Maman Mahin, my grandmother was making kotlet in the kitchen and I was eating lunch beside her. She often makes food for the children of her daughter Sudabeh, a successful hospital pathologist who never has time to cook. I like kotlet, fried patties of potato, egg, minced beef and Maman Mahin’s completely unique balance of spices. But it disagrees with my stomach and today I found out why.

“That much minced beef, are you serious?” beef has never agreed with my digestive system.

“This? Oh, there’s more here,” she lifted a plate and under it was another plastic container full of the stuff, “I’ll add this first, mix it and then see how much more it needs.”

“I love kotlet but it upsets my stomach. Too much fried meat. You know some people live so unnaturally these days that they don’t even listen to what their bodies tell them.”

“Nima and Mani don’t get sick. They eat kotlet.” Nima and Mani are Sudabeh’s sons.

“But Nima sleeps during the day and wakes up at night. That’s not natural. People live unnatural lives then they get sick and go to the doctor and they ask ‘what’s wrong with me?’ They don’t know what’s good or bad anymore and they eat things one hundred times worse! Maybe they even get cancer. Then they run to the doctor but they never ask themselves ‘why?’”

I’d mentioned the c-word. Auntie Zari has cancer. Doctors had given her two months to live. She’s still alive and doing well now after 2 years. I uttered a quick blessing to for her to get well to make up for the indiscretion. After a few seconds, Maman Mahin replied.

“A doctor once told me there are ten things that cause cancer. I can’t remember nine of them but one of them was sadness. Sadness causes cancer. Aunti Zari got cancer because of family troubles. Praise be to God that she’s still with us, God protect everyone from such things!” she said this last prayer eyes turned up to the ceiling, hands covered in kotlet mix.

She continued.

“When I was young, when Haji Agha bought our house, I saw this girl I’d known at school lived on the same side of the quarry as we did. Her name was Fatemeh. The name in her birth certificate was Espehvarin. She was a good girl and beautiful too. She was in sixth grade when I was in grade five. It was her brother that married Agha Mohsen’s sister, then she introduced him to your Aunt Zari and they’ve been married now for more than 30 years.”

Maman Mahin’s hands were once again deep in the pan of kotlet mix. An eighty-year-old woman with forearms bigger than mine and a tough grip. Seven decades of serving the family and God.

“I don’t make many friends but when I do, I try to be a real friend. Sometimes she even borrowed money from me – but she always paid me back. Four children – two girls, two boys. But her husband. Hay, hay! If he were here right now I would spit right in his mouth, the bastard! She would spend just 5 garan and he would come home at night and beat her for it. Once he even offered money to her cousin to tell her family that he’d slept with her.”

“Why did he do that?”

“He wanted a reason to divorce her of course, send her back to her family in shame. The idiot donkey! He’s still alive now, that dog! In the end he caused Fatemeh so much grief that she fell ill with cancer. Four children, and she left them motherless when she ‘gave her life to you’ my dear.”

I like that phrase. Instead of just saying ‘died’ – ‘she gave her life to you’. What better way to remember the dead than to thank them for the life that they left to the living?

“But before she died she came to me one day in secret and gave me a fist full of gold jewellery –bracelets and rings. She told me that if she died I was to keep this safe until her younger daughter was 15 and then to give it to her grandfather – with her as a witness – and tell them that this gold is to provide anything that’s necessary for her. Yes, kids had it hard back then. Well, Fatemeh died and that bastard husband kept coming by. He knew I had her gold and he’d bang on the door and shout a lot of things. I never opened the door to him. I just told him that if he had a just complaint, he could go to the courts and bring the police. He gave up in the end. Then years later Maryam, yes our very own Maryam, came home from school one day and she’d brought her friend who had told her she wanted to see me.”

Maryam is one of Maman Mahin’s five sisters. She’s about twenty years younger than my grandmother – younger even than my mother. And she’s not even the youngest. Maman Mahin also has four brothers.

“I thought, well I never, is this my friend Fatemeh’s daughter? Well, I gave her the gold just like Fatemeh told me.”

“What happened to her other children?”

“Well, it’s sad. One of her sons went into the desert and killed himself. His no-good father probably drove him to it, the poor senseless boy. Her other daughter died too. She married a pilot – a good man – but he crashed the plane they were flying in and that was that. The other son went abroad and we haven’t heard about him since. But I remember that doctor told me there are ten things that cause cancer. I don’t remember nine of them, but one of them was sadness.”