In my father's memory, which ranged back almost 90 years to an Anatolia ruled by Sultan Hamid, there were reaches that were fragmented by massacres. Sometimes predictable, sometimes not, Turkish troops would raid the Armenian villayets to steal, rape and plunder. For 500 years the Ottoman Turks had ruled over the Armenians -- a subject people, Christians in a Muslim world. The invisible threads that entangle themselves in human memory develop into lifelines, and as my father remembered what he could, he'd suddenly forget what he could not endure to remember. He often told my stories of the simple peasant life he led on his father's farm in Palu, a tiny custer of Armenian families who had named their corner of the world "Shinas." It all seemed remote, yet dear to me, and as his imagination would mount to explain how the crystal mountain waters aided one's health, and how the fertile soil yielded tomatoes the size of melons, I would smile and secretly take pity to see a muscle knot in his neck as he spoke. He loved it so, and I knew it not at all. The desperate times were not the usual topics of his stories; rather, it was the beauty, warmth and love of the family and their relation to the mother soil of which he most often spoke.
He was a youth of 17 when word reached the village that "the Turks were headed for Shinas"; they were rounding up all the young men for the army. The Armenians knew that meant being taken out to the hidden places and shot. It had happened so often before. Convinced salvation lay only in escape, my father ran to the next farm to find his cousin Krikor, also 17, to warn him. The two youths said their goodbyes to the family, embraced, tearfully voiced their farewells of another, and wished Godspeed -- "Asvantz hedet elah." That was in 1903.
The forces of Kismet took my father, Gerabed, across the oceans and he, after a host of years, struggled his way to America, settling in New York. Of Krikor he knew nothing. For many years he worked at any labor he could, seeking always fellow Armenians who also had escaped the Turkish yoke. The years became a kaleidoscope. He married my mother, herself a refugee from the 1915 massacres, and from their mutual impermanence they lived through a compromised life. I was born, the Depression came, more losses, and a large portion of the newfound permanence burned away. My family resettled in Washington. I went to school. My father and mother started a new life. More years passed. Wars shattered more lives. I became a mother and still I never tired hearing the threaded words of my father's life in the old world. i
One morning in 1970, my father now 84 years old, I received a letter from France. It was written in French, by a firm hand. It came from the granddaughter of my father's beloved cousin Krikor. Somehow they had learned I was Gerabed's daughter and through a siege of questions had traced our family. It seemed that Krikor, now 84 years old, wanted to see the few remaining "Shinas-tzees" still alive. He was coming from France to America to make a pilgrimage -- his passage of love. His granddaughter would accompany him. The memory of the look in my father's eyes as I told him the news has steeled me to strength in my own lesser moments. It spoke of endurance stripped to the bone, of an endurance no pain could subdue.
Frantically, I reached the only three living "Shinas-tzees" in the Washington area, and arranged to have them for a dinner on the day that Uncle Krikor would arrive.
That day I drove to my parents' house, got my mother and father, then drove to pick up another of the fellow villagers, Hovaness Hamasian, also a man in his 80s. We headed for Dulles Airport. There was little spoken in the car; the conscious vistas of each person's mind tunneled to its own thoughts. I got all the people settled in the airport lounge, but my father, walking gingerly with his old wooden cane, bald, bespectacled, shrunken by age to a third of his former size, wanted to go with me to the area for incoming passengers. The door opened and I spotted a young girl holding the arm of an old man who also walked with a cane. He was bald, wore heavy glasses and a long wool scarf wrapped about his throat. I knew it was Uncle Krikor. My father, rumpled in his long blue coat, extended his way across to Krikor. They blinked at one another, held out arms, kissed and wept. ya choreography of emotion. Finally, amid the tears and cries Krikor backed off a few feet, took a long, long look at my father, a look shrouded in memory, sighed, and said, "Ah, Gerboush, hetch ches pokhvatz" -- "Ah, Charlie, you haven't changed a bit."
That day I learned about the nature of reality.