In the early 1890s, Frederick Douglass gave a speech about the nature of a self-made man who must weather unfriendly circumstances, a lack of familial support or inheritance, and minimal formal schooling in order to make a name and a proper place for himself in the world. According to Douglas, who coined the phrase, self-made men achieved success purely through unyielding will and daily hard work that was unclouded by trickery and lies. Self-made women were not mentioned in this speech, or any other discussions of the pursuit of happiness and the American Dream until around the time Ayn Rand fled Soviet Russia in the 1930s and stayed up nights punching typewriter keys, spinning her capitalist manifesto in a friend’s kitchen, desperately hoping to be counted amongst the big boys some day. Both Douglass and Rand professed the importance of a sartorial commitment in projecting the aura of a serious businessperson, a trusted merchant of ideas, or as in the case of my paternal grandmother, Anna, a mixture of the two.
My view of her blue flower dress was usually from behind, trying to keep up, holding on to the hem, or pulling on the belt to ask a question; to ask for lunch; to ask when we would be done with our day. She hisses at me from the side of her mouth, shoos me away, and keeps moving—determined, focused, and unmoved. The deep front pockets of her dress have keys, change, and a yellowed handkerchief. The top buttonhole is stretched out from being tugged on when she moved the collar aside to put the folded bills into her bra. The sides of the dress are used as hand towels to wipe off the sweat collected from her neck and the foam gathered at the corners of her thin mouth.
The tiny red flowers on indigo background were rubbed away to pink and grey by the round flesh of her ass. Granny would stretch, fold, and tuck the dress in the front to sit low to the ground with her elbows dug into her splayed open thighs ready to peel a bowl of potatoes or comb through a bucket of rice. Her ass made a fortune cookie shape from the back, with the curve of her spine poking through like ants marching to that black mound of twisted up hair slumping off to the side of her neck.
Anna was a hard working, hand-on-hip bitch in a sturdy, worn out cotton flower dress. Just like every summer before I was prepared to follow her to work or be left alone all day to read and space out in her giant and dusty apartment with my uncles sitting around in their underwear to manage the heat, reading the paper with an unpenetratable focus. She sold nightgowns and cotton dresses to long-term hospital patients. Anna bribed and charmed the staff, and once inside was able to go room-to-room convincing the sick that their healing would be aided by comfortable, utilitarian clothing modeled by her. She was an illiterate, self-made widow, and that dress was her magic business suit.
Anna thought up her business venture of selling clothes in hospitals all by herself after her husband died of tuberculosis when the youngest of her four living children, my father, Gabriel, was only seven months old. She spent the better part of her last pregnancy and post-partum caring for her ailing husband, Yevdo, in a crowded Baku hospital where the patients were largely left to their own devices, many unable to send someone home to gather their things if their stay was suddenly prolonged. In 1958, the WWII legacy of Jewish erasure was still an open wound and Stalin-era paranoia ran rampant, dictating the way neighbors spied on neighbors for anti-Communist deeds, like trying to make some money on the side, as my grandmother was forced to do after burying Yevdo. She also unofficially changed her name from the Hebrew Chaya to Anna, outside the home, taking on a new persona that would allow her to blend in with fewer questions about her religious affiliation. If she ever ran into a Jewish patient during a transaction, her real name was like an invisible business card she could share to confirm solidarity in a predominantly Muslim-Azerbaijani culture, and guarantee specialness to the patients in a sea of impersonal visits by overwhelmed doctors.
Granny sourced her merchandise wholesale directly from a garment factory and later got to know the true value of all the colors, patterns and sizes by trial and error on the sale floor of the hospitals and nursing homes. These chalatyu, were simply made cotton housedresses hitting at the knee, with short sleeves, buttons down the front, two large square outside pockets and a matching belt cinched at the waist. This clothing was considered appropriate for chores, relaxation, errands and most other casual day-to-day living in a modern, hot desert climate. It seemed to make the patients feel like they were both inside and outside of the hospital. It resembled a uniform of sorts and so it didn’t boast rarity and invite envy in a country where sameness and uniformity are not expected but required. Mostly, it gave the patients something new to do, something new to ponder, gossip about and look at. Anna took great care to pick out a variety of flower prints; some with tiny yellow roses on a red background; some, with dark violets on a subdued, brown cotton. Running out of a size was usually a good thing because it created a demand for that particular color. Or it gave someone the urge to lose weight to buy a dress they tried on and felt attached to. While some, more sickly patients were encouraged to get healthy and buy for when they will fill out their clothing better. Both narratives were hinting at a future that pointed to health. Granny was actually so prolific that she eventually moved onto towels, robes and slippers and excelled at selling those with the same self-made persistence of a woman on a mission to expand her empire.
“Salamaleikum, djun,” she greets those who have recently checked in, setting down the bags at her sides, pausing in the doorway and leaning in furtively to glance at their room as though newly assessing it as well as the incoming, ambivalent patients.
“What great test has god bestowed on you, my dear?” granny asks.
“It’s my kidneys, my god, may I beat the devil right out of me. Maleikum asalam. What brings you and this little girl here?”
“A dear friend down the hall has not a thread to wear besides this ugly green robe they give you here, god knows whose diseases are in those stains they can’t wash out. I brought many different things for her to look at. Would you like to see?”
“You’ve come all this way with some heavy bags, dear woman,” the patient says through squinting eyes and hands already fingering the neat stack she took out and put on their bed, looking back at me as she raises her victory flag.
Her customer motions my way, “Why aren’t you at home playing with dolls, little girl?”
“This child has no mother,” she looks around as though someone might be listening in and reporting her to some disgrace police even though she has told this story before. “Her mother is sick with drink, a Russian, god forbid, I told my stupid son to stay away from her, those witches out there, they put a spell on a young boy. Kaldunki (witches).”
“I don’t want my husband to find out, but woman-to-woman, I have been needing a few new things, so I’ll get a dress. Can you come back with slips to wear under this, and scarves too?”
“This money is sacred and it will bring many blessings to us all,” granny says as she folds up the ten-rubli bill into a small square. She kisses the square of money and presses it to each eye methodically, murmuring something in Farsi only grown-ups ever seem to understand. The cash disappears into her bra.
My granny is a one-woman prayer circle who gives the money of the ailing a new spiritual journey and calling bigger than the daily hospital grind.