IMPORTANT AND ADVANCE WARNING: Apologies to all, but this post is essentially about me. Please don’t feel that you have to read it at all.
In mid-December of last year, a former junior-high student of mine had a birthday. He’s my friend on Facebook, so I wished him well on his wall and we had a brief exchange that went something like this:
“Happy birthday, G—-. All the best!” I wrote.
“Thanks. I can’t believe I’m 34 already!” he wrote back.
“Hey, from my perspective you’re still a baby.” I wrote.
“That doesn’t really help 😉 Can you believe I was only fourteen when I was your student?”
“:))” I replied.
What I didn’t tell him was that I was only 29 when I was his teacher and it felt like that was at least a century ago. He was in the first ever junior-high science class that I taught at Chamlian School. I’d only worked with high school kids before and his was a class I “inherited” halfway through the academic year; not an ideal situation neither for the kids, nor me. That’s why I’d been particularly touched when he’d requested to be a Facebook friend.
Then in-mid March, there was the news that the Encyclopedia Britannica was discontinuing its book edition. This seemed to signal a new era. Anyway, the news made an impression. It brought back memories of the day we got our own set at home and how my parents had also bought the accompanying children’s encyclopedia which was delivered sans the “I” volume, maybe to discourage any ego-building?! Kidding aside and quite seriously, the “I” volume was censored in its entirety in Lebanon because it contained an article about Israel, a country that since its creation was considered to be an enemy state. Why the lazy censors couldn’t have been bothered to omit or black out just the “Israel” pages (if they really had to) and had the whole volume banned is still a mystery to me. As a result, they robbed my childhood of the chance to delve deeper into the ichthyosaurus, Italy, the Isthmus of Panama, and the Impressionists, to mention just a few I-s. Much later, when I’d moved to and lived in Glendale, CA, one of the first major purchases I made was the Encyclopedia Britannica without whose presence in my bookcase I felt like a dilettante. Will I sound dated if I remind you those were the pre-“google-it!” days and there was no other way to have that much information at your fingertips without going to the library? However, I also remember giving that same set of the Britannica to our local library a few years ago, when it had been reduced to a dust gathering relic. It was definitely the end of an era.
|It was rosy all day, from flowers to gifts and the strawberry tart.|
|Estonian lace scarf knit in bamboo yarn.|
And then, last week, I celebrated my own birthday. The one that’s considered a milestone. The one that’s special enough to be referred to as golden. I’ve always preferred silver to gold and now I finally have an inkling as to why: who wouldn’t prefer two 25-s over one 50? Quite unbelievable that I’ve managed to record memories that span half a century already; that I’ve been on Earth for all of 50 years. Anyway I look at it the number seems pretty large. Until I think in terms of a millennium which cuts it down to mere insignificance. That last exercise reminds me of knitting a piece of lace that consists of particularly difficult and involved stitches. You have to focus so intently on the scale of making each stitch that when you’re done with the project and look at the finished product you almost can’t believe you’re the one who managed to do that. The scales are too different.
|The sun was generous with its rays on the morning of my birthday.|
Pick a day, any day – significant or even mundane – in your life and pore over its details. Turn it over in your mind and give your memories ample time to dust themselves off. Let them come forth to flood your brain and then examine them closely. Now that, exactly that, is the scale that we live in. The other, grander one that we call our life is on a different scale altogether. It’s harder to envelop and contain in one thought; it’s the finished product that comes into being because you lived your days one at a time: had your breakfast, solved that crossword puzzle, took that meeting, sweated in that gym class, were given those flowers, and on and on until the last day you’re alive. And at the end the whole interval is bracketed between two dates separated by a dash and that’s that: a life.
A life isn’t just a stretch in time. There’s also space to consider. And if you have the “I move from place to place, therefore I am” gene that seems to run rampant in me (and this may seem to be more by choice specially on my maternal side), then space is as inescapable as time. As an aside, transplantation is also true for all ethnic groups having a Diaspora, and in my case, most notably Armenians. The resulting space-time itself is part of a continuum and your specific combination is just one link in the chain of your family as it extends before and after you.
My maternal grandmother, Lida Guzminichna Stredinina, was not Armenian. She was Russian, born and raised in the railway city of Kropotkin, North of the Black Sea. The granddaughter of one of the last atamans (Cossack leaders), she had inherited hair so shiny and black that when she was a teen at school, her classmates called her “the girl with blue hair.” Her maternal uncle was a copper mining engineer in the Southern Armenia town of Kapan/Madan. One summer (c. 1937), she came to visit him and stayed. She found her way to the capital of Armenia, Yerevan, and enrolled in the State University studying to become a teacher of Russian. That’s where she met her husband, my maternal grandfather, Meroujan Hairabedian, who had arrived in Yerevan by way of Erzeroom (way back when, when his great-great-grandfather, a miller, and his family had to flee town because of an incident involving a local Turk cutting in line at the mill and paying for that transgression by his life), then Gars, and then after the Armenian Genocide in 1915, the town of Gyumri, then known as Alexandropol, later Leninagan, and now Gyumri again. Now that I think about it, he got around too.
|Svetlana, bottom right, Meroujan, behind her; Lida, top left. (C. 1952)|
By the time their first child, my mother Svetlana was born, they had settled in the Northern region of Lori, quite possibly the greenest and one of the most forested and beautiful areas in Armenia. At some point, Lida who stopped moving once she got to the village of Odzoon where she taught Russian to many generations of Armenians, is quoted as famously saying “Նրանք ռուսները…” which loosely translates as “them Russians” when referring to her own compatriots… And yes, she did speak Armenian. Among others, I fondly remember her soft rendering of the Armenian guttural “ղ – gh” sound.
Eventually, my mom also found her way to Yerevan, becoming a chemical engineering student in the Polytechnic Institute. This is where she met my father, Varoujan, who had come from Lebanon to study civil engineering at the same Institute. These were Soviet times and he had to learn Russian for the grand purpose of taking the mandatory course of dialectic materialism. My mother was recommended as someone who knew Russian well enough to teach an utter beginner like him.
My father’s family had had to move too. His grandparents and aunts and uncles had been transplanted forcibly from Mousaler, near Antioch, to the village of Anjar, in Lebanon. They considered themselves to be among the luckiest Armenians, because thanks to French intervention they had escaped the fate that befell those 1.5 million of their compatriots who perished during the Armenian Genocide. That I’m writing this post in early April is also significant, because we commemorate this first Holocaust of the 20th century on April 24th.
In gratitude to the French, my paternal grandfather, Levon Mardirian, volunteered to serve for a double term in the Légion Étrangère of the French army as a foreign legionary (1915-1919). He married my paternal grandmother, Maritsa Hanissian, after he returned to Mousaler. Maritsa, who had been selected as a bride by Levon’s own mother, was 24 years old and at the time she was already considered an old maid. They did not stay in Mousaler for too long. By the time their third child and first son, my father Varoujan was born in 1937, they had been in Beirut for about nine years and Levon worked first as a handyman at the French naval base and then as a gardener tending the French Admiralty’s grounds. Once the admiralty was closed and sold, Levon’s prospects dwindled and the family certainly couldn’t afford proper housing, let alone fund their children’s education. When a promised scholarship failed to materialize, Varoujan had to leave the Engineering School of the American University of Beirut at the end of his first year. Instead, he left for Armenia, to continue his education in Yerevan at the expense of the State.
|Varoujan and I in Yerevan, above. Svetlana and I in Beirut, below.|
How my father did in his compulsory course of dialectic materialism I don’t know. But he must’ve liked the woman who taught him Russian a lot. Soon they were married and before they had even finished their Master’s degrees they had their first child, me.
That is how my journey in time and space began. I was fifteen months old when my parents graduated and decided to move from Armenia to Lebanon. Although Stalin’s statue had been toppled over from its pedestal in Yerevan on the same night I was born, these were still the days when the Iron Curtain was heavy, opaque, and quasi-impenetrable. But love prevailed over Communism and despite interrogations from the party apparatchiks and pleadings from her family urging her to reconsider and stay, my mom embarked on what was then the grandest move of her life.
There were no direct flights between Yerevan and Beirut, so my maiden move entailed traveling North to Odessa and taking what was to be my first cruise involving travel over four seas. So in that month of August, we sailed South via the Black Sea and through the Bosphorus Strait to Istanbul, Turkey, then on to the Sea of Marmara and through the Dardanelles Strait to the Aegean Sea and Piraeus, Greece. The rest of the voyage was all on the Mediterranean: Alexandria, Egypt, to Larnaca, Cyprus, and then finally to what was to be my home for the next 27 years of my life, Beirut, Lebanon. Needless to say, I don’t have even a single memory of this trip…(And I’m so sorry that I don’t have access to my family albums while I’m temporarily in LA. They’re all up North.)
There were more memorable moves/trips to come. A significant turning point came after I turned 18. It was August again when I left my parent’s home in East Beirut to go and live in the dormitories of the American University of Beirut in West Beirut (to attend the same Engineering School that my dad had had to give up, although my choice was electrical engineering). The East/West Beirut demarcation line had come to be a fixture of the Lebanese civil war, making it unsafe and imprudent to cross the mere 11 miles on a daily basis. Since then, I’ve moved every ten years or so to a new location. The first time was when I embarked on the biggest move, all the way to Los Angeles, again in August. This was followed by going to San Francisco and then moving to the East Bay. Need I mention both happened in August? Funny enough, I managed to celebrate my last birthday during a temporary move to Los Angeles, this time, however, totally missing the month of August.
|My life: a three continent stationary story as told by my Facebook map. All the itinerary trajectories are missing…|
The moving theme that lately my mind has been musing about seems to be enveloping others too. The downstairs neighbor had picked exactly my birthday to pack his belongings in a U-haul mini-container prior to a move. Back-breaking work that he did on his own, dismantling, shelving, and compacting his belongings all day. His container of course took up a precious parking spot on our street, all day! Although the parking bit is a totally different story. And a different post…
|Did you know you could fit a two bedroom apartment in a mini container?|