I was a teenager the last time I saw Fatma. I had just returned home for my summer vacation after my first year of university and she had come to visit us with her two children. One was a small boy of three or four, the other one still a baby. We sat in the living room of our cottage, facing the bay of Izmir while she changed the baby’s diaper on the sofa. It was one of those searing July days when the lodos blows down from the mountains, making the air dry and the sea, icy cold. She was wearing a sleeveless lilac dress with ever-growing sweat stains under her armpits and milk leakage over her breasts. It had taken god knows how many dolmus minibuses to finally get to Kalabak from where she lived. I watched her pick up her baby and place him on her left side, so that he could look around over her shoulder. His head was bobbing as she rocked around the room patting his back to prevent possible wails while at the same time telling her little boy to sit still and behave, which he was already doing. In fact, he spent his time mostly looking at his toes until he was told to run along and play with the sand. At that point, he furtively got up and went to the beach where he gingerly crouched so as not to dirty his immaculate shorts and sandals. Fatma, whom I always called Fatosh, placed her finally sleeping baby on a bed in a room. When she came back, her face was harsh. “Do you have a fiancé?” She asked me, frowning. I smiled and said, “No, but I’m going out with someone.”
“No!” she shouted, alarmed. “No! Don’t ever get married. Listen to me. You’re going to school, you’ll get a job, why marry? Don’t let men near you.” Her eyes were wide open; she looked so exasperated she could hit me.
“You’re not happy, Fatosh?” I asked furtively.
“No. I was stupid. I was so happy here with you all, and I didn’t know it. Now, I’m sorry every single day. Men are awful. All of them. They’re animals. You stay away from them, you hear?”
I was heartbroken, as a child, when she had announced she had a fiancé that she was going to marry and started preparing her trousseau every evening. She had no time for fun anymore. She no longer secretly passed me her tabloids filled with pictures of scantily clad second-rate Turkish actresses having steamy affairs with mustachioed leading men, because she now spent her money buying sheets, tea towels and other boring objects. She didn’t show me how to squeeze pimples or my all time favourite, how to squeeze your nose to get tiny white worms of grease to jut out from the pores. She could get a hundred to squeeze out simultaneously like charmed snakes simply by moving her nose upward. But she no longer had time for such frivolities. When she finished her trousseau, she got married and moved to her own house far away, and I hardly ever saw her after that until this final meeting in Kalabak. I thought she had come to see me, especially, as I had left the country and had been gone for a while. Years later, I found out she had come to ask my mother for help because she was having serious financial problems. Her husband had lost his job at the textile factory where my father had placed him through connections. He was a hot-headed, good-for-nothing fool, apparently. And so Fatosh scolded me, wagged her finger and pushed my face away in lieu of a slap even as we kissed and hugged goodbye, making me swear I would never marry.
As a small child I must have been a nuisance to her, second only to my nonagenarian grandmother who suspected Fatma was stealing her immense white cotton boxer shorts and therefore kept asking her to return them, in Greek. She had learned a few words of Greek from my granny and would shout “ohee, ohee, Néné.” Néné would calm down for a while, then start again, pulling at Fatma’s sleeve, taking her to the dresser to show her drawer filled with a dozen ironed shorts. Fatma would nod her head once backward going “tschk” to mean “no” and would shout “ohee Néné, ine poli megalo”, meaning ‘no, granny, your undies are too large for me.’ Néné would mutter something under her breath and shake her head as if to say, ‘you think you’re clever, but I’ll get you next time’. Fatosh would leave the room going “Öff, aman be Néné, yeter artik!” (Enough with this, Néné!) shaking the front of her t-shirt with her fingers to indicate how terribly fed up she was. When she saw me observing her, she would say “Va jouer dans la chambre!” She had a knack for languages. I was in awe of Fatosh and would not be dispensed with easily. So I interrogated her.
“Where is your home Fatosh?”
She would shrug and say, “here with you.”
“Do you have a mom and dad?”
“My mom got very sick and died.”
“Do you have sisters and brothers?”
“North of here.”
“What does it mean, Soma?”
“It’s just a name.”
“What do people do there?”
“They work in coal mines.”
“Your father too?”
“No, he’s an imam.”
“What does an imam do?”
“I don’t know… He prays, I guess then there are circumcisions, weddings, funerals… He tells people what to do.”
“Do you miss him?”
“No. He beats us too much.”
“Do you miss your mom?”
“She’s dead I told you!”
“Do you want to go back?”
“Why do you live with us?”
“You don’t want me to?”
“Sure I do. Do you go to Soma on weekends?”
“Where do you go?”
“My aunt’s house.”
I would spend hours sitting beside her as she scrubbed something or other, drilling her with all manners of senseless questions to which she responded in curt, irritable spurts.
We slept in the same room. We gave each other good night hugs and colds and had to do steam inhalations with eucalyptus, putting towels over our heads at the kitchen table. She would show me her white nose worms once in a while and we would giggle putting our noses back into the steaming hot bowls.
Fatma struck me as the picture of solidity in those days; she tamed brooms, buckets and chairs into submission with her quick determined movements. She had a wide open face with high cheekbones and a low forehead, thin eyes slanting upward, a soft wide nose, and well-shaped taut lips. Her arms and legs were muscular, her fingers stubby and her toes, plump and square. Her dark brown hair was parted in the middle and tied into a pony tail. I enjoyed the timbre of her voice when she laughed. It gave a sense of thoracic fortitude and of being connected to the earth where edible things grew, like the rest of her. She wore mini shorts in the summer, like my older sister, but I don’t remember what she wore in winter. I loved her wooly smell, and the look of her. I admired her for learning Greek and French and felt secure when my parents repeatedly told us that she was part of our family. I wanted to know what she would do later on in her life, being so smart. If she was part of our family, I expected she would get an education, get a good job, then marry someone educated and refined, while at the same time suspecting this was not really the plan for her because she was working as our maid and had a life outside of our home which involved a vague family in Soma and an aunt on mysterious hills. I worried that one day she would inevitably grow up to live a sad life- marry a brutish uneducated man and live in her aunt’s hills where her intelligence would wither away.
I used to do as she bade when I was young except this one time, again in our summer cottage in Kalabak, where our house had an ‘upstairs’, unlike most of my friends’. The wooden staircase was a fascination for us, first for sliding on the banister and also, for spying quietly on happenings in the living room without being observed. The rooms upstairs intrigued my friends, who were deprived of such mysteries in their own cottages. We had two sets of bunk beds in the children’s room which served as sailboats during afternoon naps. My brother, cousin and I would deck the sides of the beds with sheets for sails and have seafaring adventures against pirates. It did not occur to us to be pirates ourselves; we were, invariably, the good guys and whenever we caught the dastardly pirates, we would magnanimously let them back into the sea the way fishermen release unsavory fish into the water, issuing warnings to change their ways “or else…” There were falls from heights in the middle of the night, cousins sleepwalking into attics to pee on suitcases, vomiting sessions from eating too many lokums, and all sorts of drama that only seemed to happen on the second floor of our house. We had two long attics flanking the sides of the second floor, filled with strange objects and cobwebs. Naturally, these places needed further exploration and I proudly offered tours to my eager buddies. One had to circumvent Fatosh for this, and it wasn’t easy. She was the keeper of the ‘upstairs’ and under my mother’s strict orders no kids were to be allowed there to play, or hide, on account of bringing sand to the rooms with our dirty feet. So Fatosh somehow heard us as we tiptoed up the stairs and ran to the living room to chase us out. “Shht!” She shouted. “ Get down and out you go. You’re not allowed upstairs.”
“Yes, we are!” I shouted back feeling cocksure.
“No, you’re not and you’d better come down this minute!” she yelled back.
“No, I won’t!” I insisted louder to impress my friends and stomped my foot.
“You will get a spanking if you don’t!” She countered.
Then I said the words.
“This is not your house, it’s my house, and you can’t tell me what to do.” They hung in the air for a moment. No one moved. Her eyes widened, as if she had unexpectedly been slapped very hard. Quickly, she recollected her face, shrugged and muttered I was a spoiled brat with bad manners before walking away.
The words continued hanging there, small, deflated and loose like balloons on sagging garlands after a birthday party. They trailed after me upstairs to the attic where my friends squealed and giggled irritatingly in their afternoon dresses and white socks. I found an excuse to make them leave and sat alone in the semi-darkness of the waning afternoon, wanting to punish myself and not knowing how. I never apologized to her from sheer embarrassment. I wanted her to forget that moment as soon as possible and the apology would serve to remind her of the insult. She would pretend to forgive me while nursing the wound I inflicted on her, in her deeper thoughts. She would perhaps pretend to love me, out of a sense of duty, as part of her job. I hoped she would say something mean and hurtful to me, so we could get even. But she didn’t. That fall, she started looking for a fiancé.
Fatma’s contact with my mother became sporadic over the years. Once in a while, she would visit; occasionally she would call or send word. Whenever she resurfaced, there were issues like joblessness, illness, hunger, need for clothing and my mother would put together money and packages for her. A few years ago she got word that Fatma was very ill with a kidney problem and had no money to go to the doctor because her husband had left her and her sons were jobless. An envelope was sent to her via the son who came to collect it. I don’t think she ever heard from Fatma after that again.
Recently, while reminiscing about earlier days, my mother told me the story of how Fatma came to live in our house. She was a teenager, barely thirteen, when she was brought to our house by some lady’s acquaintance, as a girl looking for work. My mother hired her on the spot. On her first day, Fatma told my mother she was never to be left alone with my father in the house. It was her condition for working with us. At first she would not say why. When my mother pressed her, she said she was afraid he may do something bad to her. Like what? My mother asked. Like rape me. She said. Why do you think he would he do such a thing to you? My mother asked, cautious. Because men do these things. She replied. Did someone do this to you, my child? My mother asked. Fatma looked down. Did someone rape you? She insisted. My older sister is pregnant. She said. Who did that to her? Fatma looked up, her chin trembling. My father… My father… and I was next. I ran away. I ran from the house. My sister gave me some money. I took the bus to Izmir, to my aunt’s house. Please don’t leave me alone in the house with your husband. I will sleep with the kids, in their room. Never alone. I will sleep on the bare floors, I don’t care.