The two of them were an ideal couple. Where one was weak, the other strong. One’s voids were filled by the other’s talents. When my grandma passed away, we knew that my grandpa, Kevork Baghdassarian, would be impacted tremendously. I’ll never forget his comment at the funeral. Looking at her casket, he said, “I’ll be by you soon.” It sent chills down my body. Approximately a year and a half later, he too passed away.
Grandpa had a tough life. His parents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide. During the mass deportations of Armenians, they were forced to march from their homes in the village of Eskisehir, Turkey (historic Armenia) and ended up in Lebanon, where grandpa was born.
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He lost his mother at a young age and was forced to care for younger family members. I recall a story he told me once about how they didn’t have tea to drink, so he found a chestnut tree and used its leaves to make tea.
I think of the chestnut tree tea story often, especially when looking at our lifestyle here in the United States. What do we sometimes do when our latte isn’t hot enough or our meal isn’t the way we wanted it to taste? We return it and ask for a replacement. Those who come from war-torn areas don’t have that luxury. Grandpa lived through the Lebanese civil war where he was forced to survive on whatever was available. As a teenager, he would work as a sign maker to earn money for his family. He brought his talent to America in 1980. Actually, his work is all over the world, including, the Stratosphere sign in Las Vegas that he and my uncles made years ago.
Fresno had a special place in grandpa’s heart. From 1991 to 2014 he and grandma made the long drive from their Southern California home over the Grapevine and up Highway 99 to visit us. The cutest part of the trip came when he and grandma stopped at the same rest area for their picnic on the way up. Sandwiches, fruit and vegetables were on the menu. After their mid-drive snack, a hot cup of Armenian coffee to wash down the food and wake them up. They used the same beat up Thermos flask to keep the coffee hot.
When we were kids we knew that when they visited, we would work. Grandpa had a few places where he went to pick olives so he could cure them to have all year. We would all pack up in the car and head to the fields. As we pulled up to the olive trees, dust would get everywhere. Then the hard work of picking the olives would start. For us, it was annoying. For them, it was a family affair. Once the olives were picked, it came time for preparation. We’d sit for hours poking holes in each olive. The work was tedious. As I look back, some of my favorite memories came from the olive fields.
Grandpa also was familiar with Fresno because of William Saroyan. He was proud of Saroyan’s fame and Armenian roots. It’s unfortunate that he never got to see the new William Saroyan House Museum. I am sure he’d be impressed.
Grandpa also knew that billionaire Kirk Kerkorian was from Fresno. He was a fan of Kerkorian because of his philanthropic efforts in Armenia. For instance, I remember grandpa telling me that Kerkorian helped with rebuilding efforts in northern Armenia after a devastating earthquake, and also funded infrastructure projects in much-needed areas.
He’d get his information from print news. Grandpa was an avid reader. His kitchen table was full of newspapers. Up until his death, he read newspapers every time he had the strength. Perhaps that is where I get my love for news and the good old-fashioned hard-copy edition.
He died at 87 after a nasty fight with Parkinson’s disease. Holidays will be difficult without his presence, but the silver lining is that we are left with wonderful memories and stories from a man who worked hard and kept fighting despite a challenging life filled with unimaginable obstacles.
I’ll be sure to pass down the olive-picking tradition by loading up my kids in our van and heading to the olive trees. If they complain, I’ll argue that it’s family tradition. They’ll hate it now, but I bet they’ll cherish the memories later.
Sevag Tateosian of Fresno is host and producer of The Central Valley Ledger on 90.7 KFSR FM and CMAC Comcast 93 and Att 99.