she said, “and exciting,” she added.
“I thought he wasn’t your boyfriend,” my cousin Siran said. I was irked that her prediction was true.
I didn’t understand what was so exciting about a guy who seemed to do nothing but lean against his car.
“I won’t let you guys have any of the mulberries if you even mention this when we get back,” she said. Her tone was full of warning.
“I won’t,” I said.
“I won’t either,” said my cousin Siran. I glared at her. I knew better. We had all suffered Siran’s infamous discrepancies. Enough so that we each had our own personal anecdote telling of a time that Siran’s loose tongue had betrayed us. Mine was the marshmallow incident. The story was simple: I had opened a fresh bag of marshmallows one evening when everyone was asleep and had roasted them on an open flame over the stove. We were going on a family picnic the next day, and it had been the last bag at the supermarket. My mother had put it on top of the refrigerator to make sure none of us would find it. Siran had woken up and found me in the kitchen holding one of my grandmother’s long two-tined forks with a marshmallow on the end of it holding it over one of the gas burners.
“Don’t say anything,” I had told her. She had promised me she wouldn’t.
And the next morning as I was washing my face in the bathroom, I overheard my mother asking if anyone had seen the bag of marshmallows.
“Nairi ate them all,” I heard Siran say plainly.
“Aunt Seta has a boyfriend.”
My grandparents, my Aunt Seta and Siran and I were sitting at the dinner table and everyone had just helped themselves to their first serving of food. I sighed. No one would be able to eat fast enough to leave the table.
“What boyfriend?” my Deh-Deh said.
My grandparents were an unusual pair. They defied the stereotype of typical grandparents where one was the stern disciplinarian from the days of their own parenting, and the other soft and indulgent. They seemed more like male and female counterparts of one another – a united force, still imparting their rules and sense of right and wrong as if they were our own parents.
“It’s no one, Baba,” my aunt said and continued eating without pause. “Some guy on the street said hello to us.”
“What street?” my grandfather wanted to know.
“I don’t remember,” my aunt said. “We were on our way to the mulberry tree.”
“Don’t go down that street anymore,” he said.
Upon looking back, I would question my grandfather’s naïve solution. He had watched his block slowly deteriorate, observing the narrow scope of life from his porch, where he sat drinking strong Armenian coffee and smoking Marlboro cigarettes. He had become a relic, a caricature of himself, wearing his plaid shirts and thick bifocals with unfashionable frames reminiscent of the late 1960’s. I knew people referred to him as the “old man on the porch”. Throughout the years we visited Rhode Island, he was the first thing I spotted when we drove up his block. I observed his grim-faced disposition before he noticed we had pulled up in front of his house. His expression wouldn’t waver even after we would get out of the car and open the trunk to unload our suitcases.
When I was older I found out that in an attempt to get my grandparents out of the neighborhood my aunts and uncle had offered to buy them a house in a nicer area. My grandfather had refused. It was difficult enough to deal with the transition of life in America. Another change, even for the better, was foreign to him. It puzzled his children to realize he preferred the predictability of the slum he was living in to the unknown newness of a different existence. And yet, here he was, advising his youngest daughter to avoid a certain street, as if there wouldn’t be another block where someone would say hello to us, as if all those blocks weren’t strung together in sameness.
Without making it obvious, I tried to kick Siran under the table, but kept swatting the air with my leg instead. I think she knew and was keeping her legs tucked under her chair to avoid getting hit. I stared at her, trying to force her to look me in the eye. She kept her eyes on her plate and shoveled food into her mouth.
That evening I heard the soft squeak of the iron gate coming from the back of the house and then footsteps leading to the backdoor. I walked over to the kitchen door and heard someone enter the house. The footsteps continued up the stairs that lead to the third floor. I dared not turn on the hallway light, but knew my way up the winding staircase even in the darkness. When I reached the third floor I stood in front of my aunt’s apartment door and waited for sounds. I could hear a male voice and then my aunt’s. They were sitting in the kitchen and the radio was turned on. I decided to sit on the floor beneath the window in the hallway. Soon a strange sweet smell wafted from her apartment. I could hear them laughing. I wondered what I would say if they found me.
I don’t know how long before it was that I felt someone nudging my shoulder.
“Hey kid,” I heard and looked up.
There was the guy from that afternoon. He was towering over me, still wearing his sunglasses. I looked down at his boots and squinted.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked.
I looked over and saw my aunt standing by the doorway. I was barely able to open my eyes.
“I heard sounds,” I mumbled.
“I’ll see you later,” the man said and went down the stairs.
“What’s his name?” I asked in my half-sleep.
“Chris,” she said. “Come inside. I hope they don’t notice you’re not in your room.”
The kitchen was a mess. The kitchen table had ashtrays filled with cigarettes and there were half-filled glasses on the counter and windowsill.
“So you’re going to marry that guy?” I asked, easing myself into one of the chairs.
“Yes,” my aunt said.
“When?” I asked. I also wanted to know how she thought my Deh-Deh was going to react to this Chris character. My uncle and three aunts had all married Armenians. It was unthinkable that my aunt, or anyone else in our family, would do otherwise.
“Tomorrow night,” she said simply.
“What do you mean?” I asked. A sudden panic awoke me. “Aren’t you going to tell Deh-Deh and Medz-Mama?”
My aunt sighed and sat down next to me. “They’re not going to like him,” she said.
“Because he’s not Armenian?” I asked.
“That and many other things,” she said.
“So you’re just going to leave like that? Are you going to say goodbye? Is he going to live here with you?”
I thought of Deh-Deh. Despite how similar my grandparents were they differed in the way of most old-world couples: my grandfather’s opinions and decisions were absolute and unquestioned. My grandmother went along despite, I’m sure, having her own ideas.
“I’m going to pack my things and go,” she said.
She headed towards her bedroom and motioned for me to follow her. There was a suitcase laid open on her bed and it was already filled with clothes.
“They’re going to be really upset if you just disappear,” I said. I also worried that they would ask me questions. I was scared that inevitably I would have to tell them. It was different than what Siran would do, I reasoned to myself. She blurted out secrets because she didn’t care about keeping them, was too stupid to remember it was a secret, or was just an asshole. I didn’t know who I was supposed to protect.
“Are you going to leave them a note?” I asked.
“I wasn’t planning on it,” she said. She was busy opening and closing her dresser drawers. “Where the fuck is that thing?” she said. It was the first time I had heard her curse.
“Aunt Seta,” I said and pulled her arm to break her concentration. “Why are you doing this? They’re going to be so worried about you. Please don’t make me be the one to tell them,” I said, hoping to stir a bit of fear inside of her.
“Nairi,” she said. “I don’t care what you do. Tell them if you want. But wait until I’m gone.”
She seemed someone other than the person who climbed the mulberry tree and helped us gather fruit every year. She was hostile and cold. A dread crept into my chest.
“What is wrong with you?” I heard myself yell. I felt hot tears slipping down the corners of my eyes as I stood in the middle of her bedroom. “You can’t just leave like that. You can’t just leave and not say anything. Are you crazy?”
She pounded across the room as if she was coming to smack me. “How long am I supposed to live in this goddam house?” she yelled in my face. “They all got married! All of them! And left. I don’t want to marry some stupid Armenian guy. I want Chris! With his blond hair and blue eyes and pale skin. I want to get off this fucking block. I hate it here and there’s no way I can leave,” she said and turned to the wall. Her shoulders shook with every sob. “So if you want to tell them then go ahead,” she cried out. “I don’t give a shit. But I’m leaving either way.”
I left her then.
True to her word, my aunt left the following evening. The next morning, I lay in bed longer than usual, listening to my grandmother coming downstairs to tell my grandfather that Seta was gone.
“Do you know anything about this?” my mother asked.
She had driven from New York when she had heard my aunt had taken off.
“No,” I said. I hoped she wouldn’t question me further. I was scared I would come undone, and wondered if Siran experienced a similar anxiety when someone questioned her.
“Do you know anything?” Siran asked later on that afternoon.
“No,” I said.
“I saw you weren’t in your bed two nights ago,” she said. “Were you with Aunt Seta?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I was watching T.V.” Television was only allowed during certain times of the day. It was unheard of to wake up and help yourself to any show you pleased. “And you can go ahead and tell them if you want,” I said, remembering my aunt’s words to me. “I don’t give a shit,” I said, emphasizing the ‘shhh’ for good measure. I watched with satisfaction as my cousins eyes widened with shock.
No one heard from my aunt that year. As usual, my mother drove me to Providence the following summer. I complained that I would have little to do without my aunt there. The reminder that Siran would be there did not console me.
“That big mouth,” I said. “I can never do anything without everyone knowing about it.”
I saw my mother bite her lip to keep from laughing. “Just don’t mention Aunt Seta in front of Deh-Deh or Medz-Mama.”
When my mother turned the corner to my grandparent’s house I could see my grandfather sitting on the porch. His mug of coffee was resting on the ledge and he was holding a cigarette in his hand.
“Hi Baba,” my mother said.
He said hello with the same stoic face.
My mother stayed for a week. She tried to entertain Siran and I by taking us to the mall one afternoon, to a movie another day and then downtown. We spoke about my aunt, but made sure not to say anything in front of our grandparents.
“I wonder where she went,” my mother said. We were driving home from another outing. “I never told you this, but Aunt Seta used to run off once in a while when she was younger.”
“Where would she go?” Siran asked.
My mother sighed. “The movies, to the library, the deli around the corner – what difference did it make? She just wanted to be out of the house.”
I wanted to say something about my aunt getting married and her boyfriend Chris. I waited for the words to come, but they didn’t.
Since my mother was leaving the next day, my grandmother had made a special lunch for us that afternoon. The doorbell rang and my mother got up to answer it. A moment later she came back.
“Why don’t we go find that mulberry tree?” she said. She had a queer look on her face. She looked at my grandparents and gave a nod towards the living room.
“But we’re eating,” Siran said.
I could only guess that my aunt was sitting out there.
“Let’s go,” I said and stood up.
“We don’t even have the bed sheet!” my cousin complained as we left the house through the back door.
“We’ll just pick them and eat them,” my mother said.
We walked through countless blocks. I was starting to realize that my mother had no clue how to find the mulberry tree.
“I don’t know where it is,” she said finally and stopped walking. “Do either of you know how to get there?”
“I guess we can go back,” she said.
I knew it had been a ruse to get us out of the house and that my mother had probably only heard about the mulberry tree from one of us.
Dusk had cooled the hot wind to a lovely soft breeze. The sky was darkening as the sun set and made even my grandfather’s shabby block look beautiful beneath the purple sky.
The house was eerily quiet when we walked in. Usually the television was on. My grandmother was sitting on the couch with her crochet needles and stitch work on her lap.
“Where is Baba?” my mother asked.
“In his bedroom,” my grandmother said.
“She left,” my mother concluded.
“Yes,” was all my grandmother said.
“Go to the backyard you two,” my mother directed my cousin and I. “Keep yourselves busy,” she said and walked down the hallway to my grandfather’s bedroom.
I felt exiled. Siran was bored and immediately started annoying me with a very pathetic string of questions when I conceded to playing the ‘what if’ game.
“What if I go inside for ten minutes while you stay out here and keep your mouth shut?” I said. “Medz-Mama is going to make us pull weeds in the garden. Go do that and I’ll be right there. My stomach hurts,” I lied, putting my hand over my belly, “and I need to go to the bathroom.”
The hallway leading to Deh-Deh’s bedroom was dark and quiet. From a distance I could hear my mother’s low voice. When I reached the room the door was only open a sliver and I stood outside to listen.
“I’m sorry Baba,” I heard my mother say. “This is how Seta is,” she said.
I heard strange sounds, like someone was being strangled or choked. And then after a moment my mother spoke again. “She’ll come back,” she said. “It won’t be the last time you see her.”
Hoping the door didn’t creak, I pushed it open a touch and peeped through. Deh-Deh was sitting on the edge of his bed looking out the window. The room was dark, but the faint light coming from the window shined on his face. Without his glasses he looked unlike himself. I realized then what the strangling sound was – it was my Deh-Deh crying. He rock gently back and forth and stared out the window. As if he was trying to contain them, his sobs came in sharp bursts, wrenching free from his insides. My mother sat next to him with her hand on his back. I closed the door and turned away.
“I saw you peeking in Deh-Deh’s room,” Siran said matter-of-factly when I went back outside. She was busy drawing pictures on the pavement with pink chalk. I sat on the ground and waited for the tightness in my throat to subside.
After that evening the mystery of my Aunt Seta’s whereabouts finally surfaced. She had, in fact, married Chris and they had been living not too far away from my grandparent’s house. He was a drug dealer and had been physically abusive. When my aunt had returned that afternoon it was because she was pregnant and had decided to leave him. But my grandfather had turned her away and told her to go home to her husband where she belonged. It wasn’t long after that when we found out that she had taken a bad fall and lost the baby, most likely her husband’s doing.
Again, I was perplexed at how my grandfather had cast her off. I asked my mother how he could have turned her away the way he did.
“It takes a strong person to do that,” she said. “You can’t understand it now and you may not when you’re older. But Deh-Deh did the right thing. When you make choices in life you have to learn to live with them.”
For the first time I played the ‘what if’ game by myself. What if I had gone to Deh-Deh and Medz-Mama that night and told them about my aunt’s plans? What if I had, at the very least, told them after she had left? Or what if I had told my mother when I had gone back to New York?
In the end, my mother was right. It was not the last time any of us saw my aunt. Months later she returned to my grandparents’ house. She had divorced her husband and asked if she could move back to her old apartment. After much convincing from my grandmother, Deh-Deh conceded. I don’t remember much about my aunt after that summer. I stopped going to Rhode Island for my yearly visits. My aunt married shortly after to another American similar in looks to her first husband. His name was David.
On family holidays when we visited Rhode Island she would bring her new husband, who would sit with us but not say much. Sometimes I would look across the table and watch her sitting next to him. She no longer had the same girlish charm. Now she seemed like my other aunts, an adult, detached and self-involved.
I forgot about the mulberry tree. I only thought of it when I walked through Manhattan and saw the ground covered in crushed mulberries. I pictured my aunt sitting in the heart of the tree grabbing a limb with each hand and shaking, shaking until everything that could, had fallen.