Monday, August 18, 2008
What I Inherited
Both of my grandmothers have passed in the last 10 months. This has left us barely having finished the work of sorting through one life before we've started the next task. Another house with eighty one years represented in 900 or so square feet. You have to do this kind of work slowly and carefully, like an archaeologist who brushes away each layer, careful not to miss some treasure. As we worked at my Grandma Tookie (ie my dad's mom's) house, we'd joke, "Hey, I just found the mid seventies!" Although the way-back machine went way backer than that.
My Grandma Tookie (also known as the Took-woman and Diana when differentiating between she and Eleanor, my other gramma), was Armenian and English Canadian. Point of reference, she always referred to herself as French Canadian, we don't know why. Her father Arthur (Great Grandpa Mezigian) was one of two children who survived the Armenian genocide to immigrate to America. I know that impacted her life in more ways than I will ever understand. Her father's frame of reference was one that very few could share, the first-hand witness of the murder of a nation including his parents through a child's eyes. What did this young man think, feel and treasure as he raised his children? And what did he teach Diana to treasure? I am the now the representative of the Mezigian survivors of the Armenian genocide. Not me alone of course. But the responsibility is still mine. I am the keeper. I am the one to ensure that Arthur Mezigian's treasures, passed to his daughter remain to be honored.
When you are a part of the immigrant culture from the first half of the century, those treasures are not so simple as you might think to unearth. They are kept hidden deep in places where the Turkish Army or immigration officers or slum lords cannot find them. There was no family gold to survive, only the minds, muscles and sinew of those few chosen people carry the treasures.
Furthermore, those early great grandparents of mine were not poets and scholars. They left no lengthy journals to express the years of desperation. The ways they were changed forever are not marked in hieroglyphics on a cave wall. They had no time to write plays or novels about their lives. They hit the ground of Delray running. When you need money to eat that becomes the point on which your family focuses. My grandfather shared stories of his life which my grandmother remembered and shared but they were not enough to understand the heart. They were a retelling of events. I want to know, after all of the pain and struggle; what remained? How did this shape them, us, me?
And so with great pleasure and a careful hand we spent three weeks digging. I am joyful to tell you that my grandmother was a keeper of history second only to Henry Ford. She just lacked a museum and a village. And to steal a phrase, it would take a village to house her history. That remark about unearthing the seventies is not just exaggeration. My son walked away wearing a heavy gold donkey necklace from the Carter/Democrat era after day one.
One day my parents and I sat for a long time poring over old photographs. I knew these people were Armenian because they look as unrelated to me as they could possibly be. Somehow this blue-eyed blond fell out of a tree full of dark haired, browned eyed, olive skinned Armenians. These were old pictures, frayed and delicate. Formal wedding portraits and pictures of young people laughing on the river front. One marked "Reid" which was my dad's first glimpse at his own great grandfather. Babies in the arms of young aunts and uncles in basements celebrating holidays. My grandma and her sister in broad shoulder pads, ankle strap shoes and hats. The forties. My great uncles in basketball uniforms, the thirties. Young Armenian men in American military uniforms. The next generation still fighting for freedom.
All day long for three weeks one question floated up from the basement and out of bedroom doors, "Does anyone want this?" We'd all drop what we were doing to run and examine "this." Sometimes a photograph of one of us being silly in the old backyard pool. By default you get to keep the pictures of yourself. My dad's army badges and Boy Scout projects. I claimed the giant red sled that used to sit on the television at Christmas time. I thought I was just taking home a piece of my childhood until my dad told me that at age eight he made that sled in Boy Scouts. Even better.
I claimed some mid-century coffee cups, a cast iron skillet and a load of gaudy jewelry that defined my grandma's look. Oh, and I also took her giant jewelry chest to house what has become known as my beads.
The photographs were divided between my dad and my aunt. Of course as far as I'm concerned anything in my parents' house is mine and Amy's so that works out. It's the stuff from the seventies and back that I am drawn to. I picked old platters out of the garbage when everyone said, "I can't take any more stuff!" I can't take any more stuff either but I did. Lord knows what will become of it.
All I know is that a young man survived with nothing. And a young girl was raised by immigrants with nothing. And pictures prove that my childhood was full of Christmas gifts, birthday cakes and backyard pools. There is something there amongst the nothing. Someone said, "It will be different for them" and meant me. One day someone had enough money to buy a fancy platter at Montgomery Wards or Sears. I picture my Grandma paying money that would've been unheard of during her childhood to buy a pretty bowl for Christmas when her parents would come for dinner in the basement. I imagine my great grand parents being amazed at the wealth of just one generation beyond their own desperation.
So I took the few remnants of coffee cups from the 1960s. I took a couple of platters that only came out for Christmas. I took the beads.
This is the treasure from William Street. That we could spend three weeks looking through eighty one years and try to talk one another into taking items home saying, "I don't need that. I have too much stuff already."
Every time I drink coffee from the one surviving white mid-century coffee cup with the matching saucer, I will remember that a poor immigrant raised a daughter. I will remember that a group of people with no hope demanded life not just of survival but of change.
Beads and coffee cups and platters that I can see in those old photographs when my grandmother and her brothers and sister were young and raising families. My great grand parents sitting in the background smiling.
It's no wonder we all feel like we don't have enough room for any more.
Deuteronomy 7:9 Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.
Picture: Arthur Mezigian, my great grandfather. Now we know where Mac got his hair.