Remembering Sunny Acres (published in NDQ 84.1/2)
The first day of fourth grade came with a new bus driver wearing a baseball jacket and thick-rimmed glasses that slid down the sweat on her nose when we told her she took us to the wrong school. By the time we arrived at John Dewey Elementary, the bell had rung and we’d missed homeroom. It was the talk of the day. But when my sister and I came home, we were surprised, even miffed, at the lack of reaction from our parents. They didn’t believe us, or not until Mrs. Tuttle, our in-the-know American neighbor, confirmed the story. It wasn’t too long afterward that we had to memorize our address. Just saying that you lived at Sunny Acres, next door to Okutan amca, wasn’t good enough.
Sunny Acres wasn’t a development. It was a hospital, and we lived on the grounds. Dad was a pulmonary specialist and we lived there in the sixties, back when living quarters were provided as a “benefit” to work at a TB hospital. The hospital was built on top of a hill and the doctors’ houses near the edge of the grounds at the bottom. There were about ten houses with at least two other Turkish families that Dad had helped bring to the United States. With the other foreign families, this was a Turkish-flavored United Nations on the west side of Richmond Road, with names like Eren and Dinçman alongside the Indian and Asian contributions of Ghatak, Clavacilia, and Chow that came and went over the years.
The houses were different only by address number. Standing in a row, they were cookie-cutter small square homes and slightly worn, the way that houses get when they’re beaten down by multiple tenants or lots of kids. Screens on the windows were bowed and dented, but if you got the screen up and stuck your head outside, you’d have seen that before Sunny Acres became a hospital, it was a farm. Our backyard was a kid’s dream: an open field dotted with oak and apple trees backing up to our very own woods.
Once it got warm our days were spent barefoot and outside. Most times it was rustling up the neighborhood kids to play war. Armed with bows and arrows whittled from forsythia bushes, we’d patrol the grounds, ready to take on kids from the other side of the street. Arrows didn’t fly very far, and never hit what you aimed for, so we’d chuck crabapples at the enemy and protect ourselves from the returning volley with garbage can lids. When we ran out of apples, we’d let ourselves get chased toward Fatso. He was my tree, a big oak with a tubby trunk and solid straight arms. We’d climb him to squirt our secret weapon, a foul-smelling juice fermented from purple berries we left to rot in Mom’s old hair-dye bottles. We knew every inch of this playground: the potholes to avoid when riding bikes downhill, where to find blackberry bushes, and which tree to shake for the best green apples. We didn’t even think of coming home for lunch or dinner until we heard Dad’s whistle. Everyone knew it, but how a thumb and middle finger could produce his shrill three-note call we never figured out. It’s not like we didn’t try.
The backyard was pretty much our territory and adults didn’t enter except for parties. In those days parties in the backyard weren’t fancy affairs with mosquito-misting systems and outdoor kitchens. It was pretty much a grill and a bag of charcoal. The picnics began on Memorial Day with the first squirt of lighter fluid onto a pile of charcoal chunks and a “stay away” wave of the hand as Dad flung a match onto the pile. With the whoosh of flames came the smell of summer. For me it was cross-hatched dents on the back of your legs if you sat too long on the lawn chairs, Turkish ladies crowding shaky card tables to park foil- wrapped plates, or, once it got dark, kids climbing into a car to tell ghost stories.
We’d get excited as the guests started pulling into the driveway. Company would bring a house gift, usually a box of Fannie May chocolates or pistachio-stuffed lokum. After the welcome hoşgeldıniz and kissing of cheeks, Mom would thank them and ask us to open a box and offer them to the guests as they got settled outside. “Hold it out and say buyrun,” she’d instruct. “Start with the women. Oldest to youngest.” This was a girl’s job, so it fell to my sister and me to grab the boxes and head out to the guests.
No matter where the parties were held, the women would always find the chairs first and congregate on one side, with the men nearby, standing in loose circles. We’d approach the oldest lady in the bunch, usually a grandmother visiting for the summer. It wasn’t hard to pick them out. They wore sweaters or knitted vests over dresses, no matter how hot it was, and held court in the middle, making you twist through a multitude of legs to offer them candy. By the time you whispered buyrun, they’d start up the usual chitchat, “Ay, ne guzel cucuklar,” and then they’d talk about you like you weren’t there.
“Gulçin looks so much like Zekiye hanim. And Serpil, just like Cahit bey,” they’d say. This would be followed by “How old are you now?” and “What are you studying?” It ended with “You’ll be a doctor when you grow up, won’t you?” and then everyone would shake their heads in agreement as if they’d said a universal truth, like gravity makes objects fall. It didn’t matter if you were six or sixteen, it was the same set of questions, a ceremony between the old and young that emphasized education and ambition as the only things worth asking about. The simple ones we could handle in Turkish, the language you were supposed to respond in, but the tougher the question, the harder the reply. It caused anxiety offering those candies. The just-arrived grannies expected any kid to know Turkish and weren’t shy about sharing their opinion. We understood Turkish, just about everything that they said, but in our house, if Mom asked, “Derslerinizı yaptınizmı?” we’d respond, “Yeah, we did our homework.” Mom and Dad spoke Turkish with each other, but they didn’t care what language we spoke. We didn’t get criticized if our Turkish wasn’t perfect or if we had American accents.
The same foods appeared at every party and there were several versions of standard things like börek. Mom’s was a buttery layered phyllo stuffed with parsley and feta cut into perfect squares. Şükran-teyze usually made talaş börek stuffed with lamb bits and sometimes someone would bring a special labor-intensive su böreği that got complimentary okhhhs from the other ladies who recognized the extra work that went into making it. The only time chips, potato salad, or Jell-O molds appeared was when the American wives brought them. When they brought their ambrosia salads there would be a miraculous rearrangement of trays and bowls so that the pink fluff with miniature marshmallows ended up on the second-rate table with the Coke and plastic cups. Even so, the dinner special was the old-fashioned American hamburger. It was the adopted star of the immigrant menu and topped with customary ketchup and mustard, but in our Turkish picnic tradition there was always someone who would misunderstand or ignore the distinction between a burger and a köfte. They would bring their patties with onion, parsley, and cumin mixed in so you’d see at least one kid with the I-got-the-dud-and-it’s-not-a-real-burger face and the maternal eat-it-anyway look that was the reply.
These were not parties where alcohol was the main event. I don’t remember anyone bringing wine or beer. It was mostly whisky and only the men drank it. After dinner the men and women would begin to commingle and if the talk before dinner was of family and kids, the after dinner talk was politics and the economy. And whether they were talking about Turkey and NATO, missiles aimed at Russia, the stock market, or Vietnam, everyone had an opinion and as they got more and more animated, more and more of them would talk at the same time. The conversation would become noisy with raucous eruptions like “Hiyar gibi adam” or “Kaz kafa,” insults lobbed at presidents or party leaders. We would laugh at how calling someone a cucumber or goose head could be so rude.
We called them all teyze and amca in the customary way to address aunts, uncles, or those older, but to us it was not just being respectful. They were our honorary relatives. Alone in this diaspora in northern Ohio, we became each other’s families, counting on them for birthdays, graduations, July Fourth, or Cumhürriyet Bayramı, the Turkish Independence Day. Of them, Yalçin amca was one of our favorites.
Yalçin Dinçman was one of Dad’s oldest friends. They’d gone to high school then medical school together. When they sent out their letters looking for positions in the States, the Dinçmans ended up in North Carolina while my parents landed in Chicago. After my Dad, Yalçin amca told the best stories. They were fascinating to us because they were tales of Dad’s life before he was married and things he would never have told us on his own. The stories were usually crazy teenage things they did in high school, like how they got drunk and dressed up as American Indians, an image we found especially amusing since Yalçin amca was shaped like a snowman, one wearing a goatee and black-rimmed glasses. Imagining his big belly in a loin cloth broke us up, but through Yalçin amca we learned how there was a pastry shop in their neighborhood in Ankara called Fok Pastanesi. Once, they climbed onto each other’s shoulders and changed Fok Patanesi to Bok Patanesi. This was hilarious to them because bok in Turkish means shit. We’d crack up that they said Fok, they’d crack up at Bok. Yalçin was exuberant and expansive in everything he did, but especially in the way he ate and talked. When he laughed, his mouth took over his face. You could see past his gold teeth down the back of his throat. When he ate, he attacked his plate. His arms would wave wildly and bits of food would fly off his fork and knife. Some of it would get stuck in his beard and if you got too close you’d risk getting some on your face.
Still, his energy was infectious, and as they traded stories of their youth both Dad and Yalçin amca would recall better and funnier stories and we would gather at their feet to listen. As they egged each other on, Dad would stand up to tell his stories. Mom would put a gentle hand on his arm and say, “yavaş, yavaş,” in a slow-down-honey kind of a way because his voice was the one that got the loudest. Dad would tell stories of their first years in the United States. How he didn’t really know English, a fact he’d somehow ignored until he actually got to Chicago and started working. As a married couple they were given a room in the residents’ quarters in a building attached to the hospital. After settling in for their first night, Dad stepped out, but couldn’t remember which floor the room was on. He got into the lift and the elevator man asked, “Up?” Dad didn’t understand what he said so he said, “Up.” When they got to the top, the man looked at him kind of puzzled when he didn’t get off. He asked, “Down?” so Dad said, “Down.” Up and down they went until the elevator man got irritated. He started asking for floor numbers. “Eight,” he said. “Eight,” Dad replied, and so on and so on. Somehow the door opened and Dad recognized their floor and dove out. He took the stairs after that.
We loved those stories. We wanted to hear them over and over again, every party. Everybody had their immigrant tales and we never tired of hearing them. By the end of the evening, when they were really loosened by the Johnny Walker Red, they’d get sentimental, reciting poems they’d learned as kids and sing old songs. Dad would bring out the tape deck and they’d raise their arms and dance side-by-side, arm-in-arm to classical Turkish music.
That will always be my idea of a picnic party. It’s odd, given that the last party at Sunny Acres was probably in the early seventies. Families started leaving Warrensville Heights to join each other in the suburbs. When that happened, the celebrations moved indoors. They became swankier as families welcomed guests into their new houses. Yet people were comfortable sitting on the ground if the house wasn’t furnished, and guests still brought food and danced in the empty living rooms. I don’t remember any big holiday that we spent alone. It’s probably why I never learned to cook for less than a crowd. Even now, my husband will say, “You’re making too much food,” and chide me for staying up late before holidays to make börek and baklava, even if it’s only the two of us celebrating.
It seemed the parties stopped after Dad died. When I came home to visit, it seemed too painful for everyone to get together like we used to. No one wanted to sit around and tell old stories when they resurrected memories of people who were gone. Then Mom got sick, more of the old guard died, and the get-togethers were more often in the cemetery than anywhere else.
The closest I get to a party of my past now is when I visit my brother and sister, who still live in Ohio. When I blow into town, there are waves of sadness, but we celebrate that we can still get together. We collect at their houses with the kids who surprise me by how fast they’ve grown, but as I look around the rooms, I am sometimes startled to see that there are no old people. The elders are now us, my brother, sister, and the visiting me.
It is between their children and friends that I am most reminded of how different things are. My nieces, who were taught to call me teyze when they were little, call me by my first name. I would never have called my aunts by their first names any more than I’d have gone to school naked. And last year, my sister’s husband added barbecued pulled pork to the menu at Courtney’s graduation party. I snuck a glance at my sister, who shrugged a “he still doesn’t get it or care” response. It’s not like we were particularly observant Muslims, but you can be sure no part of a pig ever hit the grill at a Turkish get-together. That dish would have been hidden far behind the Jell-O salad or mysteriously forgotten at those parties of my youth.
You don’t hear much Turkish spoken anymore, but the kids still want to hear stories. Not so long ago they’d gather around me on the couch and ask for “Gulch’s Weird and Gross Stories.” They weren’t the tales of immigrants in a new country, but the strange things I’d seen in my life as a doctor. I told of how I’d found worms in the intestine during a colonoscopy or how I’d taken maggots out of an infected leg, and they’d squeal in delight and disgust and beg for more grotesque details. As I think back, I remember that we must have asked for the same. How else would we have known Yalçin amca’s story of a boy who complained of buzzing in the ear and the cause being a family of cockroaches that had taken up residence.
On a recent visit, I noticed that my brother’s daughter, Aliye, was more curious about her grandfather and how her Dad grew up. Somehow the subject of demonstrating affection in Middle Eastern culture came up. I mentioned how my father demonstrated affection more easily by doing things for us, rather than telling us. I gave her an example of how her Dad was similar in that way. That he showed his love by cooking for them and faithfully packed their lunches every day, making sure to include a variety of food because he worried they wouldn’t eat if they got bored with what was in the bags.
“Yeah,” she said, “Dad made lunch every day. He’d pack a hard- boiled egg ‘because it was good for me.’ I told him once I wouldn’t eat it unless it was dyed blue and stuck on a Popsicle stick, so that’s what he did. He dyed them crazy colors for a year and put notes inside too. All the other kids were jealous.” I chuckled and told her how her Dad hated hard-boiled eggs growing up. How my Mom would seat us in the kitchen at the old house on Richmond Road and make toast with hard-boiled eggs, but, when Mom wasn’t looking, he’d lob the yolks into a storage bin in the stove. The drawer was rarely used, but when my mother opened it to clean sometime later, she discovered dozens of moldy green balls courtesy of her father.
She laughed and said, “I didn’t know that about him.”
“Mm-uh,” I said. “Maybe there are lots of things you don’t know about him.” So I wonder, who will remember the stories that we grew up with? Who will be the curator of our memories?
When I fly to Cleveland now, it’s usually my brother who picks me up. Last time he told me that his company got the contract to tear down Sunny Acres. The ride to his house passes an exit close to where we used to live, so I asked him to go slowly so I could see the old house. The houses are gone and a new landmark, BJ’s Wholesale Foods, sits almost across the street from where we lived. The houses are no more, but you can still see their outlines. I can pick out the cracked driveway where we played a made-up game of tag we called “germ” and the crooked yellow peace sign my brother spray painted onto the brick. Fatso’s still there, and the apple trees. If I close my eyes, I can still see kids crowding into Okutan amca’s old white car, telling ghost stories in the dark.
Gulchin Ergun is a proud Turkish-American and an Ohio native. She received her medical degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland and is a practicing gastroenterologist in Houston, Texas. Ergun is a member of the Inprint Writers Workshop at Houston Methodist Hospital.