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My great-grandmother lives in a village in Silivri, Turkey, an hour outside Istanbul. I remember her home on an unpaved road among other homes, their paint fading away. Her yellowing abode included a “state-of-the-art” toilet, which was really just a fancy ceramic hole in the ground. Hovering above the hole made you feel like you were part of the old country.
When I first visited, in 2004, I was 16 and she was 96, the oldest person I’d ever met. She’s 106 now, though nobody knows for certain because they didn’t record births at the time she came into the world.
Stories would circulate in my family about why she had remained so sharp. They would say that she only ate yogurt and meat fat, or that when she was young she would spend weeks soaking in mud baths each spring, letting leeches suck the dormant blood out of her body.
Her name was Fatma. As an orphan in Bulgaria who was too young to marry and too old to be adopted, she was taken in by some neighbours. Later, tiny Fatma – whose petite genes have been passed on to me – married a man of 6-foot-2 and they had two children. When she was in her mid-40s, the Communist regime in Bulgaria seized their land, so she and her family emigrated to Turkey.
Wanting to see for myself how someone I am related to could survive this long, I was determined to visit her again. I had missed the chance to say goodbye to my grandfather and grandmother (yes, my great-grandmother outlived her own daughter), and I didn’t want to let another ancient soul slip past me. So in 2012, I returned to Turkey with my parents.
What I recalled from eight years earlier as a shoddy village is now an amazing seaside town bustling with tea gardens, highways and beaches. The large windows of my great-grandmother’s home emanate light. Everything seems clearer and brighter than I remembered.
My mother and I visited on a hot July morning. We were greeted by my mom’s aunt, who takes care of Fatma. We found my great-grandmother lounging in a black, satiny, pyjama-type suit. She rolled over in bed, struggling to grasp who I was.
When I saw her I rushed toward her, tears rolling down my face. Fatma’s shrunken body was a collection of intriguing markers of age that had survived both world wars. Her wrinkles had grown deeper, her eyes were sunken and the number of warts on her body had increased in size and droopiness. Her toenails had developed hardened white growths.
Family members buzzed about, explaining to Fatma that I was her granddaughter’s daughter. They kept repeating it, but at first she didn’t grasp it. She just continued to squeeze my cheeks and grope my belly because I was a young, intriguing girl sitting in her bed, and that was enough to brighten her day.
My mother repeated once more how I was related to Fatma. Finally, Fatma’s eyes widened, “Oh really?!” she exclaimed. “My dear, my sweetie, my honey!” she sang over and over again.
“Are you married now?” she asked me.
I laughed through my tears while my mom explained: “These days, we marry much later in life.”
Great-grandma scoffed, as if to say “nope.” Her husband had proposed to her when she was 13, though they waited until Fatma got her first period to marry.
A few minutes later, having forgotten about our conversation, Fatma asked again: “Do you have a husband?”
We sat on her floral bed sheets equipped with a fly swatter (she was always good at swatting flies) as I repeated that I wasn’t married but had a boyfriend.
“Does he bring home a paycheque?” she asked. “What does he do? When are you getting married?”
I shrugged, really not knowing the answer. I pointed to my Claddagh ring from Ireland, where my boyfriend is from, and pulled out my iPad to show her pictures of my partner of the last six years.
She immediately grabbed the glowing device and started swiping through the photos with ease. My illiterate great-grandma was intuitively more comfortable with technology than anyone else in the room.
We were tired, so I cuddled Fatma in bed, inspecting her textured, historical skin. Her hair was covered by a small white head scarf that revealed tiny braids underneath. She clapped her hands and snapped her fingers to an invisible song in her head, then went back to kissing my arms.
A few weeks later, my mother, father, and I visited Fatma’s 80-year-old son in his penthouse in Istanbul. He gingerly handed us a reprinted family photo from the 1920s. In it, Fatma and her husband are conservatively dressed, my grandma in an embroidered ethnic jacket and her little brother, sitting ventriloquist-like, in a dark pin-striped suit. They look prim and proper, almost Soviet.
Sitting on the sofa staring at this photograph, we all began to get misty-eyed. The little I knew about my extended family was briefly unlocked in this photograph, from a decade I had never known.
As someone who has lived in Canada my whole life, my story is so different than Fatma’s. An unmarried, anxiety-riddled university graduate with an appetite for fast food and luxury items, I wonder if I will even make it to 65.
Every now and then, I ask my mother to tell me a story about my great-grandma. I’m sure her resilience and nonchalance will live on until the day she decides to pass away.
Erin Pehlivan lives in Toronto