Wednesday, May 23, 2007


A big part of my trip to Istanbul was to say goodbye to Birsen (above), a family friend who died this year. For me it is a bit weird just to call her a family friend because although she wasn't a blood relative, she was the closest of family (i.e. family friend just doesn't seem nearly strong enough). I really loved Birsen and still do. Though I know she has passed, I still feel the need to talk of my love for her in the present, if only because every time I think about her I am still filled with love.

Birsen lived a pretty amazing life. She was born to a Turkish family in a small village in Bulgaria. Her family owned a broom factory, but lost everything after the war when the communists took over. An interesting early example of how much people liked Birsen comes from her childhood. In the village Birsen's mother had an older sister who was married, but had been unable to have any children. Birsen's mom agreed to let her sister raise Birsen (though they still saw each other everyday since it was a small village) so as to give her a child to rear. That sister then ended up having a son and Birsen's mother then asked her sister to give Birsen back. Birsen, however, had won her heart and despite having a son, she wouldn't give Birsen up.

In any case, in the 50s Birsen's family was able to emigrate and go to Istanbul. That is pretty rare, a lot of Bulgarian Turks immigrated to Turkey in the 70s, but in the 50s it was pretty much unheard of with Bulgaria being in heyday of its communist repression. Anyway, they managed and made it out, though of course they had nothing. The whole family, however, stuck together, living in a poor section of Istanbul, but all working together to improve things for the whole family. The opportunities abroad, however, were much better and Birsen through luck and connections was able to get a visa to go and work in the US (later I would ask Brisen why she went to the US when all the other Turks were going to Germany and she just said that didn't want to do what everyone else was doing and wanted something different).

After working first for one other family, Birsen then ended up working for my mother's family out on on Long Island. She lived with my mom's family for twenty years. Birsen cooked and cleaned, but she was smart, got American citizenship, and laid the framework for her later import/export business (at the time buying jeans in bulk at cheap American prices, and then taking them back with her to sell in Turkey). Birsen and my grandmother would cook Italian, Ukrainian, and Turkish dishes (I am pretty jealousy of the culinary world my mother grew up in), and Birsen became became part of the family as she was there and took part in all the major events of my mom's family (graduations, weddings, retirements). In that time Birsen also learned to speak English like a Brooklynite, though ironically not from my Brooklynite Grandfather.

After that time, Birsen got married and went back to live in Turkey, having saved enough money to live comfortably and start her business of importing bath and kitchen items for the luxury department stores of Istanbul. She came back to visit fequently, and always seemed to be there for the major events like my high school graduation. A lot of what I know about Birsen's time with my mother's family is from stories (I was not yet in existance at the time), but one of the most wonderful memories I have of her is when I went to visit her five years ago in Istanbul. She was a horrible tour guide (she had no interest in the old stuff) and would send me off to do things on trips, but she taught me a lot about Turkey and almost killed me with her overly generous if deliscious Turkish breakfasts. Bisren was really Turkey for me, something that made it very important for me to go back after she had passed so I would have some new memories in Istanbul (fortunately with members of Birsen's family).

A few years later Birsen was diagnosed with breast cancer and started coming to visit, as my mom coordinated her doctor's visits. Though conditions weren't the best, it was nice to have her around as she would always laugh and joke (giving my father a run for his money, something he needs), while at the same time taking a genuine interest and pride in what my brother and I were doing (she was always very supportive of my going to Kazakhstan and wanted to visit me). It was really in this time that Birsen became like a second mother to me.

Early this year Birsen passed and it hit me pretty hard. She had such tremendous energy and really fought to the end and it was somehow impossible for me to imagine that her energy was gone. It was made all the harder by the fact that when she passed I was here in Vienna, without anyway who really understood how wonderful she was. It was great to then be able to go to Turkey and spend time with Birsen's niece Evren, and talk about Birsen and all her quirks.

While I was in Turkey I had wanted to visit Birsen's grave. I wasn't able to because she had been burried on a small family plot near where her family had lived when they first came to Turkey and the whole area is being redeveloped (read: knocked down, except for the graveyard of course). The fact that the place where Birsen had spent her formative years doesn't exist anymore somehow seemed appropriate to me. Birsen had been an incredible woman. She was an independent woman who came from a society that doesn't encourage women to be independent, a successful immigrant in a country where natives have a hard enough time making ends meet, and person who despite growing up in great hardship was full of humor and positive energy. They don't make them like her anymore. I suppose that is why it seemed appropriate to me that the place where she had spent her formative years doesn't exist anymore either. It was a mold meant to be used only once.

You were one of a kind Birsen and I miss you.

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