Grandmother loved the Latin names of the flowers she’d raise in her greenhouse and in her garden. She believed you should know everything about the things you love.
She made the rounds in the afternoon from one area of the garden to the other: the rose patch, the dark ivy twisting around a metal arch leading to the left of the house, the white lotus flowers floating on the pond on the other side.
She told us never to lean over the pond, even if the frogs called to us or the goldfish swam near the surface. It was deceptively deep. She also told us to never walk on the edge of the terrace, where the wild violets wilted over the side, ready to drop to the garden below.
Her home was a castle surrounded by beds of flowers and grass with the Marmara Sea a few steps below.
Grandmother’s childhood home had a long decorative pool in the center of the foyer lined with marble columns.
Her father would place her between them for portraits in silk dresses and braided hair. She’d spend her days taking long walks with her nanny, along the coast or to her aunt’s house. She’d walk around the garden with the gardener or watch the laundress who would come once a week to wash the family’s clothing.
Grandmother’s house had use of natural gas, running water, heating, and drinkable tap water. Her father, Ali Raif Bilek, was a major civil engineer in Turkey. He’d travel often for work; six months at a time, so Grandmother rarely saw him when she was growing up.
In 1951, Ali Raif began construction on the Birecik Bridge which crossed the Euphrates River. It was completed in 1956. During that time, Ali Raif also purchased the first automatic washing machine available in Turkey. He was a man invested in the future.
One of his ancestors was Sultan Bayezid II’s subaşı, a post similar to chief of security. The subaşı was also in charge of setting up the Sultan’s tent when he traveled.
Such men were described as hesabini bilen—“men who settled their accounts.”
Growing up, grandmother came to depend on her mother. Her mother fixed all the misunderstandings between father and children and kept harmony in the house. Her father was often irritable. He flung a plate across the dining room once because he was displeased with dinner.
He had softer sides, too, she said.
He would sing arias in his room when he thought no one was listening. He took his wife to clinics all over Europe to find a cure for her migraines. He sent Grandmother a surprise ticket to Geneva as a high school graduation present. He had his money and his gestures.
One night, Ali Raif invited a neighbor, Hüseyin, to dinner in return for fixing their new washing machine. Grandmother treated him with courtesy and served tea and coffee. After, Hüseyin begged his older brother to meet Grandmother and spoke of her with admiration.
The brother, named Asim, put a hand on Hüseyin’s shoulder.
He told him, Dear little brother, I can’t marry a rich girl. We’re just a modest family from Anatolia.
But the brother’s aunt and mother also knew of Grandmother and insisted he meet her.
They went to a waterfront cafe in Suadiye on the northern shore of the Marmara Sea. Then, to a pastry shop in Beyoglu and walked down Istiklal Avenue.
After that, they would meet secretly to talk and drink coffee together.
The day Asim went to Grandmother’s home to ask her father for her hand, Ali Raif said, This will not work.
A family friend had advised Ali Raif against allowing Grandmother to marry Asim.
He wouldn’t suit your family, the friend had said.
Around the same time, Grandmother’s sister, Tina, was going through a divorce. Ali Raif could not allow another doomed marriage among his daughters.
Devastated, Asim left the country on a business trip. Grandmother sent him a letter asking him to be patient. She wanted to marry him.
Asim was living with his brother Kerim and his mother in the seaside town of Yeşilköy. He decided to rent an apartment in a wealthier district for his soon-to-be wife and himself before their wedding.
Grandmother purchased the living room and bedroom furniture and Asim completed the dining room and kitchen. But he was worried. He was about to marry a girl who was used to more than he could offer.
A close friend reminded Asim that Grandmother’s family wealth provided her with a good education and etiquette. She had traveled more, and as a result, she had seen more.
Grandmother’s fluency in French and English would aid Asim during business trips and in deciphering manuals for machinery that would arrive for his factories from foreign companies.
After a year in their new apartment, Asim asked Grandmother if they could move back to Yeşilköy.
She said yes, and they moved into a two-floored house with Asim’s other brother, Kerim, and mother. They lived on separate floors but shared all their meals together.
Asim’s mother would set the table for breakfast and dinner. She would never place glasses for water. Grandmother had to remind herself that in the village where Asim and his family came from, they rarely drank water because if you wanted any, you had to get it yourself from the well.
Asim’s brother, Kerim, was paralyzed, having fallen from a tree in their garden when he was in seventh grade. He was climbing to the top in search of delicious figs. A thick branch broke his fall, but his hips caved in and he was left paralyzed from the lower chest down.
Grandmother showed me the same fig trees that stand outside our house walls. The figs fall, forming red and green fleshy graves for stray dogs and cats to stride over.
Grandmother played pinochle with Kerim and they gossiped about their neighbors.
One morning, Kerim threw a Quran into the furnace and Grandmother had to convince Asim that his brother needed professional help. They couldn’t live like this.
Asim took Kerim to various doctors in search of miracle cures. Kerim was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Vevey, Switzerland for a few years.
The nuns soon demanded Kerim be taken back home after he’d set himself on fire by pressing a lit cigarette onto his mattress.
Asim and Grandmother brought Kerim back home and he died a few years later.
Grandmother cried. She still cries whenever someone mentions Kerim’s name.
Grandmother had three children. She also became a board member of Asim’s company.
She visited the factories and offices. She posed for photographs at openings, ceremonies, and celebrations. She kept her home clean and beautiful. She picked fresh flowers from her garden every day.
During a check up, her doctor saw a shadow on her breastbone. Her doctor said if was cancer, he could remove the breast or just the cancerous portion.
Remove the whole thing, Grandmother said.
You did this to her, Asim told their three children.
The day after surgery, a nurse walked in and told Grandmother to get up and take a shower.
My Grandmother stared at the tubes coming out of her.
What will I do with these?
I’ll hold them, but you will wash yourself. She brought out shampoo and my grandmother offered her left hand, the side that still had a breast and lymph tissue, the side that from this point on, could not get infected or hurt.
No, the other hand, the nurse said. Don’t be afraid to use it.
Grandmother asked her doctors to lower the dosage of her painkillers because they made her tired.
Look at the flowers everyone sent, she said. She got out of bed and began to check the water levels in the vases. She moved some of the flowers closer to the window, especially the wild violets.
Wild violets are considered a weed by some, but she loved them. They adapted.
I woke up on a Sunday morning and checked my phone.
The women in the family have a group conversation that never stops. Grandmother reads the messages and saves the photos but never writes anything.
There was a single message from my mother. She and my aunt were at the hospital.
Grandmother fell from her terrace into the garden below as she was picking flowers. But her mind is sound. At this age, the body may break but the mind is important.
I call and the rest of the information is told in parts. My mother says the stray kitten that hangs out on the terrace tripped Grandmother. Maybe she just got dizzy and stepped one step too far.
I know every part of that terrace. The granite edge, the two columns on either end, covered in ivy, keeping the house up. The sun sets at a point blocked by the left column but sometimes jasmine will grow on it too, so the scent will make up for the view.
A large magnolia tree rises up near the center of the terrace from the garden below it. Right at the edge of the house, the ground slants down and a few marble steps lead to an indoor pool. The tree has been there since I can remember, larger than the magnolia tree that my own room’s walls press against.
Sometimes if a flower is close enough, I’ll reach out my window to snap a bloom off the tree and bring it down to my mother. I’ve slipped a few times and heaved myself back inside.
Grandmother couldn’t have held onto anything. She probably saw the little black and white kitten watching her as she fell. She broke her hip and tailbone.
But her mind is sound and she is aware, my mother and aunt repeat on the phone.
I think about the damage of lying on a bed for four months, of walking again after having hip surgery, of the pain she will still feel as the weather changes and the winds pick up outside her seaside home. I think about how this wasn’t her first fall but reading the words “she fell from her terrace into the garden,” in my bed in New York, miles away from home, creates a new kind of horror.
I want to go back home- to see her when she wakes up from surgery, but several relatives tell me there is nothing I can do. Nothing anyone can do but sit and wait, wait for her old bones to heal.
They’ve raised my hospital bed so I can look out the window. There are flowers by the lake.
You were the one who told us to stay away from the edge of that terrace, I say.
She laughs. She says, I know. I was just trying to pick flowers.
Grandmother was trying to reach the wild violets.