The Rostamis’ home near Jordan High School in south Durham is shaded by pines along a winding suburban street. Walking through the front door – which is ever-changing in color, I’m told – you find well-kept antiques; sturdy, hand-built furniture; and natural decor. And, most significantly, you meet the Rostamis – Laleh and Reza – who have lived nearly 20 years in this house and made a good number of these prized pieces. They usher me in and sit me down, retelling stories from their 30-plus years in the Bull City. Soon, I am whisked out to see their masterpiece of a garden and offered homemade fig punch.
“It took us a while,” says Laleh, who works as a Realtor for Fonville Morisey. “Your yard is not the first thing you think of when you buy a house.” But gradually, year by year, stone by stone, the Rostamis’ bare backyard transformed into a tranquil hideaway that Reza – who works full time as the associate director of quality management at Duke Clinical Research Institute – built all on his own, completely from memory. “He doesn’t draw anything,” Laleh says.
“I started from that corner,” Reza says, pointing at the stairs climbing up to the bridge. “My imagination was not a straight stair; I wanted there to be a nice curvature.”
In total, Reza worked through 150 tons of stone, adding a waterfall in 2013 for daughter Shabnam’s wedding, which took place in the garden, and a bridge for her twin sister Bahar’s wedding photo shoot in 2016.
“You know what happens when you have a deadline,” Laleh says, laughing. Reza completed the waterfall for Shabnam the day before the wedding. “It didn’t dawn on us that it would take a while for the water to [start circulating],” Laleh says. But it was streaming in time for the nuptials. And it must have been beautiful, tuning in to the soft trickle of water with the sunbeams slicing through the trees.
“Everything is alive,” Laleh says, noting Reza’s use of movement in the lines of the garden. “It’s really different from each angle.”
“It’s like another world,” says family friend Millie Gurley visiting this evening for dinner in the garden along with husband, Lloyd, and friends Marilyn Carter, Mehdi Emamian, Gloria and Tab Hall. A large farm table on the bottom of the deck is piled high with flowers and candles for the occasion. Shabnam’s husband, Raymond Olive, grills kabobs in a corner of the yard. Fresh fruit and charcuterie spreads are laid out for guests on a side table. Bahar’s husband, Marc DeRoberts, lights a chandelier built by Raymond out of old bottles, and a bar constructed from leftover pallet wood from Reza’s stones holds a jug of sweet fig punch – made from the fruit of the tree shading the table.
In another corner, away from the guests, Reza and Laleh guide me over the bridge. Benches, chairs and hammocks come out of hiding as we make our way through the garden. “During different times of the day, there is always a place with shade,” Laleh explains.
She points out a statue of a peaceful-looking frog. “We have frogs, and they just sing and sing and sing,” Laleh says, adding, “very annoying.”
“He’s telling them, ‘Silence, my kids,’” Reza laughs.
Labor of Love
Reza notes a fair amount of patience went into completing this project. “Whenever you think you are going to finish, it is going to take at least twice as long,” he says. “Take your time and have fun.”
“We came here 30 years ago from Iran,” Laleh says. “It has not always been easy.” But any challenges along the way brought Laleh and Reza, celebrating 39 years of marriage this year, very close. As Reza constructed his masterpiece, Laleh was not far away: listening to music, sewing or reading books aloud to him. “We just enjoy it,” she says of their time together in the garden.
“For me, this was not work or a chore; it was meditation,” Reza says. “I came out, built this, every stone. It relieved me from all the stress of work: I was here in nature and building something. I wanted to use my time to create. That’s why I like to build things – not just for the finished product, but for the process that brings me so much joy.”
Reza’s Fig Jam, Syrup and Punch
2 lbs. figs
2 lbs. sugar
1 cup water, plus more for serving
2 Tbsp. rose or orange blossom water
Cut the figs into small pieces. Mix sugar, water and figs in a large bowl. Keep the bowl in the refrigerator for two days. On the third day, add the mixture to a large pot and cook for 40 minutes on high heat, stirring occasionally and skimming the foam off the top with a ladle. After 40 minutes, add the rose water or orange blossom water to the mixture. Cook for an additional 5 minutes. After cooking is done, remove from stove. Separate the syrup from the fig jam using a ladle, and bottle it while hot. Let syrup cool and store in the refrigerator. Add the fig jam to a jar and keep in the refrigerator. To make punch, add fig syrup to water to your taste. Best served on ice during spring and summer.a
Photography by Anna Goodson Photography