Margaret Aghjayan

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An Armenian family says good-bye - Matriarch Remembered

Providence Journal Company 05-15-2002

By David Mcfadden

A special service on Mother's Day brings consolation to the family of Margaret Aghjayan.

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LINCOLN Lime Rock resident Agnes Aghjayan can look across the century and picture her mother at 19, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, on the ship that brought her into Narragansett Bay and into a new life.

As a child, Agnes remembers her mother layering honey-sweetened phyllo dough into pakhlava pastries in their apartment in Providence's Smith Hill neighborhood, the tightly knit home of many Armenian immigrants who had escaped the massacres that erased their homeland from maps during World War I.

And Sunday, Agnes Aghjayan spent an emotional Mother's Day saying good-bye to her mother, Margaret Der Manuelian, during a requiem service of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Inside the Sts. Vartanantz Church in Providence, the Aghjayan family marked the end of a 40-day mourning period for the 95-year- old matriarch.

The end of the grieving time is meant to be joyful, says the Rev. Gomidas Baghsarian. While lighting candles in her memory, however, family members found it hard to hold back tears.

She spent her final year living with four generations of the family under one roof, said granddaughter Pauline Getzoyan, in the Aghjayan's home in Lincoln. We moved to this house for her.

The requiem service was just a few short blocks away from the Smith Hill neighborhood where Margaret and her husband settled when arriving in America in 1928.

Back then, the neighborhood was full of families with last names that ended in yan, and ian, which means son of in the Armenian language, says son-in-law Haig Aghjayan. Recently arrived Armenians clustered in the urban neighborhood, speaking the old language and practicing the old customs.

Margaret spent her days working at bygone institutions of the old Providence. She made lunches in the rooftop restaurant of the former Gladdings department store, and worked for the American Screw Co.

Along the way, she learned to speak a new language and new ways of doing things.

But one American routine that she could never get down was how to make a quick snack, say family members.

She used to spend the entire weekend making kuftah, laughs Agnes, remembering the series of intricate steps her mother took preparing Armenian meatballs. It was decades before she would consent to buy bags of shelled walnuts, preferring instead to tap patiently on the shell with a small hammer until the walnut at last split open, fruit intact.

This concern for taking care with small things was a result of having survived tumult and horror, says her family.

Every April 24, people of Armenian heritage observe a day of remembrance for the day in 1915 when neighboring Ottoman Turkey began systematically killing an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, according to many historians.

Turkish officials have always denied that genocide took place, and say slain Armenians were war casualties.

But chilling stories of mass drownings and shootings of Armeans from 1915 to the early 1920s were and are commonplace among survivors.

Margaret's memories of her ordeals during this time seemed to become more vivid and urgent in her later years, family members say. Her experiences are central to the family's story.

She said was 6 years old when Turkish soldiers rode into her village on horseback. Hiding in a gully with her mother and sisters, she said, she watched terrified as the village was razed and neighbors were killed.

She recalled how she was separated from her mother and chosen as a servant by a Turkish man, remaining trapped in his home for seven years. In 1922, she was found by her older sister, Mariam, also kept as a servant in a nearby village. The sisters managed to escape to the city of Kharpert, surviving by selling baked goods and blankets knit from lambs wool, her family says.

She married an Armenian man named Giragos in 1927. And he had an uncle who lived in Providence.

She'd been through hell and back, so she had absolutely no fear, says granddaughter Pauline. She'd walk by herself down to the senior center in Smith Hill, staring straight ahead the entire way.

Family members say the only trouble she had in the sometimes rough neighborhood was having ripening vegetables stolen out of her small backyard garden before they could be pickled.

She had a quiet strength that was born of having endured many hardships, say family members. But her hardships never hardened her.

She always had a big smile on her face, says Pauline. She was famous in the neighborhood for her pickled vegetables. She'd give everybody some.

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REQUIEM: Agnes Shooshig and Haig Aghjayan, center, their daughter Pauline Getzoyan, left, and their son George Aghjayan, right, participate in a requiem service at Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church, in Providence, for Agnes's mother, Margaret Der Manuelian, commemorating the 40th day of mourning after her death. Der Manuelian, the 96-year-old matriarch of her family, lived in a house in Lincoln with three other generations of her family. Below, Dalita Getzoyan, 11, who lived in the house with her grandmother, attends a graveside service with other family members.

JOURNAL PHOTOS / CONNIE GROSCH

  • PHOTO ALBUM: Margaret Der Manuelian is seen in a family photograph taken

when she was in her early 20s.

FAMILY PHOTO


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