Eyre Affairs

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Location: New York, United States

Monday, February 05, 2007

"With an accompaniment of secret tears, forced from me by the exigency of hunger..." ~ Jane Eyre

There were custom made wooden shelves built in the basement of my father’s parents’ home. My grandfather, Krikor, layered basic planks of wood next to a refrigerator besides the one in the kitchen upstairs.

These shelves were over five feet long.

On the shelves sat mason jars filled with brined grape leaves for dolma, processed by my grandmother Anoush's hands – leaves straight from the grapevines in the backyard. Other mason jars were filled with bulgur, the cracked wheat used in tabouleh. Cans of chicken broth would practically fill an entire shelf. Boxes of pasta were stored intermittently between hundreds of cans and containers…hundreds. Corn, tuna, cranberry sauce, kidney beans, chick peas, peas, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, soups, gravies, fruit cocktail, yams, peanut butter, breadcrumbs, olive oil, vinegar, pickles, rice.

As a child, I believed everyone’s grandmother’s basement was filled as though it were its own aisle in a supermarket. Six days a week she cooked for herself and my grandfather; she was petite and lean and he was tall and lean since neither were big eaters. Sundays we came – an addition of five more. Even then I never saw her actually enter the basement to gather ingredients for whatever dishes she was making, like pilaf and shish kebab and lahmanjoon.

It was as though the cans and jars and boxes of food were a permanent fixture there.

In her childhood, my grandmother was not to remain a permanent fixture in Chomaklu, Armenia. She would never grow up in her homeland. As a child, she and her family were deported and sent on a death march by the Young Turkish party after they had decimated the village and killed hundreds there, an addition to the million that were murdered during the Armenian Genocide.

Along this death march into Romania, my grandmother starved. Two of her siblings starved to death and their graves were preyed on by ravenous wolves during the nights after their burials. I remember the fight that ensued between my grandmother and great-aunt when my great-aunt told me of these events when I was a very young girl. My grandmother didn’t want me to know. But I needed to know.

And so do you.

A year after my grandmother died in 1998, I sat in a class with Dr. Druyan, who allowed me to alter her syllabus for Literature of the Holocaust and incorporate my own readings of the Armenian Genocide into the writings I did in the course. After reading Enemies, A Love Story, Dr. Druyan discussed Survivor’s Syndrome in her lecture. It was then that it dawned on me the full extent of my grandmother’s syndrome. There is more besides the stockpile of food in fear of starving, but the ocean of cans and boxes and jars and containers were the most prominent aspect of her symptoms.

I never left my grandmother’s home without eating. She was an amazing cook, and I hope that I do her proud with the dishes I make. My grandmother would make me and my sisters anything that we wanted…anything…and she would cook with a smile and watch us eat with pleasure. She spent her childhood starving and I spent my childhood being fed the best of food by her small hands, hands that even cooked despite Parkinson’s disease in her later years.

These days I relish in cooking for my nephew, whether it be pastina or scrambled eggs, for I know she is looking down and watching me make sure that her Armenian great-grandson, who will be taught about the Armenian Genocide one day, is well fed, both with the kind of food and the kind of love she gave us.




Blogger Wizened Wizard said...

I came by way of Shaumi's blog, and having just seen a wonderful stage production of Jane Eyre, the quote immediately drew me in.

At first, the foods you described - the grape leaves for dolmas, tabouli, chickpeas (no doubt for humus) - put a smile on my face. Mmmmm... my favorite foods. Then the reality of your post became clear, and I was sobered. I married into a Jewish family.

Thank you for sharing this story.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Borut said...

Enjoyed reading your story. Armenians, Native Americans, a long list...

4:20 PM  
Anonymous non-highlighted heather said...

I can't speak for the dishes you make(although I wish I could, one of my favorite places to eat near my home is an Armenian cafe), but I'm sure your grandmother would be quite proud of how you've represented her with your words. I've always felt that words were very much akin to food; some are bland, unseasoned, unsatsifying. While others you want to roll around in your mouth and savor, relishing every morsel. If your food is anything like your words, I believe your partakers walk away with jubilant tongues, as you did from your grandmother's.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Mayden's Voyage said...

A great-grandmother, on my mothers side- was a full blooded Indian in North Carolina, whose daughter married an American and sealed all information about her tribe, her people, and her culture. She was ashamed.
I know that her people were rounded up and sent to the mid-west..some hid in the mountains of NC- I can only guess that she was one of those- or married young and no one asked questions.
I read the story of your Grandmother and wept- because of what she suffered- and because she endured- and because her love for you was a 1,000 bigger than any of us can imagine. She thrived for the sake of her children and Grand-children. She thrived for life itself. Her life is your legacy.

Amy, I have a copy of a National Geographic (March 2004) that I found a few weeks ago with a story titled "Armenia Reborn"- and I immediately thought of you. I read the story...and wondered if you would like this copy.
It's yours if you do~
Just send me an email, ok?

Our past is so important, the stories should be told, and re-told...yours and mine. I love how dear your heritage is to you.
Thank you for writing this- it weighs in my heart.

6:55 PM  
Blogger question girl said...

my family has its own history, being jewish, but it parallels w/ stories of the holocaust in germany, poland, and russia

every family gathering revolved around food - no matter what

however, the difference was that no one would talk about the past with the younger generation - we were kept isolated from it, to such an extent that the "older" generation would speak in yiddish around those who were younger

although not the same stories, again, we have something similar in common

7:31 PM  
Blogger schaumi said...

it is so important to share such stories. that is why i, at times, write down my mother's war stories. these are our personal histories which should not be lost. and the internet and blogging is a wonderful way to share these stories.
I had first heard of the armenian holocaust through a friend i met at this particular southwestern university i mentioned in my blog. she was armenian.
i had never heard of it before. never once did i learn about it in any school setting i had been in.
thanks for sharing..

7:54 PM  
Blogger Pinky said...

Quite Moving. I think it is important for all of us to remember what others went through before us, we have such lush lives compared to our grandparents and great grandparents and I believe we take it for granted.

Great Post!

8:18 PM  
Blogger ThursdayNext said...

Wizened Wizard ~ I can't thank you enough for taking the time to come visit Eyre Affairs; Schaumi is a favorite blogger of mine, and I look forward to visiting your blog this evening! I appreciate the time you took to read a story about my grandmother.

Borut ~ Thank you for taking the time to read as well. Yes, the list is long, and I fear it will only grow if we do not change our ways drastically.

NHH ~ Oooo, an Armenian cafe? Excellent! How wonderful that you have one so close to you! Heather, I love your astute comment on words and food. I had never thought about it before. How I wish you blogged...I would love to read a post on that.

Cora ~ It perplexes me to this day how blind so many are to the history of the Native Americans. I do believe we could have lived in harmony with them and not much would be different...except maybe we would value nature more and be a more spiritual people. I don't know. What was your great-grandmother's name? I hope you blog on this, Cora. You are too kind and too sweet to offer me the article...I did buy that issue when it came out (I actually bought a few for family and friends!) and have it still among a small collection of magazines I have saved. I so appreciate your offer, and I am so glad that you have read the article!

QG ~ I think my great aunt was an exception. There is so much that was kept from us, too. I dug a great deal. I am sorry that you had to do the same. When I met Yaffa Eliach, a well known Holocaust scholar, at a conference on Anne Frank, the minute I introduced myself with my last name she asked me if my grandparents survived the genocide. I was at first floored, but then as you said, our histories are intertwined in similarity: genocide is genocide is genocide.

Schaumi ~ Yes, so often the genocide is not taught in schools. I still think it partially has to do with the fact that the Turkish government even today refuses to admit to the genocide, but that is another issue for another day's post. I want to hear more about your mother.

Pinky ~ Thank you for your kind words about the post. Indeed, you are so right. The less the younger generations know, the more desensitized they become...and that is very dangerous, isnt it?

8:54 PM  
Blogger Percival said...

I thought it was ironic, to say the least, when I heard on NPR the other day that some maniac murdered a journalist in Turkey for writing about the Armenian genocide. Now that right there proves there couldn't ever possibly have been such thing a thing in the past as maniacs murdering Armenians...

You'd think that if you were going to be that extremely evil, and not just, say, a regular mugger or thug, that you'd be a little less stupid??

9:56 PM  
Blogger PeeJ said...

Quite apart from being gorgeous, once again I'm spellbound by you and your writing Thurs. Your folks sound very much like my Nan, who came from farming stock - and also had the same approach to food (I think WWII had that effect on a lot of people so even when rationing finished, they still hoarded and kept enough food to feed an entire army for years - and I never realised until a lot later on that they may have been subconsciously preparing for the next war).

You sound as proud and as full of love for your family as I do for mine, and reading your words about them always gives me the warmest glow.


4:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It was silent..."

Thank you for this beautiful memorial for your grandparents, and all other victims of persecution. I relate to everything you write.

As for the discussion on the Armenian genocide, I am ashamed to confess that in Holland there are some Turkish politicians that still deny these events in public. Please, keep on telling the story!

6:40 AM  
Blogger ThursdayNext said...

Percival ~ I adore you all the more now that I know you listen to NPR! A new novel was just released here in the U.S. by a Turkish author who was almost sent to trial for being "Anti-Turkish" because the novel asserts the Armenian Genocide. Its almost like the lady doth protest too much, eh? The Turkish government is so insistant that there was no genocide that they pretty much confirm their guilt in their protests. Thankfully no harm came to her...

Peej ~ I have read many stories about the brave Brits who survived such awful hardships during WWII, and your Nan sounds like such an amazing woman based on your stories about her. The good to come out of all the bad our grandparents went through is to remember how much stronger our bonds are as family and how much we appreciate and value one another. Thank you for your kind words about my writing, sir. xoxo

7:29 AM  
Blogger Clearlykels said...

Amy, that was just amazing. I think it is so important for us to know where we've come from and what makes us who we are. Thank you for sharing. That was incredible.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous non-highlighted heather said...

If you ever come to California, lunch will be on me. xo

12:44 PM  
Blogger ThursdayNext said...

Frumteacher ~ Those Turkish politicians do not surprise me. Once they admit the genocide, it means we are entitled to reparations...God knows what a stunning house my mother's grandparents had in Istanbul. If I went to Turkey, it would be to see MY homeland where MY family once walked; I do not support other tourism to Turkey at all.

Kels ~ The thank you is to you, not to me. I deeply appreciate the time you took to read this.

NHH~ Do you by any chance live near a Zankou chicken? ;)

2:49 PM  
Blogger Barry said...

What a lot of people do NOT know is how many places genocide is done... if you really look - it makes you almost sad to be a human.. yet a lot of folks are great... how can we be so evil, and yet so compassionate as a race (humans) ....

Ok I am babbling

2:51 PM  
Anonymous Neil said...

I think it is very important that we study the past, and the sufferings of the Armenians is one of the saddest episodes of the 20th Century. People need to keep on talking about it, or else people forget. Even the extermination of six million Jews is fading into memory as those who lived it are dying out.

8:05 PM  
Blogger gautami tripathy said...

Nostalgic. I am reminded of my grand mother too. She was an amazing cook. Never let any of us go hungry. I can still smell her cooking whenever I think of her. One thing she kept us supplied with was mango pickles. I have not tasted anything like that after her. I miss her.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Ryane said...

My grandmother came up during the Depression and she had a similar amount of food in her basement pantry. We used to joke around and call it the bomb shelter (which really isn't funny), but honestly, I don't know if I can ever remember her pulling from that cache of food, either.

12:41 PM  
Blogger firebird said...

I worked with a wonderful Armenian woman who told me a similar story about her grandmother--forced to walk across the desert with nothing--watched her two children die of thirst...
this is burned into my mind forever--it's so unspeakable--

My own mother was sent with her family to an internment camp during WW2--she was born in Washington State, where her parents had immigrated to from Japan as young adults, starting a farm from scratch--they lost their whole years harvest when they were rounded up in the internment--most people don't realize how many years they were locked up--they had to live in a horse stall at a racetrack--the whole family in one stall--until the camps were built--

but it was the shame, as you say, that stayed with my mother for the rest of her life...thank God my daughter is now valuing her Japanese heritage--now that times have changed--

The Armenian tragedy stayed with me because it was so much greater than what my mother's family went through--puts it into a different perspective...

Thanks for writing about this...
and thanks for your kind comments on Percy's blog--you're a true friend!

11:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I so identified as most Armenians do with your blog regarding your grandmother's cooking.

I will turn 50 years old this week and will spend the day with my family (eating Thai food; we've evolved!).

My parents are both 1st generation Armenian Americans and are both 80 years old and healthy and in excellent physical condition. I believe it's all that great Armenian food.

On Sundays, when i was a child from the age of 4 until 14, we would attend church and Sunday school and then drive over to my grandparent's for lunch. Pilaf, chicken, okra or green beans in tomato sauce, salad and Armenian bread (run under water first to soften it) and always tourche pickled vegetables on the table. The children, all of us cousins and about 10 of us, sat at the table and ate first. Then the adults would eat and then my grandfather would polish everything off.

My cousins now range from 55 years in age down to 40 and we all get together every year with our parents for a family reunion. It's great. We inherited their cooking skills but they are still around to cook for us so we let them! The bonds we formed on those Sundays as children always remained. We have never fought within that family even if we had disagreements.

My other grandparents only lived a block away from those grandparents and even though it was in the city and I was scared, I would run to their house after dinner for my candy fix. That grandmother is still alive at 92 years of age and just actually retired from full time employment with Verizon after 37 years, 3 months ago. Can you imagine working at 92 years old full-time? Her story is incredible, she survived the murder of her father by her mother when she was 3, was raised on "the farm" by an aunt and later married my grandfather 25 years her senior so that at 18 years old she could become mother to his 4 children. They later had two of their own. My grandfather passed at 75 years of age and one month later her youngest and only blood son (my uncle) was killed in Viet Nam at the age of 19 when I was 12.

I grew up with the cellar loaded with canned goods and jarred goods as you describe. In fact, back in the 60's growing up Armenian in an all Catholic blond neighborhood had it's embarrassing moments. My mother was always seen by my friends on the side of the road picking grapeleaves. I would duck my head down as we drove by in the school bus and beg my mother not to do that anymore during the week. But I was a young hypocrite because i loved what those grapeleaves made. And when i would make mud pies with my friends, I always rolled mine in a maple leaf. It's what I knew.

The smells coming from our kitchen permeated the neighborhood and soon all those non-Armenian familles were having pilaf and chicken for dinner as well as klayma. My mother held a cooking class for the neighborhood moms after their kids demanded those smells start coming from their house. All of a sudden I was proud to be Armenian and never looked back.

I didn't taste Chinese or Mexican food until I attended college as my mother always said that food was "junk" and loaded with MSG. Now, she's the one selecting Thai as an option. Go figure!

When i was stung by a bee as a child, she would put yogurt on it or mud. Talk about embarrassing. But it worked.

It's hard for my non armo friends to understand my ways sometimes but they all love the uniqueness of having a friend unlike no other. It's the cross we bear as Armenians!

Thanks for the memories.
(btw...the Armenian priest refused to baptize me as Jean in 1957, he said it was not an Armenian name, so my baptismal record reads "Mariam") Ya can't make this stuff up!

8:46 AM  

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