Antoine Terjanian's letter 24: When Mané's great-grandmother died

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Letter 24: When Mané's great-grandmother died
Saturday, October 27, 2007
by Antoine Terjanian

Her name was Elizabeth. She was born in 1918, a few months after the Sartarapat victory. She got married in 1936 and had two daughters, one of them Rima, Mané’s grandmother.

I met her for the first time six months ago, the night before Mané flew to Canada on a scholarship. Mané had invited me for a good-bye dinner party at Rima’s house.

They called her ‘Nana’. She was sitting on the couch side of the dinner table and she looked so sweet with her hair covered in a cone-shaped scarf, I decided to sit next to her.

See photo on:

I found out she had almost zero vision, but she was sharp and witty and laughed and responded in kind to my jokes. She was so sweet, I couldn’t help go and visit her regularly after that. I brought her bananas (an imported fruit in Armenia, a luxury in Soviet times). I always joked: “Don’t let anybody have them, these are for you”. She never ate any, they all went to her great-grandchildren. I always brought my lap-top along during these visits and showed the rest of the family photos I received from Canada. She sat-up in her bed and listened to the conversations, to my jokes, she sometimes commented or asked a question.

I saw her two days before she died. She had been refusing to eat or drink. She did not sit-up in her bed. I tried to joke with her, my usual joke : “Get well quickly so I can come for you and kidnap you and take you away”. No response. I left heavy-hearted.

Today I went to her funeral. As is the custom in Armenia, her coffin’s cover was standing at their house’s entrance. Men, friends and neighbors were standing nearby. She was laying in the open coffin, right where the dining table was, surrounded by benches where women, family and neighbors were sitting, mourning in silence. I stayed in the ante-chamber for about an hour and a half. I listened to the emotional mourning of one of her great-granddaughters. She sat by her coffin and went on and on: My Nana, my sweet Nana, my wise my docile Nana. My Nana who kept my secrets. My tortured Nana. You’ve suffered so much for us. These hands, Nana, these fingers that clawed the soil constantly to feed us. My sweet my sensible my delicate Nana… I wept.

They carried her open coffin to the cemetery nearby. They wept and said goodbyes and covered the coffin with earth and went back home to mourn. The day after burial, Armenians hold a wake. Friends and relatives go to the deceased’s home and have a meal together and then go a second time to the cemetery to visit the deceased. It is during this funeral meal and related traditional toasts that I learned a lot about Mané’s Nana and the hard life she had. I would never have guessed it from looking at her, so delicate, so sweet. Soon after she had her two daughters her husband was sent to the Ukrainian front and was killed in action in 1941. Did she receive a Soviet pension? Of course she did, but what is a pension when you have to raise two toddlers on your own, and what happened to Soviet pensions when the USSR collapsed! She went to work in the tobacco fields in their kolkhoz, so said her kolkhoz colleague who headed our table. Stalin used to say that agriculture is an activity that needs to be done at the ‘right time’. If you did it earlier or later than required, you are doomed to fail. Elizabeth worked the fields day and night, ‘like a man’ they nodded. They recalled how she once dragged an abandoned log home to heat the house for her children. She never stopped; she continued to work their own garden and fed her household till last year when she became incapacitated.

Nana, so frail, so delicate and considerate. I could not imagine that she would have toiled so much. Didn’t they all?

Hoghu vran tetev lini (may the earth be light on her).