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THE OLD CALENDAR OF THE BUTTON COLLECTOR

Big thanks to everyone who came out to the panel at the Center for Fiction last Friday! It was wonderful to attach so many cute faces to colorful names. I learned so very much from my fabulous co-panelists, particularly the amazing and lovely Rivka Galchen, that I now watch the video every night before I go to sleep.

In other news, I’ve been meaning for a while to share some writing from the nonfiction writing class I  taught last term at Koç University. I’m so proud of my students (all of whom are native Turkish speakers writing in English)! Today I have for you “The Calendar of the Old Button Collector,” by Naz Cuguoğlu, a senior majoring in psychology.

The assignment was to write about an old photo, in the style of Geoff Dyer’s “On the Roof” (from Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, which I was really happy to announce the other night as a 2011 NBCC Finalist!). Here are Naz’s photo and essay.

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THE CALENDAR OF THE OLD BUTTON COLLECTOR

- Yellow moustache (Cigarettes)

- Coughing (Asthma)

- Sugar candy obsession

- Using old tins for shaving, blood on his face

- Half a little finger missing (Factory accident)

- “Saka” (the bird)

- Button collection

- Tearing off the pages of the old religious calendar

- The stuffed grape leaves my mom cooked

“Hey, so, how’s it going?”

I am jumping on my seat. I have no idea whose voice that is. It is coming from the future. “Another imaginary friend, I have” I am thinking. I am not more than 5 years old. I can feel the old couch. I both love and hate to scratch my nails against its texture. When I move my hand really fast, its sound makes huge waves in my stomach. Intolerable but unavoidable.

There are hundreds of colorful buttons all around me. Oh, I love to touch them. They are beautiful. My cousin is standing and staring at me while I touch each of their bumpy surfaces. Wait, I know that look on his face. A little scream is coming out of my lips. He knows. He puts his index finger on his lips. The universal gesture for children’s secrets. I know. The old calendar! He is joining me in our button paradise. We are tearing off the pages of the old calendar one by one. Something “he” doesn’t do any more. The meaning of which I will understand in the future. The future in which the previous voice will also be meaningful.

But now we are in a paradise without a future. My cousin is jumping from the couch. Dust from the couch is filling the room. Oh, we love that smell. It is like a yellow gas filling our bodies and lungs. He is running to the door. Saka is singing his song in his cage as usual. I can see his red head if I stand on my tiptoes on the couch. But I don’t want to. Knowing that I can do it if I want is amazing. I can do whatever I want. I can make the clouds purple and the see green. But instead, I am just running after my cousin. The door is open as usual. I am the beautiful young lady receiving letters from her lover while my cousin is pushing the old calendar pages through the mail hole on the door. We are singing the postman song in Turkish. “Look, the postman is coming, greeting; everyone is looking at him, getting curious.” I can feel the sun on my face at that moment. It is warm and safe.

“Babe?”

I know. They are different: not knowing where I currently am and/or not wanting to come back from that sunny house. I know the first one is abnormal behavior whereas the second one is just Freudian denial. I know I am sometimes too normal to be abnormal anyways.

“It is fine, daddy… Just… You know… I feel like my life is getting faster and faster every year. I am just 22. I can’t imagine how it will be at the age of 60. I guess every year will be just like the wind. Will it, daddy?”

I am looking out of the window. Raindrops are ice-skating on the window. I am following them one by one with my eyes. They are too fast for my eyes. My eyes are filling with tears. Too fast. It is all gray in that scene, other than the red beret I am holding tightly with my fingers. I move my eyes to the traffic.

“They say that Istanbul is ranked first in the world for the number of marriages per year”

Besides this sentence I mumble, we stay silent until we get home. At home, without even taking my clothes off I rush to the “drawer.” Instead of asking normal questions like “for what? why? or what the fuck?”, my father just sits with me on the floor in front of the “drawer.” I know exactly what I am looking for. And I can say that my father has no idea what he is doing in front of that drawer with his clothes on at midnight. I am in a hurry; I don’t want to lose time. I need to find “it” now and immediately. My father is slow like he doesn’t want to tear off the pages of an old calendar.

Our house has multiple drawers with different functions. A drawer for winter clothes. Another one for old letters. One for cups. One for the abandoned toys… And one for family photos: black&white and colorful, old and new.

It is becoming more and more fun for me as I go from one photo to another. So much fun that I forget my aim.

“Daddy, look how small I am! Wait, who is this? Oh my god! Is this my aunt! She used to be beautiful, then!”

Then, I find “it”. In the form, exactly, how I wanted it to be. It is as gray as the weather outside. So gray that my eyes can fill with tears again. But they don’t. And I don’t think I can make them. I am at an age in which I don’t think I can make clouds purple any more. Really, too fast. His hands are in the air. His beauty spot under his left eye. His watch. His half missing little finger on the right. 2 moles on the right eye. How could I have forgotten them? Memories. That sunny house. The owner of my button paradise. That smile. Tears. Some hope for the green sea.

My father knows. I know he knows. He knows I know he knows.

Dede [grandfather] was your first word.”

We continue our little game with my father. The game of silence. We don’t need words. Photos say a lot. One young man, one young woman. With hopes for the future in their eyes. With his two close friends, he is dancing in the photos. They are at the mountain. They are at a picnic. Here and there. Then, his face becomes tired. He loses hair. His clothing gets more and more careless. His hair becomes white. I suddenly realize, my father is getting old.

“Two of them died, only one is alive” he says and shows me another picture of “him”. I no longer like either the game or the picture. “He” is old and sick in this one. It takes me to a cold house this time.

I am not more than 7. I am watching cartoons. I can hear them. Then my mom rushes in. We are going upstairs, she says. We leave “him” alone. When we come back… I don’t remember. After that, it is only the blood coming from his mouth. And my mom cries. And we sleep that night with the lights on. And my mom tells me he couldn’t even eat the stuffed grape leaves she cooked for him. And I cannot give him sugar candies any more. Saka is already dead.

Years later, my mom told me my grandfather used to speak Greek when he got drunk. He was a “sirtaki” dancer. He migrated from Crete during the immigration years after the First World War. He fell in love with my beautiful grandmother, the Arabian.

I look at the list of the things I remember about my grandfather. It is really too fast, I think. I put a Greek song on the CD player, smoke a cigarette and cough. All that will be remembered is a button collection and a half finger any ways, I think. That’s what life is.

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3 Responses to “THE OLD CALENDAR OF THE BUTTON COLLECTOR”

  1. Turku Says:

    Elif, this was indeed a terrific conversation. Having been preternaturally possessed by The Possessed, I was delighted to finally meet the Ecinni in the flesh.

    Anyway, here is a clip of that speech by the fictitious restaurant critic Anton Ego that I had mentioned: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JPOoFkrh94

    (nb. Ego is supposed to be styled on the mercurial Will Self, or so Will Self likes to flatter himself – although the two names do, erm, echo)

  2. ray Says:

    Hello Elif.. it’s really nice to have found your blog… and it invariably leads me on to think of other things…
    Buttons…. always a powerful symbol, no doubt beloved of semioticians. Have you noticed how Nabokov seems to be very interested in missing buttons?
    And talking of Nabokov, and linking with the Turkish writer above, surely Nabokov must be the most astonishing “writer of English as a second/third language” ……. both technically and artistically. Even if he had only written Pale Fire, that would inscribe his name on the cup.
    Here’s an entirely different thing…. In his highly interesting and unusual ” Learning Russian”, Ian Press makes an interesting throwaway (?) remark that many people learning Russian are left-handed. I wonder…..
    Best wishes from ray.

  3. Pickson Says:

    Elif, How…does one pronounce your name? I was surprised by the intro in the video, and no longer want to shame myself by butchering it in mixed company.

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