BY MARY NAJARIAN
Every so often, I sit back and reminisce about my childhood. Some of my favorite memories are the nights when my grandmother would let me have a sleep over and I would crawl in her tiny bed and sleep with her arms wrapped around me.
We were a family of seven and lived in two rooms on the first floor of an adobe house, and my grandmother, known by all as Gnkamair (Godmother) lived in a small room on the second floor, next to my uncle and aunt. Every night, grandma would unfold her mattress on the floor and put the covers on, including the long pillow that covered the whole width of the mattress. There were many reasons why I loved the sleepovers with my grandmother. First, it was a lot better than sleeping with my sister who, all night long, would pull and push the bed covers, while my grandmother would hold me tightly to her chest wrapping her arms around me to make sure I won’t roll over and fall to the cement floor. And on the cold winter nights her warm body was like a heater, besides, I would be so close to her that I enjoyed listening to her heart beats.
My second reason was, when grandmother was not too tired, she would tell me a bed time story. It was the same story that she had told me over and over again by my request. “Please grandma, tell me my story, please, please.” I don’t know who enjoyed it more, me listening to the story, or her telling it to me. When she was in a good mood she would tell my story with such zest as though it had happened only yesterday.
And this is how my story goes, as told by my grandmother.
“Your mother was an arranged bride. We sent her from Aleppo to your father who was living in Lyon, France. We approved the marriage because his father – that is, your grandfather – was living in America and regularly sent money to him. Your father was supposed to take his wife, your mother, and join his father in America. Who would think that soon after they were married, your grandfather would die, the money would stop coming, and your father, instead of finding a job and living in Europe, would return to Aleppo, Syria? Who in his proper mind would do such a thing?
“One winter evening, without any warning, your mom and dad arrived from France and knocked on our door. Each was carrying a baby in their arms and had one suitcase. Rose, your sister, was two years old and Gregory was only eight months old. They were cute children, but Gregory was different. He was like a painted, hand-made doll, with blue eyes, blond curly hair and rosy cheeks. The neighbors would come to the house just to see and admire this beautiful little boy. I was afraid that the child would be hit with the Evil Eye. And sure enough it happened. A few months after their arrival, Gregory developed pneumonia and all the medicines, the hot packs, the suction cups and the blue eye beads did not help him and he died. It was sad, and we all took Gregory’s death very hard.
“Two months later your mom was pregnant, and we were all happy. We expected her to have another ‘Gregory’ which will help to take away the pain of losing a child. Not only the family, but the whole neighborhood was waiting for the rebirth of ‘Gregory,’ the beautiful child with blue eyes, blond curly hair that smiled to all. Your father was very happy. Every morning he would walk half an hour to a farm to get fresh milk for your mother to drink, so that the baby she carried would be healthy.
“On January 6, the most holy day in the Armenian calendar, your mother started her labor pains. Your uncle went and summoned Hadji Mama, the midwife. We put your mom to bed, the same room and the same bed you are in now. I boiled a big pot of water while your aunt Nevart was holding your mom’s hand and wiping her forehead.
“It was almost 9:00 AM, the church bells were tolling. Guests had started to arrive. It was the tradition that on January 6, Christmas Day, starting early morning, the men would dress in their best, visit their neighbors, relatives, and friends to wish them a happy New Year and Merry Christmas. The lady of the house, the hostess, would graciously shake their hands, ask them to sit and offer them a small glass of arak and candy.
“On this particular Christmas Day, your father was the host. He welcomed every one that came, offering them the arak and candy, but when the guests heard his wife, Khatoon, was in labor on the second floor, they all waited in the yard to witness the arrival of the baby.
“By 11:00 AM, downstairs the yard was full of Christmas well wishers. The guests would drink their arak, have their candy, but would not leave. They were standing and waiting for ‘Gregory’s arrival. The crowd was getting bigger and bigger. Your sister Rose was on the second floor balcony and peeking through the keyhole where your mother was, suddenly she started to cry and yell, ‘Daddy, Daddy, come, come fast, Mama’s tummy is all blood!’ Your father was furious and yelled, ‘Bring that child here right now, before I come and throw her down the balcony.’”
Here, I would stop my grandmother. I would giggle and ask, “Medsmama (grandma), did Daddy really get angry at Rose and wanted to throw her down the balcony?” She would assure me it was so and I would be so content and happy.
“Soon after, you were born, Hadji Mama held you upside down and slapped your bottom. You started to cry. When the guests heard your cry, they began to yell, ‘Is he OK? Is he OK?’”
“Hadji Mama washed you and swaddled you in a warm blanket and said to me, ‘Go to the balcony and tell them the baby is here. It’s a girl and she is OK.’ I said, ‘No way will I face your father, and give him the news that it is a girl.’ Then she turned to your aunt and said, ‘Nevart, go to the balcony, show the baby, and congratulate Harutun.’
‘Oh No, I can’t go and say, ‘you have a daughter.’ He will never forgive me.’
‘OK, then I will,’ said Hadji Mama. ‘But let them wait.’ She covered your head with a tiny bonnet. You were so cute, but you were a girl, and you had olive skin, with black hair and brown eyes and not like your brother Gregory.
“Hadji Mama, holding you lovingly in her arms took you to the balcony. With the voice of a stage performer, she announced: ‘Happy New Year and Merry Christmas and congratulations to Harutun. On this Holiday, on this day of the Birth of Jesus Christ Our Lord, a daughter is born to you. She is not just any daughter, she is a very special child, to be born on this very special day. She will bring you honors and prosperity. She will bring you happiness. When I first held the baby, I felt something strange. Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘In honor of the Holy Mother of Jesus Christ, you will name her Maryam. And Harutun, let us all rejoice on the birth of Maryam the gift from God on this special day.’
“The guests who had been there since 9 in the morning had been drinking with every newcomer, and most everyone was drunk. Some shook your father’s hand, and many did not dare to congratulate him, and walked out quietly.
“What was there to congratulate? God takes a son and then gives you a daughter. With sorrowful looks, with their heads down, as though they had witnessed death, one by one the guests walked out. Hagop, the carpenter, one of the early comers, was drunk, could barely walk, and was the last to leave. He patted your father on the back and said, ‘Akh! Harutun, how can I console you? Don’t be upset. Even God makes mistakes.’ Your father’s blue eyes were filled with tears and the anger had turned the blue in his eyes to turquoise. He took his coat and without coming upstairs to see you or your mother, he left. He did not come home until after midnight. Oh how angry I was !”
I don’t know why I loved to hear the same story over and over again. I think I was happy to know that on that day, the day I was born, my father had been angry and yelled at my sister, and wanted to throw her down the balcony. This was the first and the only time my father had ever scolded or reprimanded Rose. The second reason why I loved my story was, I wanted to hear that my grandmother truly loved me and that I was special to her. Grandmother would end my story with a short prayer. Pulling my hair back, she would kiss me on my forehead and then whisper into my ear so no one would hear, and the words would not be lost in the air, “You are a gift from God, you are special and will always be special to me.”
Often, I felt guilty that I was born to replace a precious, beautiful boy, but my grandmother would convince me that, ‘Gregory did not die so you would be born, but you were born after he died.’ Well, whatever she said, it was difficult to comprehend then.
Years went by. I graduated from the American University of Beirut, School of Nursing. I was to leave to the United States to work and further my education. For the last time I went to Aleppo from Beirut, to say good-bye to my family. It was September 11, 1957. My whole family came to the train station to see me leave. One by one, I hugged, kissed and said farewell to my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers, sisters and their families. My grandmother had dislocated her hip and was in pain but she had insisted to come to the station to see me for the last time. She was standing alone in a corner. I ran to her and we hugged, kissed, cried; I would not let go of her. Finally, she took her handkerchief, wiped my tears and said, “God be with you. Go to a Christian country. Go to a free country, but promise me, as soon as you can, take the family to America. They have no future here in Aleppo.”
“Yes, I promise.” I said. “But Grandma, please whisper to me one more time.” I bent down and with a trembling voice she whispered into my ear for the last time.
“My child, you are a gift from God. You are special and always will be special to me.”
Dear Grandma, many years have gone by. I think of you often. I am sure you know that I did keep my promise to you and brought the whole family to America from Aleppo, Syria. As you said, “they had no future there.”