My father’s deepest sorrow — a first person occasional series


When I was 8, I watched my father break down in tears as a man on television spoke about the long-ago massacres of Armenians in their native land. Dad ran out of the room and I ran to my mother.

She told me his mother was among the many killed but warned me never to ask him about that or anything else about his childhood. “It’s too sad,” she said.

From that moment, I felt that I’d been born in midair carrying the unbearable weight of a history I could never fully know or understand.

Over the years, as my mother shared what little more she knew about my father’s early life, it became clear her directive was rooted in experience. She had been tiptoeing around any topic that would invoke my father’s deepest sorrows since they met as teenagers when he came to America in 1928.

I never wanted to make my father cry, so I never violated her orders — at least not directly. But whenever the opportunity presented itself, I’d approach the topic obliquely and cautiously. If he responded at all, my father often shared only a scrap or two before changing the subject. It was left to me to figure out the importance of each scrap, and to connect it to whatever had come before or after.

This is how my life-long conversation with my father continued, yielding scattered pieces of a puzzle I’m still trying to complete more than 20 years after his death.

What I know for certain is that Nishan Kalajian was born in a wonderful place at an awful time. Diyarbakir, Turkey had been our family’s home as far back as anyone could trace. Armenians and Turks had lived separate but inseparable lives there for centuries along the fertile banks of the Tigris River. Armenians called the ancient, walled city Dikranagerd, honoring their most glorious king.

When my father was born in 1912, Diyarbakir sat at the core of an imploding Ottoman Empire whose rulers blamed their miseries on subjects who were simply too different from the rest. Within a few years, the regime embarked on a campaign to eliminate the empire’s historic population of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks.

By the time my father was 3 years old, he lost his mother, his home and everything familiar before being cast into the world alone. I desperately wanted to know more: How he survived, how he kept his wits and his faith, how he moved forward without being consumed by bitterness and hate.

He volunteered none of it.

The Armenian Genocide was the defining reality of his life, yet he would not talk about it. He dealt with his most painful memories in a most Armenian way, by pushing them aside.

In the end, I think he wanted to tell me the rest. He probably told me more during the last year of his life than he had in all the years before, or it may just seem that way because he told me at least a few stories that illuminated the others. We certainly talked more because we spent more time alone together once my mother was gone. I know that losing her also jarred loose the memories of all the previous losses and traumas of his life.

But by then, it was too late for him to change entirely. His occasional anecdotes were still as maddening in their brevity as they were tantalizing in their revelations.

For years I obsessed about the missing pieces of his story, but I’ve come to appreciate the value of what I did learn. I also came to understand that the story is as much mine as my father’s because his silence became my challenge, making it all the more difficult to accept a complex cultural inheritance and to understand my own identity as an American of Armenian descent.

So in spite of the many questions that remained, I sifted through my own memories and whatever papers and photos my father left behind, and wrote “Stories My Father Never Finished Telling Me,” from which the following excerpt is taken. I wrote it for my daughter and her generation.

I hope they can figure out what to do with that unbearable weight of history. Maybe they can figure out how to let it go and stop the fall without losing all the wonderful parts of our inheritance.

***

My mother was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a tough little city of immigrants across the Mystic River from Boston.

She grew up speaking Armenian in a house where everyone spoke Armenian. Her parents named her Zavart, which means “glad.” No one at the hospital bothered to ask how to spell it. Someone simply typed the name Martha on her birth certificate.

When Zavart/Martha turned five, her father asked a waitress at the restaurant where he worked as a cook to take her to school. The waitress registered her as Sylvia. That’s the name that stuck. As an adult, my mother always signed her name Sylvia Z. Kalajian. It was a perfect compromise for someone who had to straddle the worlds of her immigrant parents and her American friends.

She was still straddling when I, her only child, came along a few weeks before her fortieth birthday. Instinctively, my mother trained me to straddle, too, but it was years before I realized it.

I believed my father when he told me I was an American, period, just like him. He always spoke about America in the first person plural. This was our country, and we were Americans above all. He understood America better than my mother did, maybe better than I ever will, because he wasn’t born here. I knew this because my mother told me he was born in Armenia. I didn’t hear it from him.

He hated the word immigrant, probably because he’d heard it used as something other than a compliment when he first arrived, but he loved the idea that an immigrant could become an American without an asterisk. An American is an American, he insisted, no matter where he was born.

I found out much later in life that America wasn’t his first choice. When it became impossible to remain where he was born, he found refuge in Greece. He thought about moving on to Egypt, or France. Coming to America was not quite serendipitous, but it was certainly a fortunate turn of events. “If I’d gone to those other places, I’d always be an outsider,” he told me. “You might become a citizen, but you can’t become a Frenchman or an Arab. Here, I’m an American.”

What a marvelous discovery for a man whose country vanished nearly six hundred years before he was born. He could become an American so he did, but he never melted. He never lost his language or his culture, never forgot his history, never changed his name or tried to hide his origin. He never doubted that he could be completely Armenian and completely American at once and without conflict.

He was unwilling to risk any ambiguity where I was concerned, however. He insisted I have an unmistakably American name, Douglas, after Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But that still left me straddling a cultural fault line, and trying to find my footing made me more eager to learn about the side of the world my father came from.

Mom remained much easier to talk to, however, and her everyday interests were more like mine. Most nights, Mom and I would watch television together. She liked comedies: I Love Lucy. The Beverly Hillbillies. Ozzie and Harriet. Mom and I watched our silly shows while my father sat in the same room, reading. He had headphones so he could listen to Chopin while we giggled. My father would sit in his rocking chair upholstered in gray cloth that was embroidered with a big, stylized, maroon “K,” but he didn’t rock. He sat very still, peering into his books.

Once in a while, when I was very lucky and got his attention just as he was settling down to read, he’d talk to me about Armenia but only the Armenia of long ago. He described a place of unfathomable beauty and endless tragedy, invaded and eviscerated time and again.

I learned to listen carefully. When Dad decided he was done, no matter whether the story was just beginning or in the middle or almost at the end, he stopped talking and returned to his books—and there was no bringing him back.

For all my father told me about Armenia’s past, the Genocide of 1915 was the one subject he couldn’t talk about or even listen to someone else talk about. Sometimes he’d start and then just get up and walk out of the room. Other times, he’d change the subject. But he told me a little now and then, mostly when he didn’t have time to think first, when something made him angry or sad or brought back some feeling I could never understand.

I know this was my father’s way of dealing with pain, but I also suspect Dad was purposely blurring the borders of his own memories to obscure the seams between his harsh, early life as a Near Eastern refugee and his new and cherished identity as an American businessman and proud veteran. It was almost demanded by his ideal of becoming and remaining perfectly American and perfectly Armenian at once and indivisibly.

Many of the old people I remember were like my father, editing their life stories or simply avoiding all talk of the time and place where they lost so much. It is completely understandable but no less unfortunate. It was a loss to the world, which might have learned something.

It’s only in the past few years that Armenians have started to talk out loud and in public about the Genocide. The survivors themselves are nearly all dead, but a few smart people had the good sense and courage to ask the old folks one last time to speak into a microphone, or at least speak slowly while they took notes. I’ve listened to recordings and read transcripts, but there is only one story that could have stopped my fall, and it is too late for me to hear it.

For years now, on the many nights when I can’t sleep, I get out of bed and sit in Dad’s rocking chair. It has been reupholstered three or four times, but the gracefully curved and lacquered arms with their carved goose heads are the same. I run my hands over them and picture my father sitting there, looking as he did when he died, still paratrooper trim at seventy-seven. His hair was still black except for a gentle, distinguished brush of gray at each temple, and still full except for a pronounced cock’s peak up front and a palm-sized bald patch at the rear, which he never acknowledged.

I think about him and all the reading he did in that chair. I take one of his books or a photo album off the shelf and I look for pieces of the puzzle that was his life and my heritage.

This is not a mystic quest. I have not been searching for the meaning of life, or even for the meaning of my father’s life. I just wanted to know a little more about him and about his family, and about my mother and her family. I wanted to know about these Armenians and their long, difficult journey.

I hoped that if I learned enough about them, I might uncover a clue to why I cry when I hear songs sung in a language I cannot understand. Or why I get angry about things I can do nothing about because they happened long before I was born. Or why I sit up night after night thinking about people I never met and never will meet because they are long dead.

I am not a historian, and this is not a book of facts and dates and sober analysis. This is a story told by a man born in midair whose only hope for a good night’s sleep is to close his fingers around the frayed cord of history and tug with all his might.



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