A memoir by Leyla Mostovoy

In the 1950s there were no showers in most homes in Istanbul.  We bathed once a week and most nights we took care of hygiene the French way: “la petite toilette,” a white enamel basin filled with warm water, a wash cloth and white soap the size of half a brick used for dish-washing, laundry and shampoo.  Our bathroom had a high ceiling, tall windows that looked onto a claire voie, a shaft, between the next door building and ours, from which I remember, before we left for Israel, our maid threw her self aborted fetus.  When Mustafa, our one-legged super who collected our garbage every night and also opened the building door when tenants came back after ten pm., discovered the remains, she was taken in hand cuffs to the police station.  I remember the light switch on the outer wall was too high for me to reach when I was little.  Often I wet my pants by the time someone turned it on for me.  Father could not understand why I needed to have the light on in there: “Que vaz aazer, enfilar perlas?” What will you do in there, thread pearls, he would ask in Ladino, the bastardized Spanish of the Sephardic Jews.

It is there I was sent when mother punished me for any infractions: stealing chocolates and cookies she hid for unannounced company; cutting into ribbons her new satin slip.  The only way I could avoid being sent into the dark vault of that scary place was to confess before mother deciphered from my forehead where all my bad behaviors were written.  For quite a while I believed mother could read my forehead like an open book.  When it was Diana’s, my five year younger sister’s turn to be punished, I made sure she did not fall for the same trick.  “Don’t be stupid.  She cannot read your forehead.  Just sit on the toilet and wait.”  If my punishment was not being locked in the bathroom cell, it was having mother spank me until her arm got tired.  “I hit you because I love you,” she would say her eyes bulging, throat veins throbbing.  “I want you to become a good girl.”  Finally I was sent to my room sobbing, angry and unremorseful.  She would not talk to me until I, now on my knees, acknowledged my sins and asked for forgiveness, hands clasped as if at prayer and promising never to do it again.  “Je te demande pardon, je ne ferai plus.”

The cinnamon colored tiles of the bathroom floor, the white-washed walls, the water tank close to the ceiling with a long metal chain, the mirrored medicine cabinet in which father kept a bottle of ether he used for boils on his neck and I used to experiment on flies, was a laboratory of horrors for insects.  There was also a machine with a belt that vibrated that I was coaxed to use on my thighs and belly to lose weight.

The Miele washing machine came in when I was about seven.  Emine Teyze, Aunt Emine, the woman who brought up my sister and me and took care of the house chores, helped mother use a hand swivel to feed wet laundry into the twin rolls that squeezed out excess water.  The clothes were then hung to dry at night in the long hallway that ran the length of the apartment.  We had no bidet in our bathroom like Aunt Jenny and Uncle Joseph had.  Only when I visited them or had a sleep over at their place did I use the bidet’s warm water to send chills of pleasure through my loins to make me moan.  I must have been ten.  My body crumpled in ecstasy and shame.  I also remember Emine Teyze pulling my hands harshly away from under my blanket with a look of disgust when I took naps as a little girl.  Silent gestures are just as strong as loud, harsh reprimands.

It is in that bathroom at the age of nine that I began to practice smoking when my parents were not home.  It is there I tortured big, black flies I caught on the window in our living room with the help of a glass.  Returning with them to my torture chamber, I would tear off their wings, place the black insects on white cotton wool drenched in father’s ether, and watch them faint and regain consciousness when I put them onto the open window sill.  I squeezed out the quivering white little worms from their abdomens, stuck needles through their rear ends, then took them, skewered, to the living room, turned on the record player and watched them wobble helplessly as they turned.  I was in control of their lives.

If I were a child today I would be labeled a psychopath, but in those days in Istanbul my family knew nothing about the workings of my psyche or my experiments.  Only years later and through psychotherapy did I find out I was doing to the flies what I wished to do to some of the adults in my life.  I was supposed to become a young lady, acceptable in society, a good girl who followed instructions without questions, did not speak her mind, kept her clothes clean, and most of all was slim and would grow up to be an attractive magnet to a Jewish boy of good family, which meant a rich Jewish boy.

In that bathroom we also had a small wood stove mounted with a copper tube filled with water that was heated once a week on Fridays for the family to take turns at taking a bath.  The tub was white enamel with lions’ feet.  On Fridays Emine Teyze put a large tin bucket in the tub and filled it with hot water for grandfather, Dede.  He went first: he was the patriarch.  About once every month or two my aunts, mother and Diana and I went to the hamam a few blocks away from home.  I went there three years ago when visiting Istanbul with my sister.

I remember Emine Teyze filled a valise with colorful burnooses, clean clothes, a block of white soap, wash cloths, combs, brushes, talcum powder, a bottle of rose water for Diana and me, lemon scented cologne for the women, and a hamam tasi, a silver bowl to pour water on ourselves. (Today a similar bowl on our coffee table serves as a candy dish).  She also packed oranges, and maybe sandwiches and carried the suitcase to the hamam where she left it in a private room for us.  We arrived soon after. When everybody got undressed, I refused to disrobe and be scrutinized by my mother and aunts.  I walked into the hamam, hot and foggy with steam, dressed in a dark wool coat instead of a burnoose.

The hamam had a high ceiling with a glass dome that shed light onto a marble table in the middle of the room encircled with tiny gray marble sinks for each grown up.  Every noise was amplified and echoed throughout: shrieking kids, running water, clinking metal bowls.  We first sat in the thick humid heat of the bath waiting for our pores to open, release the dirt and sweat out the poison from our bodies.  We took turns lying down on the warm marble table and a woman in a peshtemal, traditional thin Turkish towel, wrapped around her thick waist, her brown nipples the size of a man’s thumb swinging over her belly rubbed our bodies with a coarse loofa glove and made sucking noises as if to coax out black greasy worm-like bits from our white skin that soon turned an angry red.

When squeaky clean from being rubbed down with a loofa glove, each grown up sat next to the sink with two faucets for hot and cold water.  I sat next to mother, Diana between her legs, a wash cloth over her eyes while mother lathered the soap on her long brown hair.  Mother dipped the hamam tasi into the sink and poured warm water over her head and body, which was svelte and acceptable. After we had all been cleansed we went out from this cauldron in our burnooses to the cool private room to rest on leather couches, eat refreshing oranges and drink cold soda that tasted like Seven Up.  Once rested we went back to wash ourselves again, play with water being careful not to slip on the soapy marble when going from one adult to the other for washing and cuddling.  I preferred to stay put and observe what was going on, but maybe sometimes I too ran around with my sister.  I hope and wish I did go to my Aunt Jenny for extra washing and kisses.

Years ago when my husband Manu and I visited Japan we stayed at a traditional Japanese hotel, a ryokan.  One night we went to a public bath at the hotel where men and women were separated by a wall.  We could hear each other.  Quite a few men brought their young sons but I was alone in the women’s section.  I sat on a wooden stool, washed myself Turkish style, with loofa, soap, a little bowl to throw water all over my body.  I also watched through a glass wall the moon shine over a glorious mountain.

I try to revisit my Turkish upbringing whenever I can.  It is bittersweet like dark baking chocolate.  It always leaves me wanting more although I do not like the taste.  It is not that I want to go back to my childhood.  Never.  So where does that longing come from?  Maybe from the losses I have lived through.  Loss of family togetherness, like the net of security used by trapeze jumpers in a circus yet mixed with a feeling of choking, wanting to be free from the web of confining family life.  The desire to recapture old memories I love and hate, that make me cry with emotions of regret and joy.  The feeling of not belonging and yet yearning to be one of the women, one of the tribe.

The loss of time.  How much do I have left here on this earth?  And maybe the sense that I have lived too long.  Enough!  Let me rest and be at peace in a way one can never achieve while consciously alive.

Leyla Mostovoy: It took me ten years to write my memoir that remains unpublished. I dabbled in Cabala and the philosophy of Buddhism to become less judgmental, learn acceptance and find the elusive peace at heart and mind.