by Mithra Ballesteros
In a small corner of my kitchen hangs this framed needlepoint rooster, one of my most beloved possessions. My Persian grandmother stitched it when she was a young girl living in Hamadan, Iran, probably sometime in the 1920s.
Her name was Zarrin and she was very talented with a needle. After her father died, she supported herself and her mother with her own handiwork. Then, in 1927, she met and married my grandfather. I think this is a piece she did before her marriage.
After her marriage, my grandmother told her new husband that she wished to study French and music. It was not typical for a woman to play an instrument, or for a married woman to continue an education in any way. But she was his second wife — young, intelligent and beautiful — and he obliged. They made their home in the Jewish section of town away from the judgmental eyes of the Muslim community and my grandfather arranged for a Jewish instructor from the nearby school to come to the house. Zarrin took lessons on the tar, a sitar-like instrument, one day a week and learned French another day.
During this time in Iran, the Shah was on a campaign to modernize the country and he forbade women veiling themselves in public. As a result, many women did not leave their homes. My grandmother, however, went out daily, and the only thing covering her hair was a French hat.
She was an unusual woman. I wish I had known her better. For most of my life, we were separated by oceans. Later, when she came to live with my family in America, I was already in college. But I have this needlepoint. The closer I study it, the more I see.
The instructions on the back are written in Farsi and in French. This delights me to no end because I, like my grandmother, love all things French. From the diagram that details the rooster’s eye, or ‘oeil’, it is clear that this was not an easy pattern. I imagine my grandmother taking great care to execute the flinty look in that rooster’s eye.
Despite the canvas’s complexity, I find no evidence of mistakes or tangled threads. The pattern is as clearly discernible on the reverse as it is on the front. Proof, I believe, of my grandmother’s skill. (Persian rugs are the same way. If you want to judge a rug’s quality, turn it over to examine the knots.)
The last thing I notice is that the canvas is not quite completed. My grandmother leaves blades of grass unstitched. Maybe she ran out of thread? I prefer to think that she chose not to finish. Maybe she figured the thing was good enough.
I love her for not finishing. She let the unimportant things go. I like to think we have that trait in common as well.
She would not agree with me though, that her needlepoint merited a frame and a place of honor in my house. Nor a few paragraphs in an essay. She herself quit needlepointing when she had a chance at a more valuable education. It’s only canvas and thread. She knew that the domestic arts could only get you so far.
The last thing I imagine about my grandmother is her surprise. After all, how was she to know that someday, her vibrant rooster would live in an American kitchen, the most treasured possession of her college-educated granddaughter.
The Rooster in My Kitchen
by Mithra Ballesteros
I love roosters in the kitchen. How wonderful to have this vivid memento that holds so much sentimentality, memories and wonderings.
Isn’t Mithra’s post wonderful? I feel a post coming on about an embroidered hanging my mother did before she married.
Thank you Carol!
Helene Cohen Bludman
What a lovely remembrance, and it is so wonderful that you have this handmade item from your grandmother to remember her by. Really enjoyed this piece.
I’m glad you enjoyed it. As soon as Mithra sent in her piece I knew we would lead the series with it.
Thank you Helene! You are a very well-read woman, so I am touched that you enjoyed this. 🙂
Tam Warner Minton
I love your grandmother, and the fact that her legacy is part excellence, part independence, so rare for a woman of those times.
I felt as though I knew her too.
I appreciate your observation, Tam. Well put! She would have loved that!
What a great story and wow I can see why you cherish that rooster, I would too.
I’m sure your grandmother is very proud and watching over you.
A simple rooster and so much love. Cherish is the right word.
In American I worry that our lack of long term culture is one of our big failings. That you have such a connection to your past in a treasured item is something to cherish. It’s a heartwarming tale.
Kim, I share your concern. The name change at Yosemite has me very upset! Not sure if that is part of American culture, but I think it is.
Lisa at Grandma's Briefs
This gave me goosebumps. Perhaps the unfinished stitches is akin to the deliberate mistakes made in rugs Indians wove (still do, probably), as a reminder that WE are not perfect, only God makes all things perfect.
This is lovely, Nancy. What a treasure you have.
I would like to take credit for it Lisa, but Mithra is the lucky one. WLP is featuring stories of mentors, mothers and others all month. Each piece will be header listed for a couple days. The submissions have been amazing. Be sure to check back often!
Lois Alter Mark
I love when simple objects have so much meaning to someone. The back story is always surprising and significant – that’s the stuff of life.
I love that rooster it’s amazing! Heirlooms are so very precious to us. I like the fact that she didn’t finish it too. I think it says something important about the piece.
Such a beautiful legacy your grandmother left you, Mithra.. not only the needlepoint, but the lessons you gleaned from her life story. And this is a beautiful legacy , this essay about her and you, for your own children. Thank you, Nancy, for hosting this.
Fabulous story and I love that you have this piece as a reminder of your family’s history and grandmother.
Jilly Jesson Smyth
What an inspiration your grandmother is! I appreciate you Nancy for creating this series that makes me stop and get back to my roots. On the wall next to me is a print from the Smithsonian of a rooster from my inlaws. This story of love does make me sad about all my family has lost in heirlooms that are gone. I have been retracing the steps of my story and I am inspired!
I’m reading everything here as food for the soul.
Thank you so much,