What the winter of 1979 taught me about worry, and hope, for today
Christmas was a quiet affair in our house this year.
Like millions of other Americans, my husband and I took one look at the pandemic-age horoscope — Covid was surging and Omicron ascending — and decided to stay home, just us and our teen daughter. Another year of calls and texts instead of hugs. Surely this will be the last one?
The anxious solitude reminded me of another Christmas, when I was 11.
I grew up in southwestern Ohio, in a small college town nestled on the border with Indiana and Kentucky. My Iranian father had moved us there just before I started kindergarten. The plan was for him to get a PhD and then take us back to live in Tehran, only a day’s drive from his family farmlands on the mountains between the capital and the Caspian Sea.
Our “temporary” Ohio residency had stretched out more than five years. It was time to go.
There was one minor complication: it was 1979. Iran was in the throes of a revolution. Shah Reza Pahlavi had fled, Ayatollah Khomeini had returned, and the streets of Tehran had descended into chaos.
But where others saw danger, my dad saw the opportunity to reshape a nation.
Off he went to arrange housing, leaving us behind to wrap up our life in America. By Halloween, our tiny ranch-style house was being packed, including my beloved pink bedspread and green shag rug. My Camp Fire Girl troop gave me a goodbye party. My mother quit her nursing job at the town’s only hospital, where she had helped deliver just about every kid under the age of five. We were ready.
And then, on November 4, Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. They took dozens of Americans hostage, seeking to pressure the U.S. to extradite the Shah, who was in New York at the time, with President Carter’s permission.
My dad’s timing, as always, was impeccable.
What now? My parents held a series of frantic phone calls, at a cost of about $7 a minute in today’s dollars. It’s hard to remember a time before email and social media, but in 1979, we couldn’t even make an international phone call without the help of a local operator, who would connect us to an international operator, who would then place the call. Between the time difference and my dad’s lack of a permanent address, reaching him wasn’t easy. I remember listening as my mom held the phone, hoping it was my dad’s scratchy voice that answered at the other end, and not some relative telling us he was out.
A decision was made. Our family’s move was put on hold, but only temporarily. My dad would stay in Iran at least until January, when the country’s first-ever presidential elections would be held. Nothing could be decided until then.
The anxious worry I felt then reminds me of today.
As a sixth grader, I couldn’t quite make sense of it all. (Then again, neither could the CIA, but that’s another story). My dad had gone back to Iran for long trips before, but this was obviously different. At Christmastimes past, I had gone to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran to ask Santa for presents; now, angry men were parading blindfolded American hostages on television at the embassy gates. One of the hostages was from Dayton, an hour’s drive from our town.
And what about THIS Christmas, my 11-year-old mind wanted to know. Was it on hold, too?
I can only imagine my mother’s exasperation with us all.
She was 37, and had only gotten a driver’s license a few years before. The previous two winters brought the worst blizzards in Ohio’s history, over 20 inches of snow from one storm. It was so cold the Ohio river froze, pipes bursts, and car batteries died. And now her husband had taken another one of his ill-timed trips to Iran, while she was left, alone, with her two young kids at Christmas.
And then anti-Iranian protests erupted in U.S. cities. Someone at Ohio State threw a Molotov cocktail through the window of an Iranian student. Americans were enraged by the humiliation they felt at the hands of a supposed Third World country, and they began to take it out on the 150,000 or so Iranians living in the United States.
It was my awakening to political tribalism, and to the toxic rage that some Americans feel when their exceptionalism is challenged. It was “us” against “them,” and I was one of “them.” It’s a feeling not unlike today, of Americans taking sides, and coming apart instead of coming together, even in the face of a deadly pandemic.
The Christmas of 1979 was a scary, lonely time. And yet, somehow, my mom managed.
She bought a Christmas tree, wrapped presents, and we all hunkered down for the long, anxious winter. Mostly, we waited. That’s the memory that reminds me most of today: the waiting for better news, holding onto the hope you could somehow emerge to resume life as you once knew it, despite danger all around.
I don’t actually remember what I got that Christmas — roller skates, maybe? — but I do remember that we got on with life as best we could. The Christmas tree stayed up, with all of my dad’s wrapped presents waiting for him underneath. It was a vigil of sorts, our own version of the yellow ribbons that began appearing all around us to call for the hostages safe return. Otherwise, our lives resumed. My brother and I went back to school. My mom got her job back at the hospital.
My dad stayed in Iran for many more months, but eventually returned home safely. His homecoming wasn’t easy: by the time he decided to leave, the Iranian government wanted him to stay. But things got sorted.
The hostages returned home safely, too, after 444 days of captivity.
I don’t think our life ever returned to “normal” in years since then. Instead, we settled into a new normal. Every few years, Iran and the United States ratchet up tensions, with the inevitable anti-Iranian sentiments reignited among Americans. And here we are, two years into the COVID pandemic, with America dividing itself into “us” and “them.”
Just when I resign myself to thinking that this is the way it has to be, I remember another lesson from 1979.
Despite the tensions of the hostage crisis, my family was embraced by our Ohio town. They saw our humanity, and we saw theirs. And even though things never returned to the way they were before, this mutual embrace meant I grew up feeling safe, and at home.
Today, despite the very real fault lines dividing Americans, I see people doing what they can to keep people safe. From the frontline health workers, to those who have helped secure online vaccine appointments for the elderly, to those bringing food to sick and vulnerable neighbors — I am boosted by the kindness I see all around.
In the County where I live, over 90 percent of my neighbors have gotten vaccinated. Across America, 200 million have done the same. That’s millions of us committed to keeping our families, and everyone around us, safe. Progress may be slow and uneven, but we are moving forward, bit by bit.
My father never gave up on his dreams for a better Iran. And I won’t give up on my dreams for a better America, either.
But I will take down our Christmas tree.