An excerpt of chapter 1 from my historical fiction Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it.
Pasadena, California, 1982
“Grandma Annie, it’s almost time. Are you ready yet?” My sweet granddaughter Mary sticks her head in my bedroom doorway. Along the adjacent wall stands my vanity, but it’s too far away for me to see myself clearly in its mirror. From my seat on the side of my afghan-draped bed, I turn slightly toward her.
Despite my qualms about this afternoon’s visit, my heart smiles. This young woman gives me joy everyday and I’m so glad we live together. “Not quite,” I say. “Need a little help with my hair.”
Crossing the soft pile of the Armenian carpet, she stands in front of me. After tucking in the stray end of the braid I’d wrapped around my head, she scrutinizes the sides. Mary’s patience with my old-woman idiosyncrasies expresses love without words.
“There.” She gently pats all the strays in place. “You look nice. Like you’re wearing a silver crown.” We exchange smiles. Taking my hands, she pulls me to my feet. I wobble into the living room to sit in my floral brocade, easy chair. I’m ready, at least physically, for our visitor today, one of my granddaughter’s coworkers. I smooth my skirt with wrinkled hands and place them folded in my lap. A girl named Ella has some questions for me. What could a young one want from an old woman like me?
Ding, dong, dingle, dong. Mary has the door open before the chime finishes. “Hello, Ella. Do come in. My grandmother is expecting you. Please sit in the chair to her left. She can’t hear a thing out of her right ear.”
What a smart girl my granddaughter is! I touch the hair that covers the scar above my right ear. I’ve yet to tell her that story!
“Hello, Mrs. Hagopian, how are you today?” Ella takes my hand and squeezes it ever so gently. “My name is Ella.”
“Hello, Ella. I’m fine and glad to finally meet you.” I adjust my rimless glasses. Armenian courtesy prompts me. “Are your parents well?”
“Yes, Mrs. Hagopian, they’re doing just fine, thank you.”
“Call me Annie.” From what my Mary had already told me, I liked this young woman. Now I find myself appreciating her even more for her good manners. My arms and back relax against my chair. “Mary says you have a question for me.”
“I hope it won’t trouble you,” she says.
“I’m sure it’s okay.” I lean toward her. “Go ahead.” My breath catches. My thoughts tumble over each other, trying to anticipate what Ella’s going to ask.
“I’ve been teaching English to adults. Night classes.” Ella’s gaze locks onto mine. “Many of my students are Armenians. English isn’t their second language, either. Often it’s their fourth, in some cases fifth!”
I chuckle. My memory races through a childhood flush with people from different tongues. Ah, for those days! Learning phrases was as easy as rolling off my sleeping mat in the morning. “Did that surprise you, Ella?”
She nods. “What surprised me even more was when a young woman named Araxi said, ‘I speak Turkish. Teacher, why I speak Turkish?’ I asked her if she had ever lived in Turkey. She told me no!”
My mouth drops open. Unbelievable. Araxi’s parents apparently haven’t told her anything about where they came from. My brows crease together.
“The strangest thing happened next.” Ella’s hands twist in her lap. “Another student named Krikor revealed something so awful … horrendous.”
My gut tightens. I can easily guess what that student said. It’s still on the tongue of every older Armenian alive. But I choose to let this girl tell her story. I wait. After all, haven’t I waited almost seventy years? Tears rim my eyes as I think of my best friend.
Ella stumbles on. “He … he said, ‘They kill us for nothink — Teacher, for nothink!’ I had no idea how to respond. So I just listened. Annie, what did he mean? Can you tell me? When…”
From her place on the sofa to my right, I see Mary catch Ella’s attention and put a silencing finger to her lips. I glance at my granddaughter. My lips form ‘Thank you.’
Tears flow unchecked down my cheeks. Pushing on the arms of my chair, I stand and hobble to the front window. I struggle to collect myself. Brushing away the salty dribbles with shaking fingers, I gaze past the ruffles of my white curtains at the bus stop across the street. When my vision clears, I see two girls in their early teens sitting together on the bench. They’re giggling and probably sharing girlhood secrets while they wait for a trip to the mall. The girls remind me of Nazli, my best friend, in a world away, eons ago.
Stifling a quick response to my granddaughter now as I have stifled my past for almost seven decades, I realize for the first time that maintaining my silence has accomplished nothing. My numb tongue has neither soothed my traumatized soul nor given my granddaughter an enlightened understanding of the suffering of her people. Without that, how will she ever truly value her roots?
“I’m so sorry.” There is a sob in Ella’s voice.
Poor Ella. The answers to her questions would supply much that Mary doesn’t know. Maybe it’s time – even if doing so will open old wounds of deep grief. Am I strong enough now? I ask myself. Guess I won’t know ’til I tell our story, Nazli’s and mine. …..”