Somewhere on a hill on the Anatolian plateau, there is a tree that knows my words — words for my Armenian friends, words for many others.
My words are for the woman who has been slapped or punched by a man who promises it will never happen again. Until it does.
My words are for the wife who is belittled by her husband, over and over, until she starts believing she is worth as much as the smirk on his face.
My words are for the man who has been pulled aside by a police officer (or employer or landlord) and has to navigate the disparity triggered by his religion or the color of his skin.
My words are for the abused children who have grown up to remember.
My words are for any human being who has felt oppressed, shamed, devalued, or persecuted by the act of another. These words are for you.
More than 100 years ago, before the period of mass genocide, the initial waves of atrocity against the people of Armenia had already begun to wreak havoc. My paternal great-grandfather escaped to a new life, making his way to America before the beginning of the 20th century. In 1905, it was his son’s turn to get out of Dodge — or in this case, the village of Pazmashen, in the region of Kharpert.
Re-defining your lot isn’t easy. Eighteen years old, with little to show except his character, my grandfather disembarked ship in Boston and found training as a barber. He slowly began to learn English. In 1913, his parents arranged for a 16-year-old girl from their homeland to become his bride.
My grandparents moved to Fresno three years later. They had no material wealth, but pockets full of possibility. Hovannes became John. Hripsime became Ruth. And their granddaughter would come to write these words protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
I will never accept the horrors that good people suffered, tortures that allowed men, women, and children to be treated as less than human, the methodical eyes of a persecutor a knife that pierced each victim’s soul. When a person is devalued in extreme ways by someone who breathes evil, death arrives long before the body yields.
Much harassment is verbal, repeated and layered, a devil’s taunt. Eventually, the tortured begins to believe the falsehoods, the spirit beaten so badly that he or she is no longer able to fight against the lie: You are invaluable, interchangeable, not uniquely important in this world. You are worthless, don’t you know? My power over you proves it.
Shame leaks into your DNA, unconsciously passed through generations. Tragedy defines you. Loss becomes the subtext of your life. Hurt dissolves into a dark puddle, barely traceable, painting your heart with a cracked veneer.
Whether your ancestors were killed on the hot sands of Armenia or your spouse abused you in the privacy of your home, the pain transcends. Wounds can last for a long while. Recovery takes time.
Healing can surely quicken if the culprits of malevolence admit their caustic ways. Contrition isn’t the only cure. Even if the apologies never come, even if no one has borne witness to the secrets that were suffered, the purest salve lies in speaking the truth until you are heard — then speaking it again.
On the other side of the globe, a tree understands my words. It grows singularly, on a small rise, across a patch of barren land where the soil meets the sky. In this far-away, yet familiar place, lost families seed the earth.
You look toward the tree. In your line of sight, perspective shifts over time. You’ve survived. You’ve learned. Now it’s time to look beyond. Gnarled wood and green leaves reaching toward heaven, the pomegranate tree is really a shrub.
A small bird alights a branch, his voice melancholy in song. Der voghormia, Lord have mercy, he pleads. In healing, hope comes.
When the fruit of the shrub is broken in our hands, the past and the future become one. We never forget what was once lost. Yet, we gain the strength to move on. We see a thousand garnet seeds gleaming in the sun.