In The Absence of Stories… A Tale of Wool and Peaches

BY MARIA TITIZIAN

The story of our lives and the stories of our parents and grandparents are the sum of all that we are and continue to be. While many of those stories are laced with pain both personal and collective and enough adversity and heartache to fill volumes, there is also a heritage, a veritable treasure chest of priceless riches.

When we immigrated to Canada in the 60s from Lebanon, my parents had very little to go on except love although over time even that was worn down. Living a life of poverty in a country of prosperity wasn’t always easy but it certainly built character. We eventually discovered that with each battle won, and each obstacle eliminated what we were inadvertently doing was building a life of texture and depth. We were weaving a mosaic of stories and experiences that would be intrinsic to the people we would become.

I never thought about this until a friend said, “Our children will no longer have any stories of their own to tell.” We had been doing what generations of mothers before us had, we were commiserating about our children. I didn’t quite understand what she meant at first and then it slowly occurred to me that she might be on to something.

If we were to take the time to dissect the lives of our grandparents, the burden of their existence would destroy us. My grandfather running away from an orphanage in Syria at the age of 13, believing that his entire family was lost to him only to find his sole surviving sister years later in Beirut and then losing her once more during the great repatriation of the 1940s never to see her again; my other grandfather being uprooted from his ancestral village, not once but twice, losing his first wife to typhoid after giving birth to their son, my father, only to lose his second wife to heartache; my maternal grandmother battling the demons of her tortured memories for the duration of her short life, while my mother was taken out of school and made to take care of her younger siblings at the ripe age of 9.

We were the children of the children brought up by orphans. Our nourishment was the stories they told us, those they had pledged never to tell and those they needed to impart to ensure that their existence on this earth had mattered. Our shelter was their ability to survive and their determination to protect us with what little ammunition they had in their arsenal. So, while our grandparents fought for their lives and our parents struggled to sustain them and we fought to make ourselves better so that we could be a sense of pride to our parents, we carved out a life of comfort for our children and when possible, made sure that it was absent of pain and adversity.

I still smile in wonderment every time I remember the things my mother had us do as children growing up in Canada. She carried her Middle Eastern lifestyle and sensibility with her to the most Anglo-Saxon neighborhood in Toronto. She had brought pure wool comforters from “back home” and each spring we would have to remove the wool, wash it, dry it, beat it, place it back in its individual sheets and using a large needle, sew it into place. I still remember the smell and texture of the damp wool, strewn on large cotton sheets in our living room.

Our tiny overstore apartment did not only witness the cleaning, beating and drying of wool; it was a constant, relentless hub of domestic activity. There was no way my ever-industrious mother was going to allow her three young daughters to be languorous. So, we made soujouk, falafel, yogurt, peach compote, jams and jellies, lahmajoun, sekhtorov hats, and on and on. I remember trying not to gag as I would hold animal intestines in place while my mother used this medieval contraption to stuff her prepared soujouk into. We would then hang them up to dry on a string my father had placed in one of the hallways of the apartment. I remember jars of compote – mostly peaches lined up on a shelf above the kitchen cupboards. I also remember that we weren’t allowed to go outside after dusk because the “hippies” would be hanging around our street and they were not to be “messed with.” Our list of weekly chores was long and non-negotiable and once a month every square inch of the apartment would have to be scrubbed down otherwise we would catch some unearthly disease.

So while my blonde and blue-eyed friends would be outside skipping rope, their hair in braids and ribbons, or riding their pretty bicycles, or going to their piano lessons, we would be scrubbing the walls with rags, making soujouk, pealing peaches for the compote and beating wool brought from the old country…

Trying to console my daughter one time about something which eludes me now because in my mind it was irrelevant in the larger picture of her life, I blurted out that I envied her childhood. She looked at me quizzically and for a second I regretted saying it. I certainly did not begrudge her a single thing in the universe that my husband and I had worked so hard to provide her with, but in that particular space and moment, I was envious of the childhood I had been able to give her and heartbroken over my own. Those words, “I envy your childhood,” were uttered from my lips but they came from my mother who worked 10 hour shifts in a garment factory in a country, which after more than 40 years is still alien to her, sewing heavy winter coats to provide for her daughters and from my deceased grandmother whose essence I can still feel but whose soul was shattered almost a century ago. Instead of being envious, I should have found fulfillment at being able to reverse the cycle of bitter childhoods.

And herein lies the question…will our children have their own stories to tell?

This new generation might not have stories of wool and peaches; they might not have grown up with memories of heartache and pain but they will have to negotiate the next leg of our nation’s journey. They will determine the course and set the standard and while we might think that they have no stories of their own upon which to construct the next stage, they will have the burden and the privilege of doing so on the shoulders of all those who came before them.

Our children have the ability, creativity and imagination to become the heroes and heroines of their own stories and just as my generation tried to break the cycle of bitter childhoods, perhaps they will have the fortitude, energy and desire to reverse the cycle of unbearable challenges and shape a brighter future for our people. Now that would be quite a story.

Authors

Discussion Policy

Comments are welcomed and encouraged. Though you are fully responsible for the content you post, comments that include profanity, personal attacks or other inappropriate material will not be permitted. Asbarez reserves the right to block users who violate any of our posting standards and policies.

14 Comments

  1. Verkin said:

    Thank you Maria,
    Beautifully written, it seems like you are telling our collective story, I think there is a book in there trying to come out. Verkin

  2. Robert Kachadourian said:

    Maria-Bravo!!! Words can’t express the beauty of your thoughts. This is a written expression of many. Yes, it should become a book. If I can help in any way, I’ll be more than happy to do so. One of my own writings became an award winning documentary film.

  3. Seervart said:

    I enjoyed your article Maria, thank you. This brought so many, but somewhat different memories from my life when my grandmother patted on my back as I always opened the dough finely and I helped her with making the rose and the grape preserves, and when I helped my mother make homemade mayonnaise, topig, lahmajoun and mante. Like yourselves we also went from the Middle Eastern Egypt to Montreal, Canada and we had to struggle to make ends meet. You wrote it skillfully and beautifully and I enjoyed reading it while it brought so many memories from my own life and teenagehood.

  4. amb said:

    Beautifully written piece, heartfelt, melancholic and poignant.

    A new narrative is what the new generation of Armenians need, specially ones growing up in privileged western countries. The difficulties and atrocities our ancestors had to endure are part of our history, and the stories of the difficult and despairing circumstances they had to raise a family in is part of our tradition. But it does not need to be the only part.

    Our children, who are growing up and being educated in western countries, do not experience wretched living conditions and oppressive regimes. They are experiencing social and personal freedoms, and more importantly are being trained and indoctrinated with the ideas that made the modern western world, ideas coming to us from the enlightenment ear of 16th and 17th century Europe. Ideas such as liberty, freedom, individuality…

    The new generation needs to delineate, construct and define a new narrative that will help explain the new realities of Armenians and the Armenian nation in today’s world, so that they can, first of all, make sense and help explain who we are and how we fit and relate to other nations in this 21st century, and then, second of all, hopefully, actually participate in the advancement and survival of Armenians and Armenia.

    They don’t need to be fed the old narratives over and over again. We live and deal with new realities now.

    The older generation, if they want to be of help to the new, and not a hindrance, can help the new generation in the task of rethinking and redefining the position of Armenians and Armenia, in the present-day world.

  5. Zorro Ohanessian said:

    Beautifully written Maria!
    I had similar experiences as you did.
    Came to the US from Iraq by way of 10 year Armenian Boarding school in Calcutta, India.
    Served in Vietnam as possibly one of the handful of Armenians in the US military.
    I hope you remain as dedicated as you are.
    Regards,
    Zorro

  6. Tamar Chahinian said:

    Beautifully written, I’m sorry I read it so late. I believe if our children don’t have their own stories to tell, that means our generation has succeeded in reversing the cycle. Our children are growing up well aware of our past and yet feeling more confident and ready to climb the ladders in the counties they were born. That’s something we should be proud of. Thank you and I’ll be looking forward to that book !

  7. amb said:

    The old stories and narratives – I am trying to clarify my posting from above – is what’s keeping up stuck and in the past, not helping our nation to adapt to the contemporary times, to the new realities. Our old stories are keeping us back from advancing as a nation.

    In the absence of new stories and narrative, in the absence of a context that applies to Armenia and Armenians as a whole, our new generation, who are getting educated in western ways and ideas, are not able to help advance the nation of Armenia but instead have no choice but to apply themselves to the context and narrative, to the way of being and thinking that their resident countries and societies offer their people. These people may be Americans or French or Canadians or Argentinians or Lebanese.

    We need to get away from our old stories, not deny them but knowing that they exist, come up with new stories, new narratives where global, inclusive ideas of Armenians are considered. Narratives which will help explain the position, the identity, the tasks and duties of Armenians everywhere, both in Armenia and the Diaspora.

  8. manooshag said:

    Hye, Maria, having read your ”tale’ over several times… is like reading a favorite novel again and again, except that your telling hits home… for I can remember so much of what you shared – all that was from our villages… which my Mom, Zevart, passed on to me as a youngster. The re-making of the comforter (we Dikrangerdsis called it ”ongogheen” (for others it was the bedding). Too, all the specialties that were prepared and to be enjoyed… especially my Mom’s candied pumpkin ”rachahl” – delicious!! Even getting the left over hunks of fat from Ernie the local butcher – to be melted, stored, to be used for cooking… All the ways of making fine foods… storing them, the dried meats, the pastries… and so much more! Thanks for helping me to recall those great times… our precious times. Yet, then she’d often recall, too, the vile saddest times when she lost all – her parents, brothers, and more, when she was alone – orphaned.

  9. mazejian flora said:

    Hye, Maria, your story is just marvellous. Very similar souvenirs I lived up to 10years old in Aleppo (Syria). We had the only richness of our parents’ affection and innocent and peaceful life we had in the 60s. Then we moved to Lebanon and at the beginning of civil war, I move to Paris (France).
    My father had been grown up in an orphanage in Aleppo (Syria) but we have almost no information about that period. That will be great if you could just prepare a documentary as suggesting others above; it won’t be easy to search in the archives (if they still exist) of Aleppo.
    Thanks again making me recall those great times of my childhood.

*

Top