Last night, waiting for sleep, an image of my father popped up in my head. He was wearing his camel hair coat and green silk scarf; they were always worn together, never apart. The heavy coat, more coffee-color than camel, had been made by Mr. Emo, the best tailor in Vicenza, where we lived in the 1960s and again in the 1970s...
The fabric of the scarf had a golden, iridescent sheen, woven through with thin black stripes; the ends have a forest green band fringed in black. He wore them both for a very long time, in actual years, about forty-two. The coat still hangs in my closet, in pristine condition, as if he were going to come by tomorrow to reclaim it for the winter. The scarf I had lost track of, until the other day.
I was going through a bag of sweaters I had mothballed for the winter, and there, folded neatly at the bottom, was Dad’s scarf. I held it in my hands, delighted, surprised, but knowing the discovery was not one of mere chance or serendipity: my father meant for me to find it. You see, when I started to write this post a few days ago, I asked him to send a sign that he was with me.
My father, Ekrem Suleyman Turan, was a twenty-three-year old medical student when he left Istanbul for the United States. I know some of the reasons for his departure: one, his beloved mother Hayati (whom I am named after) had died unexpectedly the previous fall, the devastating loss creating a void in his life that he filled by going away; two, he decided to join a roommate at medical school, an American named Frank S. Conway, for a residency at George Washington University Medical School; and three, his father, Kemal Turan, was a difficult, demanding and disapproving man with whom he had an equally challenging relationship, and, perhaps there was blame, both ways, for my grandmother’s death. In addition, there was a fourth, maybe more compelling reason: my young father was having an affair with a slightly older married woman. She, her husband and four-year-old son, lived in the same apartment building in Ankara that my father's family owned and where they also lived. The affair was a source of great consternation and drama within the family. My grandmother even hired a “spiritualist,” to purge him of his illicit and dangerous love. I guess the spell worked because my father broke up with the woman and left Istanbul the following spring.
My cousin Hakan, who kindly translated a letter to my father from his mother (there was a subtle reference to the affair), feared I would be shocked or embarrassed but I was not, quite the opposite. Here was proof of a side of my mysterious father that I already knew and understood above the tangle and jumble of everything I did not: he was a hopeless romantic and dreamer. And in my American mother he found a kindred spirit, as if they were two missing pieces of a puzzle.
I had always surmised that my parents were inextricably bound together by each having lost a parent at a vulnerable age, my mother’s father died when she was five, Dad’s mother died when he was 22, but I was wrong. What cemented their relationship and nearly sixty years of marriage was not the shared pain of loss, but an idealistic and irrepressible desire to create a life of their own making, not one chosen for them by family or fate.
There was more evidence to support my assumptions in a treasure trove of memories they left behind. In a closet I found manila folders filled with letters, about 800 in all, written by hand on crispy, oniony-skin paper with real ink. The letters were exchanged between 1951 and 1954, when my father had to return to Turkey and my mother stayed in the U.S., waiting for clearance to join him. And I found a large box of family photos, taken in the late 1800s and 1920s. These images, of Maine, West Virginia, Washington D.C., Isparta and Istanbul, allow me to travel back in time and see my parent’s as children, the places where they grew up and the people who filled their lives.
But the most incredible find was a stash of Kodachrome slides and photos taken by my father between 1946 and 1954. During these eight or so years, some 200 photos depict four distinct periods of his life: his departure from Istanbul and subsequent stops in Athens, Dublin, London, and Rome and arrival in the States, with travels north to upstate New York and south to New Orleans: to the start of his residency at G. W. University and early social life in D. C; to meeting my mother (roughly 1949), their courtship and marriage; and finally, his forced return to Turkey to fulfill a compulsory two-year military service, or face losing his citizenship and right to return to his homeland. In letters to my mother at that time, he debated the wisdom of his decision; he had wanted to abandon Turkey altogether, forgo his citizenship, and hurry back to the U.S. Fortunately, she convinced him to stay. It was during this last period, when my mother came to join him in Ankara, that I was born.
We guess (from one of the photos of him taking pictures) that the camera he used was either an Argus A28, or a Leica 35 mm camera. He would have bought it prior to leaving Istanbul and he would have wanted the best. Whether taken by him, or others, the photos tell a remarkable story:
But of all the photos I think my favorite images were taken over five days in May of 1950, when he attended a medical conference in New York City. This was after meeting my mother, they were very much in love, so he was no longer seeing the world through his eyes but hers too. During his visit to New York city, he made sure to capture all the iconic landmarks, as if she was by his side and they could remember the trip together.
He wrote to her, on Hotel Lincoln stationary, that he went to Chinatown, City Hall, Greenwich Village, Penn Station, Empire State Building and then took the boat to the Statue of Liberty, taking more pictures of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, ending up in Harlem, all in one afternoon. My son William, a New Yorker now, helped me identify many of the locations. I asked him what the photos said about the man who took them? His said my father sought to capture the grandeur and expanse of the city, that the images were not contrived and had depth and immediacy: they were seen through a lens of enthusiasm and awe. I’m lucky. I have my father’s photos but I also have his eyes.
Thanks to their careful safeguarding of the past, I am giving their memories a future. As Dr. Anna Fels said in her article, “Why We Save the Remnants of Our Lives”
‘When we discard a person’s accumulated possessions, we are throwing out the record of a life. The soft thump of the garbage bags on the landing tells of a small, soft death. Is it necessary? Yes. But it’s an erasure that’s irrevocable. Like the ash that surrounds bodies at Pompeii, these objects preserve the shape of a life – even after the living being is gone.’
This brings me to back to the scarf and my quest, one I think I share with many daughters of distant fathers from foreign lands: to know the world he lived in, to understand the shape of his life. My father is gone, but I am going to find him.