Tehran, Iran — January 1979
In the evening, Vida turned the key to lock
the door to her home, not knowing when, or
if, she would return. She examined her
oversized leather wallet, checking to make
sure the maroon passports, green cards and
traveler’s checks were all in the right places.
Roya, her ten-year-old daughter, sat in the
backseat of the taxi bundled up in her purple
winter coat, earmuffs and wool gloves. The
night before, Vida had told her they would
leave Iran for a short period of time to join
her fourteen-year-old son who was going to
boarding school in Germany. Roya had cried
and said she would miss her school friends.
Now, the little girl cradled the soft, mustard
yellow Samsonite carry-on as if she were
holding on to the Mrs. Beasley doll she had
given away the year before. The bag had
belonged to Vida’s late husband. Settling into
the car, Vida scooped up the bottom of her
camel-colored coat. Two pieces of luggage
were already stashed in the trunk.
“Go ahead,” she told the driver.
He drove fast through the Tehran streets
toward Kennedy Square to Maman’s house.
Although Vida often left her children with her
mother, she avoided spending time there—
too many old wounds. But on this last night
she had no choice. Her mother’s apartment
was closest to the airport—easy access for an
early morning flight.
The noise of the city was dying down as the
sky darkened. The curfew was about to drape
over the city like the black veil women wore
at burials. People hurried back to their
homes. When the night curfew began, the
number of soldiers on the city streets would
increase. They hunted down violators, but
strangely, didn’t know what to do with them.
During the drive, Vida did not notice the
soldiers on the road. She gazed out the
window, staring at her reflection, wondering
how long she would be out of the country.
Would she leave both her children in boarding
school and come back to her job in Iran?
Roya was too young to be left there. Would
she fly them to New York to stay with her
friend? But New York was too far away.
Would she just leave her entire life behind,
the one she had built as a single mother over
the last eight years, and not come back at all?
In November and December, civil unrest had
metastasized throughout Tehran. Bomb
threats became regular sport for anti-
government protesters. There were anti-
Shah demonstrations, anti-America
demonstrations, and demonstrations just to
demonstrate. Graffiti spread across walls like
vines, words like “Death to the Shah…Down
with Carter…Death to America.” Oil refineries
went on strike to show discontent with
government policies. The airport was shut
down once, and Vida heard it could happen
again. Local banks considered disallowing the
transfer of funds to foreign banks. She
worried that if all that happened she would
be stuck in Iran with her son in Germany.
The taxi driver pulled up in front of Maman’s
apartment. It was close to 8 p.m., and the
curfew was about to begin. Maman ran out
wrapped in a long, brown, cardigan sweater
with a silk scarf around her neck. The older
woman was petite like her granddaughter.
“You’re late,” she whispered to Vida,
nervously glancing up and down the street.
“We have to get out of the street. Come on,
hurry up.” She grabbed at one of the
suitcases the driver was unloading.
“Maman, calm down,” Vida barked. “They’re
not after us.”
The older woman’s glare toward Vida
lingered, her eyes shrinking. She turned to
Roya. “What’s taking you so long? Come on.
Get in the house.”
Vida clenched her fists but didn’t say
anything. She didn’t like Maman yelling at
her daughter, bossing her around. It
reminded her of when she was little and
Maman would reprimand her on those few
weekend days she took Vida for a stroll in the
marketplace. Maman had no right to parent
Vida then. And what right did she have now
to raise her voice at Roya? And yet, Vida
knew better than to argue out in the street
during a time like this.
The three hurried up to the second floor
apartment, dragging the luggage behind
them. Vida lined up the bags outside the front
“Just leave them there,” Maman said. “You’re
taking off in a few hours.”
“I am leaving them,” Vida protested. “I want
to make sure they’re out of the way.” She
maneuvered each piece so that the corners of
the luggage touched and were perfectly even.
The electricity went out just when Maman
pulled open the sliding glass door to the
apartment. The power had been going out
every night when the curfew began, the
government’s way of controlling the masses.
Maman took a matchbox out of her cardigan
pocket. She bunched up the loose part of her
sweater in one hand to keep it out of the
way, and then slowly walked around the
house, lighting tens of candles.
When she was done the apartment
resembled a shrine. There was such a glow
Vida barely noticed the electricity had gone
out. Why didn’t she think to use more candles
in her own apartment during the recent
Vida hung her coat in the hall closet, hurried
to the wall-mounted phone in the kitchen to
call her son one last time before departing
the next morning. “Hi…yes...flight
928…leaves at 8 a.m.…okay…see you then.”
“Is everything alright?” Maman asked,
placing plates and utensils on the round
kitchen table for the early breakfast the next
Vida did not respond.
Maman continued setting the table and
glanced up at Vida. “How are his grades?”
“He’s fine,” Vida said in a loud, angry tone.
Maman had three glass mugs in her hand,
and as she was setting them on the table one
slipped and crashed onto the floor.
“Ey vay,” Vida said. Startled, she bent down
and started to gather the pieces.
“Go out, out. I’ll clean it up.” Maman shooed
Vida out of the kitchen.
“Maman. I can help.” Vida felt guilty for
having raised her voice. She stood with a
broken piece of glass between her fingers.
Maman gathered the straw brush and
dustpan leaning on the side of the
refrigerator to sweep up the smallest bits of
shattered glass. “Just leave it,” she
mumbled. “Last thing I need is for you to cut
“Why are you always telling me what to do?”
Vida yelled. She flung the piece of glass to
Maman took a deep breath, hurled the
dustpan down and walked out of the kitchen.
Just then Roya walked in.
“Roya Joon, there’s broken glass,” said Vida.
“Go to the other room please.”
“But Mom, I’m hungry,” the ten-year old
“You’ll have to wait.” Vida gritted her teeth.
She swept until the fragments were all gone.
Maman marched back to the kitchen. She
tried to make eye contact with her daughter,
but Vida intentionally looked the other way.
The tension between them was high like it
was between the demonstrators and the
military in the streets, like it had been after
Maman divorced Vida’s father and left the
house, and the young Vida was forced to lean
on her stepmother—a time when Vida had
been ashamed to call Maman a mother.
In the kitchen the three of them stood. Three
generations of women. The two older ones
filled with years of pent-up frustration, the
youngest one, probably feeling the tension,
not old enough to comprehend the
complexities of a mother-daughter
Maman poured Roya a half glass of chocolate
milk and filled the rest with white milk. The
little girl inserted a straw into the glass and
drank looking down, watching the milk
disappear. Maman and Vida sat on the edges
of their seats, leaning on their chins,
watching the girl.
When Roya was done Maman took the glass,
filled it with some tap water and placed it in
the sink. She kissed her granddaughter on
the cheek. “Go on, go to sleep. You have an
early morning tomorrow.” She patted the
little girl on the back.
Vida and Roya shuffled toward the
guestroom, Maman behind them.
“I put two extra blankets in the corner in
case it gets really cold,” Maman announced.
Vida stood in the doorway to the guestroom.
“The driver will be back at 6:00 am. That
should give us plenty of time to get to the
airport for the flight.”
“Okay,” Maman said.
Vida was about to shut the bedroom door
when Maman put her hand out to stop her.
“Vida, come in the living room for a minute.”
“What is it?” Vida said, not wanting to come
out of the bedroom.
“I need to talk to you.”
“Oh okay…just a minute. Roya, get in bed.
I’ll be right back.”
Maman sat on the edge of the couch, her
hands on her knees.
Vida stood looking down at her mother. “You
have the keys to the apartment. And I gave
you the phone numbers for the school in
Munich and for New York.”
“Yes.” Maman nodded, bunching the cardigan
between her fingers.
“And the plants, you’ll water them once a
Gazing up at nothing in particular, Vida said,
“And you have the bank account information?”
“Didn’t we discuss all of this over the phone
last week?” Maman said impatiently.
“Then what is it?” Vida whispered settling
onto the couch.
Maman looked down at her interlaced
fingers. “I know you’re angry with me.”
Vida looked at her mother, not knowing what
to say. She crossed her arms. “I am not.”
“I know you’ve been upset for a long time. I
don’t blame you.”
They had never had this kind of conversation.
“I have a lot on my mind,” Vida said. “I
shouldn’t have lost my temper earlier.” She
crossed her arms. It wasn’t the right time to
get into this; it never had been.
“I don’t mean now. I mean…” Maman was
choking on her words. “I left you when I
divorced your father. I was a lot younger
then than you are now. Maybe it wasn’t the
right thing for me to leave him. But I couldn’t
live with him anymore—an old-fashioned
man twenty-five years my senior. Iran was
different then. A divorced mother had no
legal rights to her children. You know that. If
I could have I would have taken you with
Vida continued staring at her mother,
wondering why she was revealing all of this
now. She felt a lump form in her throat.
“Look, we don’t have to get into this. I just
wanted to say…Whatever you do, don’t leave
the kids. If you have to stay with them do it.
It’s just not worth coming back. They need
you. Don’t make my mistake.” Maman
bowed her head down.
Vida scanned the living room. Now she
couldn’t make eye contact with her mother.
She fixed her eyes on the ornate coffee table
with the small antique dishes, one of them
filled with pink and white candy-coated
almonds. When Vida was little, after the
divorce, her stepmother would push her tiny
hands away from the candy dish in their
living room, telling the little girl it was for the
mehmoon, guests who could arrive
unannounced. Now Vida reached for the
candy dish and lifted one of the white ones.
She rolled it between her thumb and her
index finger. Then she placed the almond on
the edge of the table, watching it wobble until
it stopped moving. She nodded at her mother
and headed toward the guestroom.
Vida turned around. She noticed a black and
white photo of herself and Maman on the side
table. She was wearing a furry winter coat
and holding Maman’s hand. Her head reached
her mother’s elbow.
“I’m sorry I didn’t stay with you,” Maman
said, tearfully gazing into her daughter’s eyes.
“I understand,” Vida said, hesitating to end
Vida couldn’t sleep that night. She kept
running through her mental checklist—what
she had packed, what she may have
forgotten. She replayed the conversation
with Maman in her head. All she really
needed were the passports, the green cards
in case they ended up in the US, and the
At 5:00 a.m. Maman knocked on the
bedroom door and softly opened it. The scent
of Darjeeling tea with a hint of cardamom
snuck into the room. It had been hovering
over the breakfast table above warm barbari
bread, butter, bulgur cheese and homemade
albaloo, sour cherry jam.
Vida nervously folded the pajamas, making
the beds. She put her liquid eye makeup
remover into a small plastic bag and tied the
ends in a knot. Through the doorway she
could see her mother and Roya. Her
daughter methodically cut bread and
smothered it with butter, topping it off with
drops of Maman’s albaloo jam, the little girl’s
favorite. Maman stared at the floor, sipping
her tea with the traditional chunk of sugar
cube in the corner of her mouth.
Few words were exchanged.
At 6:00 a.m. the driver arrived. He rushed
upstairs and leaned into the entryway of the
apartment to announce his arrival. Maman
stood by the glass door.
“Hurry up,” she yelled into the apartment.
The driver took the luggage downstairs and
the others followed. In front of the building
Vida and Roya stood on the front doorsteps,
bundled up in their coats. It was still dark,
the air felt crisp and cool. The driver
slammed the trunk. No turning back now,
Maman was right behind her. After an
awkward second, and without looking her
mother in the eyes, Vida reached for her and
they hugged tightly. Tears streamed down
their faces. At first, not a peep, but as they
held each other tightly they both began to
whimper into a crescendo. This wasn’t the
kind of hug Vida gave her mother at the end
of a relative’s dinner party, or after Roya
blew out the candles on a birthday cake. This
was the kind of hug that rose to the surface
after years and years of built up emotion.
Vida whispered in her mother’s ear. “I’m not
going to leave them. Don’t worry.”
Maman nodded and the two backed away as
they wiped their tears.
The older woman reached for her grand-
daughter. “Take care of Mommy.” Her voice
cracked as she cradled Roya’s face in her
Vida and Roya got into the backseat of the
“Go ahead,” Vida told the driver.
Katy Motiey is a corporate attorney in the San Francisco
Bay Area. She was born in Iran and immigrated to the U.S.
with her mother and brother at the end of 1978. "Broken
Glass" is a chapter in her true-life novel, Imperfect.