BY TOM VARTABEDIAN
HAVERHILL, Mass.—This is about a group of residents inside a nursing home who knew little or nothing about Armenia until they were exposed to it one fine afternoon.
It’s not just any nursing home but one I frequent almost daily to visit my mom, the last remaining genocide survivor in Haverhill. The ambassador that she remains in behalf of her nation, Ojen often talks to others with admiration about her country—proud, patriotic and prolific in her own humble way.
Many nod their heads in approval. Sometimes, they’ll probe deeper into her wisdom. Other times, they’ll dismiss it as gibberish. More often than not, it does my mother more good than the others.
One afternoon, the institution decided to deviate from the usual Bingo game and focus its attention on something a bit more enlightening.
“What about a program on Armenia?” I volunteered. “It would give residents a chance to learn about a different country, see some colorful photos, and perhaps identity with their own heritage.”
Of course, my mother was elated. If she taught me anything, it was the ability to remain Armenian and pass the culture on to others. Much too often, we keep our heritage cloistered when it should be displayed, whether in schools, office buildings and institutions such as this.
“Do you think the people here will appreciate Armenia?” she wondered. “Most of them will complain if you take away their Bingo time. They’ll get restless. Their minds can’t handle it.”
This is a 98-year-old woman speaking who’s spent her last three years in acute care, faced with dementia, but still mindful of her heritage. She showed up with a small Tricolor in her hand.
I recall once as a young AYFer visiting the Armenian Nursing Home in Jamaica Plain with my peers and bringing cheer to the confined one Christmas season. Here it was, 50 years later, and I still recall that eventful day. In doing so, it enhanced our spirit and gave us a sense of purpose.
What it gave them was a brighter holiday.
I checked with the activities director and she voiced her approval, looking for innovative ways to entertain her residents. I arrived that afternoon with only a DVD I had made of my recent trip to Armenia last spring.
“Keep it personal and short,” I reminded myself.
Fifty residents were wheeled into the room. Of the lot, only my mother and two others were Armenian by birth. For them, this would be an added treat. None of them had ever been to Armenia, much as they had yearned. In some ways, the country was coming to them.
The activities director went all out. A table laden with refreshment was an added inducement. Local newspapers were informed. Officials were invited. Every preparation was met accordingly.
I began my history with a brief introduction, explaining how the country dates back 3,000 years before the birth of Christ, and how we were the first nation in history to adopt Christianity as a state religion back in 301AD.
“Armenia is the birthplace of civilization,” I went on to say, explaining how Noah had landed his ark on Mount Ararat as told in the Book of Genesis.
I told them the fig, cherry and apricot originated in Armenia and that Old Ironsides in Boston was salvaged by an Armenian because he didn’t want the vessel to be turned into a Turkish warship.
“But our greatest contribution is the fact we were able to survive and prosper after a genocide in 1915 that took 1.5 million lives at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish Empire and left another million scattered,” I informed them. “Today, we pride ourselves on being industrious, God-abiding citizens, looking to advance a country that has been independent just 18 years.”
Much to my surprise, the residents appeared engrossed by the talk. Hands flew into the air. One said how he worked for an Armenian in the shoe factories as an Italian immigrant. Another mentioned the Armenian food her neighbor used to prepare.
And so it went. If there were 50 people in that room, each of them could connect to an Armenian in some manner. A Greek woman lived through a genocide in her own country and told how Armenians helped shape that land. A Polish woman presented her own account of Armenians growing up in her neighborhood as children.
”They were always a people to be admired,” she brought out.
Others who were customarily immobile or mindless took the opportunity to form an opinion. They shared thoughts of their own ethnicity. As one woman put it, “America is the land of immigrants. They shaped this country of ours with a lot of sweat and tears.”
Someone else reflected upon the time she traveled throughout Turkey with her husband and was saddened by the Armenian churches she had found in ruins.
On came the video as the images told their own story. The background music left people tapping their feet and swaying their body in cadence. An Armenian man would have jumped from his wheelchair and danced, much like he did in his youthful prime.
My mother shed a tear of joy. For one brief interlude, this became that Armenian nursing home I had frequented as a teenager back in the 1960s. Many were able to strike an accord with their very own lineage.
In the long run I suppose, we all share this vision of equality, no matter where our roots may lie. Without a country or a civilization, we remain a lonely star in the galaxy.
The following day, I saw my mother talking to another resident who was usually reticent. As I listened closely, I heard the word “Armenian” mentioned. It may not have been a public rally, a demonstration in the streets of Boston or NYC, but every bit as relevant.
Life in this nursing home had suddenly taken a turn for the better.