When anyone or anything turns 100-years-old, it seems only right that there should be a party or celebration. So when Fresno’s “red brick church,” Holy “T” as so many of us call it, sent out invitations marking the hundredth anniversary of its sanctuary, Armenians everywhere took note.
RSVP-ing with delight, we inked the date on calendars and combed closets for our Sunday best (black tie optional) attire. Knowing right then and there blinding sequins and glitter would fill the room, I told my mother we’d pull out all the stops and that she should get out her mauve, lacey dress – the one she wore to my daughter’s wedding.
As for me, filling out the response card and sending in our reservation was simply a formality triggering the arrival of countless, childhood memories – each an appetizer to an evening I knew would bring the past into present.
What was it, I wondered, about the church? Was it the billowing incense, a scent so strong and sacred it often transported me to another world? Was it the hymns I listened to while secretly watching my grandmother drop to her knees and weep in sorrow? Her family had been sacrificed in the Genocide and although she never spoke a word of it to any of us, she carried the weight of her grief into every moment of her life.
We were all kids then, gathering on Sundays in the celebrated sanctuary, sitting obediently on metal folding chairs, memorizing ancient prayers whose words we could barely pronounce. It was in this space we acquired our faith, a second family – a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. It would take us years to understand, but now, as we parked the car and I helped my mother through cloud-colored chiffon draped doors, I knew full well how this church and its people had sustained me and our family through the years.
In the days leading up to the gala event, my mother began complaining of fatigue, a lack of energy and appetite, “feeling her age, damn it” she told me, a disappointed tone in her voice as if her own skin and bones were betraying her. To complicate matters, the weather change was playing havoc with one of her knees, the same one that used to dip and bend to the sound of a Middle Eastern oud and clarinet playing. While she bantered, I closed my eyes – seeing her on the dance floor at summer picnics, legs bending with ease, hands twirling in the air, her passion for life seeping from fingers and toes.
Trying to console her, I told her my right knee was also giving me trouble and that both of us needed a Geritol fix. We went shopping instead. We would not miss this once-in-a-lifetime event. If the building could endure the wear and tear of a century, so could we, I told my mother, knowing that once I got her there, all aches and pains would subside.
As the evening approached, I could see the color in my mother’s cheeks returning to its normal hue. Even her Estée Lauder lipstick – a pinkish red color, seemed brighter than usual. She was wearing her history and heritage, bejeweled in her roots and culture. Earlier at home, she had asked me to remove the Lifeline necklace that had become her appendaged companion following one of her falls. Tonight, the Armenian cross would hang from her neck. I would later watch in amazement as she and other church elders, some needing wheelchairs and walkers, made their way through the crowd, swarmed by youthful parishioners eager to applaud their unfaltering love for the church.
Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church has been a spiritual and cultural hub for generations. Established in the heart of Old Armenian Town in downtown Fresno, it remains today a symbol of hard-working and passionate people who have made great artistic, intellectual and philanthropic contributions to the San Joaquin Valley and world. Robed priests, congressmen and other dignitaries gave speeches recounting with pride the Armenian community whose love buoyed and withstood everything from genocide to earthquakes. The magnificence of the evening would forever underscore its place in our community and hearts.
On a clear and beautiful November evening, the New Exhibit Hall was transformed into a grand walled city adorned of pure love and pride.
One generation melting into the arms of another, pausing to honor families – those who had survived and made their way to Ellis Island, eventually finding home here in the San Joaquin Valley.
Days later I would still note the sparkle in my mother’s eyes – one that outshined even the most sequined gowns that were part of the evening’s jubilant décor.
Armen Bacon is a writer and author of a new collection of essays, “My Name is Armen – A Life in Column Inches,” now available on Amazon and in bookstores. She is also co-author of “Griefland – an Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship” (Globe Pequot Press, 2012).