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PROSE FICTION: This passage is adapted from a
novel set in the early 1980s in Georgia, where
the narrator and her mother have moved from
Iran after the deposing of the Shah.
Shortly after we came to Georgia, I realized
that nearly every aspect of American life, even
the basic task of grocery shopping, was difficult
for my mother, awkward in its unfamiliarity.
(5) Whereas it had been my mother’s habit to walk
to the local markets, we had to drive several
miles to the closest supermarket, the Piggly
Wiggly. My mother had wanted to walk this
distance, but there were no footpaths for most
(10) of the way, and the traffic roaring by seemed
dangerous. The store itself was quite unusual, a
large building with tall glass windows, a smiling
cartoon pig presiding over it all. My mother
could not believe this was a place that sold food.
(15) But, inside, the store certainly had plenty of it.
Rows and rows of brightly colored packages,
pyramids of perfectly red apples and brilliant
oranges. What struck me most was the near
silence; the only sound was the occasional
(20) squeaking of shopping cart wheels and the tinny,
almost hypnotic music being broadcast from
What struck my mother the most was the
precise organization of the store, the overall
(25) neatness. She was confused by the meat counter
in particular, the already apportioned and
plastic-wrapped cuts of meat. Where was the
livestock? she wondered. There were no cattle
hanging by their hooves behind the butchers, no
(30) chickens running at their feet, no lambs bleating
final prayers. In Iran, all the markets were in the
open air, in the bustling plazas of the city’s
center. There, the meat you could buy was still
alive, and the smell of fresh blood permeated
(35) the air as the butchers did their work on the
spot. The noises were almost deafening, as
buyer and sellers haggled endlessly over prices,
punctuated by the chopping of the butchers’
(40) All the merchants and traders knew my
mother and me well. My mother would lead me
throughout the maze of booths, ostensibly
teaching me her negotiating skills but mostly
just showing off. She and the sellers seemed to
(45) play a game, a back and forth matching of wills,
and they seemed drawn to each other in an
almost romantic, obsessive dance. The sellers,
aware that my mother was a tough customer,
enjoyed challenging her, though her ability to
(50) whittle away at their exaggerated prices often left
her the victor.
Even being able to navigate through the
various booths required the skill of a master.
There was no set system, and every day at the
(55) market was a new one. The vendor who sold
chickens the day before would bring books and
silk the next. My mother always managed to find
her way though, as if a map of the chaos were
imprinted in her mind.
(60) At the Piggly Wiggly, however, my mother’s
abilities to negotiate and navigate aided her
little. Even if she could have read the signs that
described what was down each aisle, she would
not have wanted to, preferring the randomness
(65) of the plazas and the disarray of the vendors’
booths. The plazas were thriving and elemental,
connecting her to the past, to the traditions of
our people. Away from it, she felt useless.
Suddenly, what had begun as just my
(70) mother’s unfamiliarity with a new place, a new
system, changed into a more sobering reality. I
realized that our roles were being switched.
Instead of her taking the lead, whisking me
through the plazas, I would be the one in charge
(75) and, furthermore, I would have to surrender
certain conventions of my youth. I could no
longer be the pouting crybaby, spoiled and
tempestuous. I would have to be responsible
and vigilant. Thus, in my adolescence I became
(80) an adult. I became my mother’s mother.
Every child of an immigrant parent has lived
this experience. We have all had to become
caretakers of those who once took care of us.
Naturally, every person experiences this shift at
(85) some point in life, when the parent is reduced to
a child, but for us the reversal of roles comes
sooner, and it is often unexpected.
At the meat counter, my mother pulls out
some crisp bills from her purse as the man
(90) hands us the lamb chops sealed in plastic. My
mother, still unaccustomed to American
currency, examines the bills closely. “Mother,” I
say calmly, “we don’t pay the butcher. We can
load our cart with as much food as we need, and
(95) then we pay for everything at the front before we
leave.” She grimaces and stuffs the bills back in,
wondering perhaps how anyone could shop in
such an odd way.
As we roll down the next aisle, the artificial
(100) music humming pleasantries in our ears, I sense
my mother beside me. She seems stiff, her
footsteps uncertain, and I feel her lean, ever so
slightly, into me.