I sit in a Turkish Starbucks, beside an open fire. My chair has arms and pillows like those in English manor houses. On the table, a single glass of amber-colored tea catches firelight. It’s almost Christmas.
Among the shelves of white ceramic cups, green garlands hold red bows and golden ornaments. In this Muslim country, you can find Christmas trees and Baba Noel, but the Nativity story is not mentioned.
I love Christmas despite the fact that my father died on that day when I was four. Despite my alcoholic mother dragging me through trailer parks across America, I still love the holiday that shares a humble manger scene, angels, and one bright star reflected in a million tiny lights.
For two years my ex-husband hid my children from me. Though we lived on opposite sides of the same California mountain, he went against court orders and kept us apart. I, who had been a rich housewife and homeschool mom in a three-storey chateau beside a stream and forest, had no job or money to hire a lawyer. I could not visit my children, speak on the telephone, post a letter, or send an email. Yet I wrapped gifts like necklaces and laser lights. I wrote pathetic notes on Christmas cards (what do you say after two years apart?) and left the packed red bag, like Secret Santa, at my son’s school. Amazingly, he got the bundle. He and his sister secretly opened the presents. When their father found out, he threw their treasures in the trash.
They told me later when I found them on Facebook. After two years of no contact, when it felt so much like they were dead that I joined an Online parents’ grief support group, I found their new profiles. First my youngest, Jonathan who had turned fourteen, accepted my friend request. We chatted. We Skyped with webcams and microphones, seeing images of who we had become. Then Jessica, seventeen and a high school senior, let me add her. I typed my cell phone number, and she texted all about the trouble she had caught at her father’s house for slipping out at night.
My new electronic contact gave me courage. Though I held a Master’s degree and a college teaching credential, I took a job for minimum wage as caregiver to a disabled senior woman. After six months of saving money, I found a lady lawyer who accepted my small retainer. We took my ex-husband back to court and upheld my parental rights.
So how did I get to Turkey, where I sit listening to “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” while sipping tea from a glass?
I was embarrassed by my little, rented house where my children visited. I wanted to give them more than visits to Starbucks on Sundays. California education had dropped so low that I couldn’t even substitute. I applied for teaching jobs across America. No one wanted a middle-aged, divorced housewife who had given up her career to homeschool children. My caregiver job ended when my demented employer would not stop screaming at me. I’d had enough of that from my ex-husband.
So I took a job teaching English where they needed me—overseas. First I went to Russia. I spent a lonely, snowy Christmas beside the frozen Volga River. My Russian boss, who ran a “school” out of his home, did not pay me what he contracted. After six months, I called the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. A sympathetic Embassy worker offered me a ticket home.
Go home after just six months, defeated, and take away the little money I had been giving Jessica so she could go to college? I didn’t want that.
“Maybe I could take a job I found Online—near Istanbul,” I suggested.
“Well, stand up to your boss and ask him to pay you at least enough to get to Turkey,” the Embassy woman advised.
I did. Reluctantly, he paid me. After a seventeen-hour train ride to Moscow, a sleepless night at the airport, and a flight to Istanbul, I had 30 rubles in my pocket. I went from April snow flurries, bare trees, and ice–to yellow flowers, grass, and sunlight. I exchanged fur hats, full-length coats, and cold, blank stares for spring dresses, smiles, and Turkish hospitality. I fell in love with the warm land surrounded by seas, which bridges Asia and Europe at Istanbul. I started a Blog. I took some of the best photos of my life–almost as good as those I shot while living in New Zealand, where I took my kids to flee from my ex-husband. I posted my new photos on Facebook, where I had gathered over a thousand friends.
I expected to teach for a ten-month contract, take my cash bonus, and visit Jessica and Jonathan in California. But things never go as expected in Turkey where on one corner of the street you can see a brand-new shopping Mall–and on the other an Ottoman café with hookahs, lounging carpets, and Arabian-style coffee served in metal cups.
As I walked through Izmit one summer evening after teaching late at the private language school that had me working seven days a week, a Turkish man started walking with me. I told him to go away, that I didn’t need a Turkish boyfriend (my students had warned me). He did, slowly, after a few more words. Two weeks later, as I returned from a lonely day in Istanbul where I left my camera in a taxi, I met him on a bridge. He asked me how I was. I started to walk with him and babble on about my camera. We drank tea at an outdoor table by the Marmara Sea.
Before I quite knew what happened, I married him. We had a simple, Turkish-style ceremony in a wedding hall. I wore a blue sultan’s dress, and we signed our names in a big book next to the Marriage Commissioner dressed in red and gold. My students gathered beside Ömer’s tough-looking seamen friends. We handed out sweets from a decorated basket and ate Black Sea sardines in a glass-enclosed boat at the marina. We sipped white wine while the Best Man got drunk on Turkish rakı.
I, who had no American family except my children, suddenly had a big Turkish one.
Ömer gave up his sea-going job to stay with me. I left the private language school and began teaching at a university. When my six-month contract ended, we moved to southern Turkey where a university promised me a new job. But the university did not have my contract ready. Because Ömer had never found a land job (and I don’t know how much he really looked), we could not stay in warm Antalya. We moved back to Izmit to live with his parents in a small, cold apartment. His father was retired, and his mother worked a housekeeper’s job for little pay–as many Turkish people do. We struggled into December.
I browsed through Facebook photos posted in my children’s timelines—of them in the California mountains, at high school functions or birthday parties, with friends or their father–but without me. I wanted to go home.
The Vice Consul at the U.S. Embassy, a young woman with little experience and less heart, made me fill out papers with names of relatives. After three weeks of waiting, she said,
“I cannot lend you a ticket until your ex-husband confirms that he does not pay you alimony.”
“He doesn’t want me back in California to see our children,” I replied, “so he won’t answer you.”
My Christmas ironies continue . . .
I spent last week going to the police station, filling out papers, and paying money to stay in Turkey where I no longer want to be. As I walked through the station, every man stared at me like I’m an older Marilyn Monroe. Foreign women are targets for Turkish men. Why do I blame myself so much for being caught by one?
I’ve been searching Online for another teaching job. Maybe I’ll go to Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, or Oman. Maybe I’ll find strength to take a new position in Istanbul. Maybe I’ll go to one of these places with Ömer. His family would like that. He might even find a job . . .
I admit my addiction to travel. After living in New Zealand, Russia, and Turkey, could I stay in an isolated California mountain cabin again?
Yet I am tired of all this adventure. Now, before Christmas, I sit at a Turkish Starbucks with barely enough money to buy tea. I switch on my old Mac laptop and gaze at former Christmas photos I posted on Facebook: the mountain chateau where I decorated a tall Christmas tree with all our family ornaments, one for everyone, for each year together. The evergreen garlands on the stairs, wrapped with colored lights. Red bows on photo frames, a portrait of Mary holding baby Jesus above the fireplace mantel, a silver candlestick ablaze with flame.
I lost all these things. I see them only in these photographs.
In my Facebook Christmas album, Jessica and Jonathan are eleven and eight years old. Jessica is an angel with a gold-tinsel halo above her auburn curls. Wings spread out above her white gown, and in her hands she holds the roses I gave her that night. Jonathan, next to her, wears my old tunic woven with gold and black, a plastic crown upon his head. He’s one of the wisemen bearing gifts.
In another photo, the homeschool kids create a manger scene, with Mary and Joseph, shepherds, animals, and kings. The Angel—Jessica—announces “good news of great joy for all people.” A simple sight, an amazing story, hope for me near Istanbul, peace for a moment in a war-torn world. Light from my computer screen, from that homeschool stage, from a distant star—shines on baby Jesus in a wooden cradle. The cradle will become a cross. The cross an empty tomb.
And, maybe, I will go home for Christmas.
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