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Christmas Eve 1980 my mother sat on the brick steps of her low-income apartment complex wrapped in a coat. The buzzing porch light kept watch above her scarfed head. She sipped a Bloody Mary from a pint glass she’d swiped from the bar she tended. My mother knew she shouldn’t be drinking a Bloody Mary. She’d known for a week that she had to quit. She’d known since that cold day in Dr. Johnson’s office when he confirmed that she didn’t have the flu. Instead, she was pregnant at an “advanced maternal age” with her fourth child. My mother knew she shouldn’t be drinking a Bloody Mary, but she was cold and tired. She was tired of that year, of that apartment, that buzzing light. She was tired of being afraid, tired of trying to make the ends meet, tired of the loneliness. So my mother sipped her Bloody Mary, and she prayed. She prayed under that porchlight for 417 seconds. She prayed with many Americans that night, sitting under different porch lights. My mother and her country sat vigil for the 52 American diplomats taken hostage by Ayatollah 417 days before. They prayed for the men and women in captivity. They prayed for resilience, they prayed for President Jimmy Carter, and for President-Elect Ronald Reagan. For 417 seconds my mother sipped her Bloody Mary on her small, brick porch, comforted by the fact that she was no longer alone.
Robert Ode, one of the American diplomats held captive from November 1979 to January 1981, kept a detailed diary of life in captivity. The diary sits in a protected case at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. I’ve never seen it, but I have read it. In his diary, Ode’s emotions change from day to day, his optimism soars when he receives letters from his wife then plummets when he’s had a bout of food poisoning. Back up again when he’s told negotiations are underway, down when resolutions are denied. I’ve wondered for years now how it would feel to be cut off from the world, scared for your life, betrayed by the country you love.
Ode’s Christmas Eve 1980 entry says he attended a “religious service conducted by the Catholic Archbishop of Tehran…” He noted there was a tree, unlike the previous year. A tree, some sweet treats, and a few gifts for each of them. He mentioned the presence of the Algerian Ambassador to Iran and several cameramen. Ode thought it was a good evening. Maybe it was the gifts, maybe it was the sweets, but the last line of Ode’s entry simply says, “Surely hope something good will happen this time!”
My father was not sitting on his porch on Christmas Eve 1980. My father was at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the same as every Christmas Eve and Easter morning, year after year, without fail. He was seated in a wooden pew, having genuflected before moving to the end of a polished row, making room for his wife and their children in patent leather, crushed red-velvet, matching suits and ties. My father wouldn’t know there was a vigil, until the candles were lit, until the priest called for 417 seconds of silence, in which my father sat, head bowed, surrounded by his family, friends, and neighbors. And prayed.
Days later my father learned of the existence of his last child when he answered his home telephone, secretly snaked the long cord into a quiet hall closet, and heard my mother’s urgent voice on the other end of the line.
“I’m pregnant, and it’s yours,” my mother said, emotionless, waiting.
“It isn’t,” my father said.
“It is,” my mother assured.
“Don’t call me again,” my father said, hastily walking out of the closet.
My mother sat motionless on her plaid couch, the dial tone ringing in her ear, remembering the night my father promised to divorce his wife, leave his family, marry her instead. The night my father told my mother that he loved her, and only her.
Ode’s last diary entry is a summary of the final days of his captivity. He was interviewed by a young woman in a black chador who’d spent her childhood in Philadelphia learning English. Years later she came back to Iran, with the American name Mary, and become a well-known news anchor on an anti-American propaganda show. Mary’s show was known for its closing statement, Marg bar Āmrikā, Farsi for Death to America. Mary asked Ode a series of questions, and Ode replied with a simple yes or no, until Mary asked Ode if he felt there was justification in his captivity.
“No,” Ode replied. “There was absolutely no justification.”
Mary’s eyes widened.
“There never was,” Ode finished.
Mary then looked directly at the camera and cried out in English, “The interview is over!”
On January 20, 1981, my mother sat on the edge of her plaid couch, a tape recorder on the coffee table in front of her, the television blaring a news broadcast. She put a yellow and orange cassette tape in and she hit record. Years later, I’d sit behind that same plaid couch, that same recorder resting on my belly, and I’d listen ad nauseum to the recording that my mother made eight months before I was born. I’d listen, as I laid on my back, feet kicked up against the wall, my chubby, preschool hands working the buttons. Play. Stop. Rewind. I listened as the Iranian hostages were released from the tyrannical control of the Ayatollah, between spurts of my sister crying for strawberry ice cream and my mom telling her to be quiet.
I don’t know why, as a child, I was comforted by listening to that recording. I don’t know why my mother felt compelled to record that moment at all. The moment when Ode and the others embraced President Jimmy Carter on the safety of a West German tarmac. Maybe many Americans recorded that event. Gathered around their television screens, waiting for the release, feeling it their patriotic duty to listen, record. I can’t be sure. I don’t know that country. That world. That mother.
I do recognize the emotions, though. I know the feeling of waiting for an answer that will never come, the anticipation, rejection, release. I recognize the notion that what’s happening right now, in the present, is so important we feel called to record it, write it down, etch it into our collective memory for future generations to dust off and listen, chubby fingers sliding between Play and Rewind, while the voices of those now gone, cry out to be heard.
Melissa’s work has appeared in Mud Season Review, Lunch Ticket, Welter, and the anthology Blue City Poets, among others. Melissa earned her BA from Missouri State University, her MA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and is currently an MFA candidate at Mississippi University for Women. Melissa lives in Atlanta with her husband, son, and two anxious poodles.
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