Azerbaijan International

Spring 1999 (7.1)
Pages 45-47

World War II

Altay Mammadov
(1930- )

Mother Had Grown Old

A Short Story

World War II in Azerbaijan
A newspaper reporter is interviewing a famous Azerbaijani chemist. The interview isn't going very well, as the surly chemist is not very talkative. His manner changes dramatically, however, when a swath of indigo-colored fabric falls out from among his papers. The piece of material reminds him of a story he does want to share, the story of his childhood in Ganja and the sacrifices his mother made during the war for the sake of her children.

Right: Veterans of World War II at the Dedication to the Memorial at Shahidlar Khiyabani (October 1998) in Baku.

We lived on the bank of Ganjachay. I spent my childhood and teenage years there. My mother was a math teacher and my father was an army major.
There were three of us children. My brother was a year and a half younger, and my sister, two years older. They were both cute-neither of them looked like me. My father was a tall man. Under his nose, there was a pinch of black mustache like Charlie Chaplin's. Father was very handsome. He walked tall. But Mother was even more beautiful. I have never seen such a beauty in any of the cities of the world that I have traveled to so far. Father's division was often located in Hajikand (near Ganja). When he would come home, Mother would dress us up in clean clothes and take us out for evening strolls.

Myself - I liked to play in the sand. When it came time to go out, I often begged Mother to let me stay home. It surprised both her and my father. There was another reason besides playing in the sand which kept me at home. I looked very ugly dressed in cute clothes with a red tie around my neck. It seemed to me as if pretty clothes just emphasized my defects. Sometimes my pitiful pleas made them agree to let me stay home. Then, with dirty hands and dusty clothes, I would run into our street where the sidewalk was paved with asphalt.

When the sun was about to set and cast its red shadows across the sky, when the sweet odor of white acacias spread throughout the neighborhood, that was when my mother, father, brother and sister left home. For some reason I always wanted Mother to wear her suit made of this "indigo" fabric.

As her black, bright curls spread neatly across her shoulders, they enhanced her beauty a thousand times. It seemed as if she became taller, her face acquired more brightness, her large eyes became more vivid and excited, her thin eyebrows looked more distinct.

The war ended. Father didn't return.
We stopped waiting, although Mother is still waiting.

- Altay Mammadov

When I saw my mother in her suit walking side by side with Father, Sister and Brother, I wanted everything to remain exactly as it was. What is the greatest desire of any child? To grow up as soon as possible. But I wanted to remain a child and see my father and mother stay young forever. I wished that they could always hold the hands of my sister and brother as they took them out for a walk to our famous park, down our Sabir Street full of gentle memories, to the bank of Ganjachay. I wanted time to stop. I wanted the hands of all the clocks in the world to stop on seven-the time when Father, Mother, Sister and Brother went for a walk.

But the hands of the clocks plunged ahead with such a surge that even kids grew old-and war began [World War II].

Father left. Then letters came, triangular letters.
1 Mother's responsibilities increased. She began collecting copper pots, woolen socks, warm gloves and empty bottles for the front. I also collected them.

We didn't have as much food as before. We could survive, but my brother and sister became very weak. Mother was especially worried about my sister. She had been very ill once during childhood. Mother used to serve the largest portion to my sister, then to my brother and finally, to me. Herself, she was always the last to eat. Sometimes she didn't take anything at all, saying, "I've already had food." She used to look at my plate and then into my eyes. I knew what her kind eyes wanted to say. They wanted to say, "Aren't you offended that you are left with the smallest share?"

I tried to tell her with my eyes, "No, Mom, absolutely not. If you want, you can give all the food to them because I'm a Kaloghlan."

The boys in our street used to tease me by calling me 'Kaloghlan.'
2 Once I had a fight with one of them-he ended up with a bloody nose. When Mother scolded me for that, I asked her, "Why do they call me Kaloghlan? I'll beat up anybody who calls me that."

"Why should you beat them, Kaloghlan? You are like a buffalo, you will be a strapping young fellow, like a wrestler." As soon as she told me that, "Kaloghlan" sounded like an enchanted word to me. It was the greatest gift to me.

I wanted to be called Kaloghlan everywhere by everybody. I even wished I was registered under this name at school. Unlike today, I was very strong back then. Before the war, I had eaten very well and could lift dumbbells weighing 16 kilos. Everybody used to say, "Kaloghlan will grow up to be a wrestler." Looks like my mother was counting on that.

Mother's teaching hours increased and she worked at several schools. At night she graded papers. I realized she was worried about us. She worked hard to provide us with food.

Once, three men came to our house and took away our cupboard made of walnut. In the evening, I saw a sack of flour and a bottle of sunflower oil in the house. The sack was in place of the cupboard. The dishes from the cupboard were stacked on the windowsill. For some reason, I couldn't take my eyes off the place where the cupboard used to be. Mother sensed that and said, "Don't worry, Kaloghlan. After the war is over, we'll get a cupboard that's even better."

"Let me go find a job, Mom. I'm strong and I'm already 13 years old."

"No, sweetheart, I can't take you away from school. I have a feeling that you will make a good engineer and build houses. As long as I live, you must study."

When the second flour sack arrived, the Turkeman carpet that hung on the wall as part of Mother's dowry disappeared. And with the third sack, the wall clock disappeared.

Next, Mother took her scarf out of the chest and looked at me, "I don't wear it anyhow."

Every time Mother opened and closed the chest, either flour, potatoes or oil arrived in our house. At last the chest, too, was gone.

Mother used to say, "Don't worry, Kaloghlan. When the war is over, we'll buy everything."

In the winter it was difficult to get firewood. There was hardly anyone to chop it and hardly any vehicles to carry it from the forest. But I had found a way to get firewood. Those involved in cutting the wood were elderly. They needed to catch their breath every ten minutes. I used to help two old people after classes. They sawed while I chopped with an ax. The old people said "bravo," admiring me.

Once I remember my mother sitting in a cold room, looking at my sister with anxious and concerned eyes. "If we can just heat the house, everything will be fine. This year the winter will be very severe."

World War II in AzerbaijanTwo days later, I brought the firewood that I had earned for helping out the old people. When Mother returned from work, she found the house warm and wanted to kiss me. I hugged her arms and hid my head in her chest.

Right: Film about World War II. Children who found a loaf of bread share it with each other. Courtesy: Azerbaijan Cinema Archives.

For some reason, even in early childhood, I avoided her when she wanted to kiss and fondle me. But when she was asleep I used to rub my face against the heels of her feet. When she was not at home, I used to smell her clothes and look at her indigo suit. The suit smelled like the pleasant years before the war. After Father left, Mother never wore it again. Each time I opened the closet, I imagined that the war had ended, and Father had returned, and Mother wore that suit and took my sister and brother out for a walk when the sky was filled with a copper hue and acacias spread their sweet fragrance.

Once after the chest had been taken away, I opened the closet and found that Mother's turquoise sweater had disappeared. "Probably it has gone for tonight's potatoes and oil," I thought. It shocked me.

"Please, Mother, let me find a job. I can work in five places. I'm almost 15."

"Don't worry, Son. Study hard, very hard. I have a feeling that you will make a great scientist."

Next, Mother's dark-blue dress disappeared. Then she made a dress for my sister out of her "Boston" suit. Sister had turned 16. Mother tried so hard to make sure that my sister was dressed well. We are not in a position to understand relationships between mothers and daughters. Mothers want their daughters to look beautiful. They suffer deprivations for the sake of their daughters.

Fewer and fewer clothes were left. I was horrified each time. Once I hugged and kissed Mother's hands. "At least keep the indigo suit, Mom," I begged.

"Why, sweetheart?"

"I don't know, Mom, but please, don't give it away." I couldn't explain my desires. "If you sell it, I'll be offended."

"OK, Kaloghlan, don't worry."

Somehow, it seemed to me that if that suit disappeared, everything would be finished, everything would lose its significance and none of my wishes would come true. Besides the suit, Mother only had two old dresses left. One was black and made of wool. The other was blue.

It looked like the war was coming to an end, as if it was just waiting for spring to come. It looked like the suit would survive the war. There was an atmosphere of peace. The streetlights were once again allowed to be turned on at night.

Suddenly my sister became very ill. They said it was pneumonia. Mother watched over her bed at night. Sister had a very high fever. Mother's eyes were red. She was sleepless. Also, perhaps, she cried after she went to bed. At last Sister's temperature dropped. But she had become very weak and had to stay in bed. The doctor advised us to take good care of her. Once when I came home from school, I saw a lot of butter-yellow butter with such a pleasant aroma-on the table. There was also cream and honey in jars. Then I noticed a leg of mutton on the windowsill. Mother was plucking a chicken. She was in a very good mood. Seeing me, she said in a loud voice, "Kaloghlan, my hands are dirty, mix the honey with the cream. There is also some 'tandir' bread."

I couldn't understand what was going on. Mother seemed to be hiding something with her joyous voice. But what was she hiding? I put my school bag near the bookshelf and reached for the bread. Suddenly I felt as if my hand had frozen and my heart stopped. I carefully went up to the closet and opened the door. It was closed. It was the first time the closet door had been closed in our house. I heard Mother's voice, "Why aren't you eating, Kaloghlan?"
"I'm not hungry," I told her.

I waited for Mother to go down to the yard. Then I found the key in her jacket pocket. My hands were trembling. "I hope it's still there."

When I opened the closet, I didn't dare lift my eyes for a while. Then I heard Mother's footsteps on the stairs and I opened my eyes. The closet was like a dark cave. I closed the door and walked out.

"Where are you going, Kaloghlan?"

I didn't say anything.

"Where are you going? Aren't you going to have some food?"

I didn't answer. For the first time in my life, I was offended by my mother.

I went downstairs and started to run away as she called, "Don't go, Kaloghlan, please come back." Her voice trembled. "Do you hear me? Come back."

I walked out into the street. It was as if I had lost my sense of direction. I didn't know where I was going or why. I was just going. After a while I found myself in the Baghbanlar section of town. Then I reversed my direction and found myself in the quarter of Shahseven. I was going. That's all. As if all the pain in my body was gathering in my feet. It seemed to me that if I stopped, all my strained nerves would break.

By late afternoon, I had arrived at Sabir Street. Then I realized that I was tired. I sat on one of the benches in the park and looked at the dried-up trees along the Ganjachay. If there hadn't been a strong wind, God knows how long I would have sat there. Sometimes you even lose your sense of judgment. I was angry with my sister because she had fallen ill, because she hadn't taken care of herself before the war ended. It was a strange logic, wasn't it? Or was it a total lack of logic?

I arrived back home late. Mother hugged and kissed me. With her long, thin candle-like fingers, she wiped away the tears that couldn't help welling up in my eyes.

"Look at you. I thought you were a grown man. The suit didn't buy us, we bought it. As soon as the war ends and Father returns, we'll buy a better one."

The war ended. Father didn't return. We stopped waiting, although Mother is still waiting. My sister grew very healthy. Mother had saved her from the grasp of the war. She graduated from a medical college, worked two years, then got married.

My weaker brother became a lightweight wrestler. Now he is a coach.

My student years began. I had saved some money from my stipend to buy a suit. But I couldn't find that "indigo" material anywhere, and nobody could tell me where to find it. People said they didn't make indigo any more and that maybe I could find it quite by accident at a garage sale. I often went to Guba Square. Once a week, there was a big bazaar held there.

I often dreamed of Mother's suit. I kept this piece of fabric in my briefcase after the suit was made. Later on when I traveled, I took it with me to search for the identical material. I often couldn't concentrate in class, as my mind was filled with images of the copper red sky, Mother in her indigo suit, Father with his Charlie Chaplin mustache-I could even smell the acacias.

It seemed to me that if I could only find that material I would be able to return everything to the way it used to be and even bring Father back.

I don't know why it was so easy for me to master chemistry. I didn't become a wrestler, I became a chemist. I wrote my master's and doctorate dissertations one after the other. You know the rest of the story. I married and had children. But still I couldn't forget that indigo suit. I traveled a lot on business. Wherever I traveled, I would stop by stores with that sample of material in hand. Three years ago, I found three meters of it quite by chance in Moscow. I was so happy that I almost wanted to leave the city in the middle of the session. On my return, I didn't go directly to Baku. I went to Ganja via Tbilisi.

"I've found it, Mother," I said. "Have it made into a suit quickly."

"What have you found?" she looked at me in surprise.

"The fabric of your suit. Do it quickly. Find a good tailor. I want to see it on you next time I come."

"OK, don't worry," she looked at me admiringly. She didn't call me Kaloghlan. Probably, formal names and titles affect relationships between mothers and sons, but I wanted her to call me Kaloghlan with that magic voice of hers.

"I'll be back in one or two months."

"Don't worry."

"Have it made up in the same style as your old one."


I returned to Baku. Some time later my wife and children went to visit Mother in Ganja. A few days later when they returned, I saw that my younger daughter was wearing a jacket made of that material.

"Perhaps an extra piece was left, and Mother had a jacket made for her granddaughter," I thought. In the evening my wife showed me her new indigo suit.

"Do you like it? I've had it made up from the material that Mother gave me."

I didn't say anything. She looked at me in surprise. I think I offended her.

A year later, I saw the identical material in a store in Riga. I bought a piece and took it to Mother.

"Mother, I want you to take it to the tailor's right now, in front of my eyes."

What do you think happened? I saw that material appear on my sister. I didn't say anything. How could I have reprimanded Mother?

Just recently I found that material again. "No, Mother. I won't give it to you the way I did the last time." I knew Mother's size, so I found one of the best tailors in town and somehow I managed to describe the style. To tell you the truth, they did a great job. I was so happy. I returned to Baku and took my children and we left for Ganja. I wanted my children to see Mother's youth. My sister and other relatives in Ganja came to see us.

Mother thanked me.

"Put it on right now."

"I'll do it later," she said, trying to postpone it.

"No, right now. This very second."

She went into the other room. I waited. It seemed to me that I had gotten hold of the past years and that I would return them just now. It seemed to me that Mother would come with her black hair on her shoulders and would bring that copper-red sky, Father, the childhood of my sister and brother and the smell of acacias with her. It seemed to me that everybody would stop to watch this scene.

I thought I would become that little Kaloghlan again and watch this scene-that suit and Mother's black hair-me with dusty clothes on, washing my hands in the ditch.

Mother came in. Everybody congratulated her. My dear, precious Mother looked at me shyly. She felt uncomfortable.

I could hardly restrain myself. "Where is your black luminous hair, Mother?" The color of her gray hair was overpowered by the color of the suit. The brightness of the material only emphasized the wrinkles on her face.
The indigo no longer suited Mother. Mother had grown old.

1 Triangular letters - refers to letters that were sent during the war to announce the death of a serviceman. Up
2 'Kal' means a buffalo; 'oghlan' refers to a young boy. The name implies strength. Up

Translated by Jala Garibova

Azerbaijan International (7.1) Spring 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.

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