“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy that race.
“Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”
William Saroyan, “Inhale and Exhale” – 1936
Last night I dreamed about my grandmother’s purse. In a writer’s world, certain objects are often referred to as “loaded or weighted,” carrying far more significance than might be realized at first by the reader or observer.
Such was the case with my grandmother’s purse, a dime-store handbag made of beige patent vinyl, but nevertheless containing priceless intrigue to her six curious grandchildren.
I woke up this morning, my head rifling through its contents: a stash of coffee candy used to moisten the voice trapped beneath her tongue, a pair of hand-embroidered, yellowing handkerchiefs embellished with violets, silken lavender threads forming bouquets in full bloom, a scuffed leather pouch hiding crisp dollar bills all neatly folded, and ancient coins – brought from her homeland, Armenia.
In a side pocket laid a skeleton key, so mysterious I knew it could unlock guarded secrets – ones she kept to herself. And finally a shiny scarf purchased at Woolworth’s, worn to church and also used to cover waist long hair, hair she promised to let me cut the day I turned 16. Luckily, she changed her mind last minute, both of us undeniably relieved by the decision.
I loved watching her twist and turn the strands, forming a grandmotherly bun, bobby-pinned to perfection at the base of her head.
These long ago memories, distant yet present, showed up after watching non-stop movie trailers, most of them crowding my Facebook page and promoting “The Promise,” a film promising to raise consciousness about the Armenian genocide.
Like many Armenians this month, I will not only see the movie but also pause on April 24, a day of remembrance, to honor her life, mourn the loss of her siblings and parents, and the 1.5 million Armenians massacred at the hands of Turks orchestrating a feat of monstrous, unthinkable proportions.
Wishing I knew more of her story, yearning to hear her voice one more time, I’m hoping the film will help me better understand her life’s journey, fill in missing pieces of an untold narrative, a tale filled with tragedy and triumph.
Hope is a weapon. Victory is survival. My grandmother, Zarouhi Sobajian Derian, was a survivor. Strangely, I look for her in the crowd scenes, then remind myself this is only a movie.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at a Lenten presentation sponsored by the St. Gregory Armenian Church in Fowler. I am often invited to “share my personal story.” Although I prepare notes, an outline for my speeches, more often than not I approach the podium, look into the eyes of my audience, and inevitably tuck notes under the lectern – allowing an uncensored, unguarded heart to lead the way.
I tell them I am not a reporter but a storyteller, a memory keeper. I write about the precious, fragile and uncertain moments of life. While Armenians are a people very proud and private, I brag about being married for 40-plus years to a hometown boy from Fowler, having a beautiful daughter and son-in- law (also from Fowler), and being blessed with five healthy grandchildren.
And then I get to the messy part – telling them I am constantly teetering, navigating life after death – the death of a child, our son, Alex. I confess to the crowd (which includes my aunt, uncle, and a treasured priest), that I walk the world with a gigantic crack running down my middle.
But then I add that I am a survivor, too.
Like my grandmother, I have seen darker than dark days. But unlike her, I am compelled to share this grief out loud. Remind the world “I have a son. His name is/was Alex.” Even as a writer, I stumble not knowing for sure which is the proper verb tense.
Grief is a horrible thing to waste. Many squander it by growing sorry for themselves, drowning their grief in guilt, torturing themselves with endless what-ifs, or growing bitter and angry. Sharing the grief out loud offers a form of oxygen to counteract the despair. It was this need to create a language for loss, a dialect for grief that brought me together with my co-author, Nancy Miller, to write our book, “Griefland.”
Tonight I remember our first meeting at Uncle Harry’s, realizing we were both Armenian women whose grandmothers had survived the genocide, feeling their energies circling the room – and in some strange way urging us to chronicle our losses – word for word.
Doing what they could not do. Attempting to break their silence.
This became our promise – to our grandmothers, our lost children, our families, and to ourselves.