Autumn in Ankara

Arriving in Ankara

Ela and Fatma greeted us at the apartment door and took us on a grand tour of the salon and the kitchen. Ela and Fatma prepared the breakfast table for us. Trinh and I enjoyed three Turkish breakfasts while staying with Fatma and loved them. After a billion cups of tea and a shower, we played games with Ela.

I made Ela a tri-lingual poster of all the playing cards’ names in Turkish, English, and Vietnamese. So we could play Go Fish in three languages. Fatma joined us in our game and truly shone at reading Vietnamese. Trinh brought out her guitar and inspired Fatma to do some comic singing while beating the guitar. Fatma is a fantastic grandmother. She is always bargaining with Ela about sweets or what to have for lunch.

Hanging out with Ela was fun, and it was wonderful to have her energy filling the salon and kitchen with laughter. Ela made us welcome cards in English that said, “Welcome to my Grandmother’s apartment.” Today I keep those cards on my refrigerator.

Ela is polite, curious, talkative, and energetic.  Her English is excellent. She expresses her imaginative ideas freely. She transforms Abdullah and Fatma into Baba’ane and Dede. She keeps them young and introduces them to games on her iPad and whatever the kids are talking about these days. She is eager to meet Tabitha and hang out with her. When those two get to know each other, they will unlock different worlds for each other.

In the late afternoon, Latife came over to visit. Trinh shared her Vietnamese chocolates with Latife. Latife gave Trinh a dragonfly necklace on it and mentioned via Google Translate that a dragonfly remains loyal to its partner. A nice gesture from another woman married into the family. Latife has an energetic, joyful personality and is a devoted mother- shepherding seven-year-old Ela around to piano and volleyball lessons across Ankara. Trinh, Ela, Latife, and I all played Vietnamese hackysack in the hallway. Then we encouraged Ela to run laps up and down the hallway until she collapsed from exhaustion. 

During this trip, we didn’t see Eren because he was sick. This trip happened during the end of the delta wave of the pandemic. Eren and I spoke briefly on the phone. Although I didn’t see him in person, Fatma’s apartment is a bi-focal museum that follows Eren and Ela through the years. So I got a quick snapshot of his last seven years through the photos of Ela that he is also in. Fatma walked me through the rooms and their photos –  like a narrated version of traditional Turkish Instagram.

We saw Abdullah in the mornings and the evenings between work. He was interested to see Vietnam’s mega-inflated currency with numbers in the millions. There was a funny exchange between Abdullah and Fatma when they were confused between North Korea and Vietnam and tried to remember the North Korean leader’s name. They just kept saying “Kim” to each other in endless confusion. “Kim” is the Turkish word for who, and so they just kept saying “who?” to each other until one of them remembered his full name. 

Abdullah also made a good joke when I showed him a photo of a younger Fatma and asked him, “Kim?” Looking over the worn photo, he stumbled out in English, “I don’t know?”. We all laughed!

Visiting Nene

Memories came back as Trinh, Fatma, and I walked towards the apartment door with the Kalendar Temel sign. I walked into the house to surprise Nene, who was standing in the TV room with a bewildered smile on her face. She said, “Deren, Kurban Ben Sana” as we hugged.

Then we hugged and walked to the salon to introduce Nene to Trinh. Nene confused Trinh’s name for a few moments, but eventually, Trinh’s name stuck. Unable to speak Turkish together, I just held her hand, hugged her, a kissed her forehead and cheeks. Trinh shared Vietnamese chocolates. Then Nene, Trinh, and I explored Nene’s little photograph museum. Nene walked with us and told us who everyone was – and I interpreted from memory and family lore.

While we walked through the museum, I wondered what would happen to the artifacts in the future. I imagined that there were maybe little museums like hers packed into curated boxes and sent to relatives worldwide — little relics from a life long ago and photos of people far away. Nene kept my childhood toys from her trips to New Jersey and some memorabilia from Philadelphia. She made her house a time capsule of our younger faces. There are candles on the kitchen table next to a framed photo of me, Tuğrul, Sazi, and Dede in Sycamore St. I imagined that her family is her life’s work and her hüzün. Ela is the museum’s newest exhibit. She gives it a modern, bright feel. She propels the collection into the 2020s. Before Ela, the most recent photos are Johnathan’s graduation and Eren’s wedding in the 2010s. There is also a photo of Trinh and me on that table.

Adding a photo of Trinh and me to the museum

After the museum tour, Fatma, Trinh, and I walked Nene to the park to see the dogs. It was a lovely chilly autumn day in the lovely park beside her house. Trinh was surprised to see that the public park cared for dogs. She went around petting the park dogs.

I am sure that petting the dogs was a much-needed rest from listening to Turkish non-stop for two days.

Then we took Nene to a pide place close to her home for a lovely meal together. Nene gave us a long speech about the joys of having two babies, the wonders of modern pediatrics, and the joys of having more than one baby. Fatma is a warm soul and a friendly host. She helped us have fun and understand the conversation throughout the meal. During the meals, we took many photos and videos.

After dinner, it was dark, and we hiked Nene up the stairs to her apartment. Then we sat in the TV room. Then Nene learned that we were leaving the next day. She was visibly sad. Trinh and I held her while she told us to “always be happy” –  “her mutlu”  and visit again with a baby. She continued for a while, encouraging us to have a baby and a happy home.

This moment was sad. My last living grandparent said so much I couldn’t understand it. I was frustrated that I hadn’t learned Turkish in my lifetime. This might be my chance to absorb my grandmother’s love. I can’t do much more than listen and feel. I felt a burning frustration at the situation, so I hugged her while she cried. I longed to know what she said.

Then Nene and I video-called with my mom from the kitchen, the exact spot where my mom learned much of her Turkish. Both my ladies cried and looked at each other for the first time in twenty years. We all sang Nene Happy Hirthday. Seeing my mom and Nene talk together gave me a braver view of my mom. She lived in Turkey in the early 80s with her new husband’s family; when the world was less connected, when Turkey was more rustic. My mother’s spirit to live and learn in Turkey is admirable. Maybe I did this in Vietnam – but in a more connected world than in the 1980s.

The somber mood was broken when Nene’s neighbors came over to talk in the salon. I knew the neighborhood kids from visiting in 2014. They sat with us and talked about YouTube, the economy, and their studies. They grew up to be awesome young adults.

After the neighbors left, Nene learned that Trinh and I were leaving the next day for a second time. She re-lived her sadness and froze in her tracks. It was sad to see her cry again. I listened to her voice close to my ear as we hugged. I remembered her chasing me down Sycamore street, dancing with my uncle at my pre-school, sitting on the playroom floor watching the news about 9/11, and our nonsense childhood calls to Turkey, when my mom mouthed what I should say to her. I remembered the days around Dede’s funeral and her unique smell. Then we left, and she stood at the apartment door waving to us until we descended the stairs.

When we got back to the street, we looked up to her window to see her pour a pitcher of water out of her bedroom window for us—pouring water is a good luck gesture in Turkey. She stood at the window waving until we turned the corner. Every few steps, I turned to wave back at her and saw that she was still there waving.

Looking Back

Our trip to Ankara fell on Fatma’s shoulders, who insisted that we visit despite Nene’s apprehension about us visiting during the pandemic. Fatma and Ela are fantastic motivations to visit Ankara well into the future. Fatma is exceptionally patient with Nene, Ela, and our lack of Turkish. Although she speaks only some English, she would confidently talk to us in a hybrid Turkish/English, which I loved.

I was blessed with the chance to meet Ela, see Nene, and introduce Trinh to my Turkish family. After this trip, I can imagine a future where Trinh and I visit Turkey without my father, one day as a father, to show our children a part of their heritage. I feel more connected to Turkey.