The amount of time I spent online looking for apartments was absurd. It was so expensive to live in that city, especially with my costly personal requirements: three bedrooms, a full kitchen and, crucially, a balcony with a sea view. A long-term rental might have given me a little leverage with landlords, but they knew the value of their real estate. Refurbished tourist apartments rented out at astronomical rates and the local ones contained flimsy mattresses, synthetic sheets, hot plates in lieu of a stove, and musty Ottoman furniture. And they were fifth-floor walk-ups.
Then there was the issue of location. How do you choose a neighborhood in a city of 17 million? Everyone had a recommendation: You must live in the Old City near everything. Go to the Asian side where the rents are lower. Find a sabbatical apartment. Live in the Greenwich Village of Istanbul. It was this last idea that intrigued me. Yes, the hipster neighborhood appealed. But it was also the most expensive and my budget did not begin to cover the rent. I might as well have been looking for a place on Park Avenue or the 14th arrondissement. It was that expensive.
Then there was the issue of my mother. My sister and I had moved her to an assisted-living facility not too far from my home and it fell to me to make daily visits. She had suffered neurological damage and could no longer speak. For a while, she communicated by writing, but eventually, as her disease progressed, that faded, too.
When I told her about the Istanbul opportunity, her eyes lit up. She was always my staunchest supporter. Her parents had been born in Turkey and she was thrilled I was returning to our ancestral homeland, even if they had not been from Istanbul. She pronounced the t as ch, so it came out like Churkey. I was going to Churkey, and the whole family was celebrating. “But don’t worry,” I said, “it’s not for a long time.” I emphasized the word “long.” And in my heart, with all my love, I hoped that she would succumb before I had to leave.
Then, the management at her facility told us that she’d have to get her own furniture or pay to rent theirs. “Let’s bring her stuff here,” I said to my sister, “maybe that will help her settle.”
It is no easy thing to go through your aging parent’s abode. Under the bed, we found 50 pairs of shoes: strappy sandals with sexy heels, sling backs in red, pink and turquoise with gold and silver ornaments, pointy-toed black high heels, patent leather, backless pumps with rhinestones and little heels. Beach shoes, party shoes, all very wobbly shoes. Not a sensible pair of walking shoes among them. Our beautiful mother, always the flirt, now with a walker would never wear those shoes again. I took a pair or two of the less jazzed-up models. We donated the rest.
Her scarf drawer was a wonder to behold, first because it contained her scent, and second because it contained her personality. Reds and oranges, silks and mohairs, turquoises and chartreuses, long and short, square and triangular, she had a scarf for every occasion. We each took a few.
“Should we send this big old desk?” my sister asked. I surveyed the jewelry in the top section, where she had stacked plastic hoop earrings alongside diamonds, antique silver alongside rhinestones. The stash was immense with no discriminating factors accounting for value. Her absolute love for the silver hoop, larger than her ankle, displayed itself in models I had never seen her wear. I swooped up the lot promising to sort them later.
Still we had the desk to deal with. It was secretary style that looked like a dresser until you opened the lid, which provided a place to sit and write. Underneath there were 4 drawers, and each of them contained stacks and stacks of envelopes, all bank statements, or so it seemed.
“Do you think we can chuck these?” my sister asked. She was the vacuum cleaner and I the academic hoarder who valued all documents “just in case.”
Just in case, what? Who knows?
In case someone needs to know how much she had in her checking account in 2002?
My parents had grown up during the Depression and both had suffered tremendous poverty as children. They had both become stashers, especially when it had to do with finances. “Well, I think we should look at them,” I told my sister. We relegated the job to her husband, as we went on poring through raincoats, underwear, sweaters, pants, dresses.
We took a break after a few hours, called out for some sandwiches, and then each of us went back to our tasks. My sister and I knew that our mother was never returning to this apartment and whatever we could de-acquisition now would save us time, trouble and heartache later. My sister was more ruthless, but even I managed to let go of family lore.
“Look at this,” my brother-in-law Eric said, interrupting the shoe and jewelry curating. In the last drawer of the big purple desk, he opened some envelopes to discover that they contained US Savings Bonds made out to my sister and me in equal amounts, and quite cashable. Our mother had purchased them for all three of us kids when we were very young. She had made a note of our deceased brother’s cashout but the rest was ours. We had not even known this money existed.
Breathless, we counted $10,000 in bonds for each of us. A few days later, we took our mother to the bank and had her sign over the bonds, a bundle of found money that literally had our names on it.
A few months later, my departure date for Turkey arrived and I had to say goodbye to her. Though not healthy, she was still alive. I knew that she would not survive the separation from me even with my sister’s frequent visits. I also knew that she understood why I had to go. “I’m going to Turkey,” I kept telling her. And she nodded, yes, I understand.
When I found my ideal apartment with the 3 bedrooms to accommodate all my visitors, and my terrace with its view of the Bosphorus in my hip neighborhood that was the Greenwich Village of Istanbul, the owner wanted cash in American dollars.
I had purchased a money belt for the occasion and painstakingly counted out the dollars for the rent, dollars that I had acquired because my mother had been a Depression child. “Here you go,” I said, as I wet my index finger with a little saliva, just as I’d seen my mother do, and handed over 20 of the 100-dollar bills to cover the first month’s rent.
And each subsequent month, I did the same thing. When my sister visited my mother, I skyped with them from my luminous apartment and I told my mother whom I had met that day or week. One day I said, “And her family comes from the same region where your parents were born.” My mother nodded. “And I know that we must be related because she has the same earlobes as everyone in our family.”
Old age is not easy on anyone, and it was not easy on my mother, to lose a son and the ability to speak and eat, as well. And she had lost much of her verve in that last year of her life. But this remark made her laugh, knowing that I had identified the earlobes that held so many pairs of her beloved hoop earrings.
She did not survive my stay. A month later I got the dreaded call, and came home to bury my mother, my mother who had been my lifelong champion. Within me was the deep conviction that she wanted me to return to Istanbul with her stacks of hundreds, still in my pocket, to pay my rent. And so I waited until I was back on my Turkish balcony to light the shiva candle I had saved. There I imagined that her spirit would rise over Istanbul, a city she had loved. And I imagined that the one-hundred dollar bills that had permitted me to have this plum piece of overpriced real estate also ascended with that indomitable spirit of hers. And now, a few years later, when I think about that Turkish sky that accompanied me for that half year, I imagine my mother: watching, hovering, protecting, cheering me on, as always.
About the Author
Nancy Saporta Sternbach is professor emerita of Spanish at Smith College where she taught classes on Latinx Studies, Food Studies, Gender Studies and Latin American Studies. Her writing projects include a memoir, Bellydancing in the Bronx, and a cookbook, Sefarad.