MY FATHER'S DEEPEST SORROW;
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
May 22, 2014 Thursday
Losing his family in the Armenian genocide cast dark shadows across
my dad's life and, surprisingly, my own.
By Douglas Kalajian Special to The Palm Beach Post
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 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 lifelong 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 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
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
He never doubted 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
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
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
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 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.
THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE
Beginning in roughly 1914, the Ottoman government of what is now
modern-day Turkey began a campaign to eradicate all citizens of
Armenian, Greek and Assyrian descent, through massacres, forced
labor and death marches. An estimated 3.5 million people died between
1914-1923, and those who survived scattered throughout the world. It
was considered the first genocide of modern times.
Author Douglas Kalajian is a retired journalist who worked as a writer
and editor for The Palm Beach Post. He lives west of Boynton Beach
with his wife, Robyn. This excerpt comes from "Stories My Father
Never Finished Telling Me: Living With The Armenian Legacy Of Loss
And Silence." The book can be ordered in print and Kindle editions
MY FATHER'S DEEPEST SORROW
Posted 24 May 2014 - 10:49 AM
MY FATHER'S DEEPEST SORROW;
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