By C.K. Garabed
Sitting in the enclosed porch at the rear of his house, Garo the man reflected on the attitudes of Gary the boy and concluded that when you are the offspring of refugees, and poor ones at that, you perceive the new culture that surrounds you as superior to the old.
Garo thought about his father and his broken English. When the time would come every six months to get the old car inspected, it was Garo’s job to polish the headlight reflectors (otherwise the car wouldn’t pass inspection). It was a ’32 DeSoto that Garo’s brother had bought for $50 and when he joined the Marines in 1943, gave to his father who used it to go to his dry cleaning store in the next city. Garo remembers how his father would try to reason with the inspector, “Listen, muster! I have store, Jersey City. I live, Union City. I go back to forth, back to forth. That’s all.” And the inspector would look at him kindly and say, “O.K. Pop,” then then turn to Garo and say, “You’d better get it up to par next time.” Garo was mortified. He just couldn’t see the humor in the situation.
Garo reminisced about some other aspects of his father’s pronunciation of English. How Pot Roast became Roast Pot, the word Pot remaining a noun in his father’s view of things. Ezio Pinzo whose voice he admired became “Eezo Peezo,” Chicken Cacciatore, “Chicken Khatchaturian,” although this last was done with a twinkle in his eye. In the same spirit was his coinage of memorable lines in his later years when he could create puns that were all the more vivid because of his failure to master the language. He would declare to those young Armenians assembled around him on the beach at the Jersey shore, “I have share in this ocean.” Garo said to himself, “Some of that must have rubbed off on me.” He was thinking about the time he told people that the two major Armenian hotels in Asbury Park, the Hye and the Van, were to be merged and called the Hye-Van. That caught on quickly but Garo never got credit for it.
Garo thought of another phrase of his father’s: “Fake business.” It was used to describe crooks, particularly those few Armenians who did business the American way instead of the Armenian way. Evidently, to Garo’s father, Armenian businessmen were generally honest. The phrase, “He do fake business” echoed in his brain. Garo wished he could now, with the maturity and wisdom of a man, embrace his parents. He knew he wouldn’t have been able to clearly express himself. He would have hoped that that embrace would have eloquently conveyed the message, “You didn’t get the hang of using the English language as some folks did. As a result you spoke Armenian in the home, and we, my brothers and I, were the beneficiaries of your so-called shortcomings.”
In recent years, Garo’s cousins from the Middle East migrated to America. During their get-togethers with Garo, they would reminisce about his father. They spoke often about the time, thirty years ago, when he visited his sisters and their families and how they had rejoiced. One of Garo’s younger cousins who had studied English in school had been eager to try it out on his uncle. He described his disappointment to Garo, “Here I thought he would give me some pointers on the language, but I found instead that I could have taught him. He could he not have become adept in English after having lived in America for forty years?”
But as Garo’s cousin was describing the story, he did not know what Garo knew, and that was that Garo’s father was cast in the mold of the Ashoughs of old. In his entire life, Garo never met another who could tell a story as his father could. For years after his father died, those who knew him would remind Garo of his father’s story-telling abilities. And it wasn’t the story so much as the telling that was considered remarkable. He could recite a laundry list and entertain his listeners. But when he got hold of a good juicy story, he was in his glory. The telling would take hours and one was held spellbound. Garo concluded that unless you’ve experienced it you can hardly believe such talent exists.
Garo remembered how his father, in preparation for shaving on Sunday mornings, would lather his face and then, still in his robe, sit at the kitchen table and smoke a cigarette while the lather soaked in. And while he waited and smoked, he sang to himself, “Dele Yaman,” or “Lepo Le Le.” What style! What character! Garo’s cousin apparently was too pragmatic to appreciate the poetic side of life.
Garo’s father had taught him how to drink. He would take a half-jigger of his home-distilled arak and holding it to his lips and say (rendered in English) “you sip it slowly and enjoy its flavor. You don’t hold your head back and swallow it all at one time. The wise-guys who do that get themselves drunk and haven’t sense enough to enjoy a good drink.” Garo could appreciate his advice now. It reminded him of Mark Twain’s humorous observation regarding his father. It went something like, “When I was 16, I thought my father an ignorant man. By the time I was 18, I was amazed at how much he had learned in two years.”
And then Garo’s mind flitted around grasping at some of the Armenian phrases his folks indulged in. His mother liberally sprinkled her conversation with expletives, negatively phrased:
“May ashes not come over you.”
“May your eyes not be blinded.”
“May your house not be ruined.”
Garo didn’t think she ever got mad enough to use the positive form on anyone. Or when his brother would take an inordinate amount of time combing his hair in front of the kitchen mirror, she would ask, “Is the cross-eyed girl at the door?” Or in response to the question, “What are we having for dinner, Ma?,” she would respond, “Donkey’s tail, cat’s ear.” Although he never pressed her to explain it or teach him, Garo remembered his mother indulging, for fun, in Sparrow talk and Stork language, which is the Armenian version of Pig Latin. Sparrow talk, as near as he could recall, went something like, “Ijis majas tigis,” and Stork language, “Iklim paklam tiklim.” He wondered if there were any old folks still alive who would remember it.
His father’s expressions were highly pungent. When seeking an ace with a throw of the Tavli dice he’d cry “Chicken’s eye!” Upon getting a fat six instead, “Why, you Donkey’s egg!” This last reminded Garo of the time his father taught him the difference between American dice and Armenian dice. American dice are machined and the numbering of the facets follow the same pattern. If you place each die with the ONE in the top position and the SIX on the bottom, and rotate until the TWO and THREE face you, the TWO falls on the left and the THREE on the right. Then the FOUR is opposite the THREE, and the FIVE opposite the TWO. Armenian dice, however, are hand made and consist of true pairs, that is, you have a left die and a right die. One of them follows the pattern of American dice, but the other die reverses the sequence of the TWO and the THREE and, of course, consequently, also the FOUR and the FIVE. Thus, when you abut the dice in your hands with the numbers aligned, the inner facets reflect the same number. In all the time that Garo played Tavli with his contemporaries, none he asked could provide the answer to the question, “Do you know the difference between American dice and Armenian dice?” Not even the self-styled “Varbeds” from Bolis or Beirut knew. To a practical man such matters are trivial, but to a true poet they are the stuff around which the universe revolves. He thought about the traditional Armenian approach to Tavli. It wasn’t the game, as such, that mattered. It was the accompanying dialogue together with the pungent expletives and epithets that gave the activity its point and its edge. Nothing is more sterile than a game of Tavli without talk.
Then there was church, the center of Armenian community life. Garo thought about the Badarak. How interminable it seemed to him in his youth and how eternal it now appeared in his maturity. The Sharagans that could never wear thin. Going to church now was like taking part in a grand concert. How was it that the Armenian genius could take a duty and make of it a pleasure? Is there a church service anywhere in the world that can compare to the Armenian Liturgy? Garo knew he was being chauvinistic. Yet he couldn’t help but feel that the Armenian religious expression was a brilliant and accurate reflection of the Armenian psyche. Here was an institution that was greater than the sum of its constituent parts. It defied any demeaning actions on the part of its membership and clergy. Garo’s father had little use for priests who didn’t measure up to the old-timers like his own father who was killed in the 1895 Massacre. One time he described one of these haughty peacocks: “His singing of the Badarak was akin to the braying of an ass. But when it comes time for his sermon, you can hardly hear him. Why? Because there is no wisdom in it, and he knows it.” Garo couldn’t recall the exact term his father used for he had various categories of fools: Bondoh, Dankelagh, Akhmak. Bondoh was a dope, Dankelagh was a jerk, but an Akhmak was downright stupid. When Garo reported back to his father that other Armenians criticized him for his use of Turkish words and expressions mixed in with the Armenian, he simply said to Garo, “It was the Armenians who beautified the Turks’ language and music.”
How did the folks entertain themselves? Rarely did they go to the movies. His parents saw King Kong once and that seemed to last them a lifetime. The Hantes was the key, the Hantes and visiting other families on Sunday. The Hantes was a family affair and although the grown-ups were vitally interested in the cultural aspects such as the plays, recitations, music and dancing, the kids sought out their cronies and went off in search of their own forms of entertainment and mischief. Garo remembered the club rolls with Lule Kebabs liberally sprinkled with parsley and onion, all washed down with a cool cup of Tan, that refreshing drink made of Madzoon and water. He remembered, too, how he would sneak under the table where the men were collecting, tearing and discarding the tickets, in search of some that might have failed to get torn so he could enjoy another Kebab without having to ask his father. The other social activity, visiting other families on Sunday, involved no calls or pre-arrangements. You just dropped in. If no one was home, you tried another family. And what conversations! Truly an art. They talked about the old days, and the old country, the new country and current events, politics, personages and cultural matters without affectation. These were weighty matters to the children who again had their own ideas about what constituted having a good time. Would that Garo could recapture those conversations now.
Garo continued to give his thoughts free rein. He was thinking about his mother and others like her. “What super-women they were,” he thought. Just imagine. Washing clothes with a washboard, sewing quilts made of sheep’s wool, pulling them apart periodically, washing the wool, drying it out, spreading and re-sewing with those foot-long needles, keeping an immaculate house, cooking marathon meals. As Garo’s wife observed whenever he was the least bit critical of her cooking (even if only to comment on something being a little salty), “You are spoiled! You were brought up on gourmet food.” And so he was, he thought. Imagine, Choreg, Dolma, Kufta, Lule Kebab, Shish Kebab, Lahmajoun, Kazan Kababi, Beyli Baghli, Imam Bayeldi, Kavourma, Chormis, that special Tourshi, Banderov Kinafa, Pakhlava, Bourma, Shakarshi, Rachal, Zingalig, Bastikh…every day of the week, every month, year after year. Fantastic! Lent wasn’t a period of true abstinence. Everyone looked forward to the meatless delicacies that were prepared with vegetable oil. Eating in restaurants was unheard of. On top of all this, like other tailor’s wives, she spent many hours helping her husband at the store, sewing cuffs, and pleats, lengthening, shortening, taking in, letting out. Where is there a gem to compare to an Armenian woman of her generation? As they say in Armenian, “From her hand everything comes.”
Now that he was in a position to compare and evaluate, he saw that the Armenian way of life is the result of long periods of cultural development. Just take the way Armenians greet eachother. When a happy event occurs, they say, “Light to your eyes.” If appropriate, the response is, “May the same be yours.” When someone dies, they say to the bereaved, by way of consolation, “May your days be lengthened,” of “May God illuminate his soul.” If you inquire about someone and it turns out that unbeknown to you she had died, then, “May you remain alive” is the method of notifying you of her demise. When someone who has just taken a bath enters the room, those present say, “I kiss your hand.” And the bather responds, “I kiss your face.”
On Christmas day one says “Christ is born and is revealed.” The response is, “Blessed is the revelation of Christ.” On Easter, “Christ is risen from the dead.” Answer: “Blessed is the resurrection of Christ .” How noble, how tasteful, thought Garo. Compare it to “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Easter.” Yet when he was young, he thought more highly of the English expressions, but in all stemmed from one thing that he now understood: Lack of courage.
How different with his children! He and his wife brought them up on Armenian in the home but the kids knew their parents spoke English well and therefore felt no apprehensions about using Armenian even outside the home.
He reflected on the contrast in cultures, Armenian versus American or, rather, non-Armenian. Whenever he found himself in an Armenian household, he was plied a thousand times to partake of something. So it was natural to refuse at first. That must have been the way this high culture evolved. One had no need to ask for anything. Everything was offered and more than once. You just kept refusing politely until you were ready to partake and you finally relented merely to please your host. Garo once made the mistake of refusing refreshment at the home of an American friend. That was it. He didn’t get a second chance. There were other times when he was on his guard not to refuse as was his Armenian habit and what do you think? He wasn’t even offered a glass of water. On one of these occasions, he was really thirsty but he couldn’t bring himself to ask. When he left, he got angry at his host, then himself, then the Armenian people, then the whole world. “How could there ever be understanding among peoples of diverse cultures when you can’t even, in a decent manner, get yourself a glass of water?”
He was now smiling to himself. He was relishing the reliving of his emotions of the past and comparing them to his attitudes of the present. Oh, how happy he was to be Armenian. How fitting! How true to his consciousness. He knew where he belonged. He knew who his people were and what great meaning life can contain when one is challenged. And what greater challenge is there than the quest to remain Armenian? Garo got up and left the porch and with it his dream world but not without a feeling that his dreams could alter reality. And so he re-entered the house with supreme confidence in his ability to regenerate Armenian life at its best.