By Pete Najarian
One day when she was visiting a friend from the orphanage who was on her way to be married in America, an older woman in a room next door was also on her way there to join her son and asked her to come and marry him.
She knew of other picture brides going to America, and not wanting to remain a servant she agreed. Her master’s mother, who was kind to her in the two years she worked for them and who had taught her how to wear a cloth in her first menstruation, was sad to lose her and gifted her with gold coins before she was to leave; then as if these coins were her dowry, Annah bought with them a ring for her son and a cheaper one for her.
Her name Zaruhi was from the word for gold and in her submission the loss of the coins would be like an omen in the years ahead. She had lost her mother on the march and had needed her since then, yet Annah would not be a mother but a mother-in-law.
Annah herself had been an orphan who was adopted by her uncle Petros and was the same age as his two boys from his late wife, and she lived with them and his daughters from his second wife until she married; then his youngest son Armenag was born in the same year as her son Vahan, and Vahan and Armenag would each escape the Turkish draft and flee to America where Armenag would be Vahan’s best man when the young Zaruhi arrived.
She had just turned sixteen and it was a gloomy marriage that was not in a church since it was during lent, and she had no wedding dress and even had to borrow a pair of shoes, which made her feel so ashamed she would borrow a wedding gown a year later and pose for a photograph as if she had a proper marriage like her friends.
Nor did she sleep with Vahan for several weeks until she could finally “close her eyes and let it happen;” yet he did respect her and desired her sexually, and though he was thirteen years older, he had fine features and a strong character and she would get used to him until she could have a child.
He worked for a dry cleaner and she started sewing in a factory, and they moved to an apartment in West Hoboken on Highpoint Avenue where Annah would distill fermented raisins in the bathtub during the years of Prohibition that had just begun.
She was disgusted by the stink and complained saying she handed Annah her pay each week and didn’t need the money, but Annah enjoyed selling her araq that made her popular. They lived above a Turkish bath that was for women on Fridays and men on Saturday nights, and the patrons would come upstairs for Annah’s bootleg that would annoy the young Zaruhi even more as if she were living in a saloon.
Yet she was still too young and submissive to rebel. She worked all day while Annah cooked and cared for the apartment, and after dinner Vahan would go to one of the cafes in the Dardanelles while she sat with Annah in the kitchen on the couch by the coal stove where Annah would tell of her life back in Tigranagert before the massacre.
It was an ancient city on a mesa above the banks of the Tigris founded by King Tigranes that was later named Diyarbekir after it was conquered by Bekir the Turk, and the Armenian quarter mixed with those of the Turks and Assyrians and Kurds, and the home of Annah’s uncle Petros was built around a courtyard with the same black stone as the rest of the city.
He was a najar that was an ancient Mesopotamian word for carpenter still used not only in Turkish but in Persian and Arabic and the other tongues of the middle and near east, and when last names were formed his became Najar-yan, the yan for family, and his oldest sons Boghos and Garabed became an architect and a master builder around whom Annah would weave her story with the rest of the family, the young Zaruhi listening as if it were replacing the family she lost on the march, especially after she fell in love with the youngest son Armenag who was her husband’s best man and Annah’s first cousin.
Armenag lived with his older sister Vartanush who when he was seventeen had sold her prized embroidery to pay for their escape to join his other older sister Nevart, who had married her husband Ohannes in West Hoboken after he too escaped the draft.
Unable to live in Nevart’s small apartment, Vartanush married another escapee, Hagop, who happened to be a cousin of Annah on her mother’s side that made their families even closer.
Vartanush, whose name meant sweet rose, was really a sweet woman, and the young Zaruhi loved her while she loved her brother Armenag. Vartanush’s son was seven and her baby daughter a year old when Annah and Zaruhi moved to Highpoint Avenue, and their families were often together, but Zaruhi’s love for Armenag was always from a distance and only with her “eyes,” as she would later say.
In the meantime, Annah’s story turned to when she and Zaruhi were brought to America by Arsen, who was not only Annah’s relative on her mother’s side, but whose sister Arpi was the wife of Annah’s cousin Garabed, and after Garabed and Boghos were executed as resistance leaders, Arpi was rescued from the massacre by a Kurdish neighbor who made her his wife.
Arsen and his brother Levon had escaped to America where Arsen became a soldier in the American army in the World War, and after the war he went to Beirut to find a wife and another for his brother and wanted to continue to Diyarbekir for his sister Arpi until Annah told him it was impossible.
Annah had survived the massacre after her husband died and she had made her way to Beirut as a washer woman in the following years, and when Arsen arranged the visas he declared her his mother and Zaruhi his sister and also as his sister the wife for his brother who happened to be one of Zaruhi’s friends from the orphanage.
Back in the massacre when Boghos was executed with his brother Garabed, his wife Zabel was left for dead by the mercenary Chechens who took their daughters Manushag and Astghig as slaves in their nomadic tribe, and the girls lived with these Chechens until Zabel, who didn’t die but was only knocked unconscious, found one of little Manushag’s notes.
Boghos had taught Manushag how to read and write, and she would hand her secret notes of her location to itinerant merchants who would take them to the city, and after Zabel found one of these notes she paid the Chechens to get her daughters back, and on their way to Alexandria where Zabel had relatives she asked Garabed’s widow Arpi to come with them, but Arpi had children with the Kurd by then, and years later Arsen and Levon would weep when Manushag came to America and told them how they lost their sister who stayed behind and was lost forever.
Manushag and her sister and mother lived in Alexandria until she wrote to her uncle Armenag in West Hoboken where he had been raising Vartanush’s children while their father Hagop was unemployed, and when Armenag didn’t have enough for Manushag’s passage, he asked Annah for a loan, and Annah would reach into her petticoat to give him the pay the young Zaruhi handed her each week, so it was actually Zaruhi who brought Manushag to America, and they were the same age and would become like sisters.
But Manushag, whose name meant violet, had yet to arrive when the young Zaruhi listened to Annah’s story by the coal stove in the cold winter nights when the door of the back room would be shut to store the big ceramic jar of pickled cabbage and baby eggplants and the jar of the cold chunks of lamb and congealed white fat, Annah narrating not only the story of the Najarian family but of others from Diyarbekir who had come to West Hoboken along with the refugees from other Turkish cities after the genocide, the massacres always in the background with swords like those that sliced the throats of uncles like Boghos and Garabed and the rape and slaughter of aunts like their teenage sister who had long red hair, every family bearing bones in their closets too painful to remember or forget.
Near Highpoint Avenue a few blocks from the Dardanelles was the building called Swiss Turn Hall from the Turnveirein gymnastics of the Swiss Germans, and the Armenians would rent the hall for their theatre when Armenag, who in his late twenties was a prompter in the hood in the middle of the stage when he asked the teenage Zaruhi to play a small part as a chambermaid in one of the melodramas, and the love between their eyes was like Annah’s story about Ohan back in Diyarberkir.
Ohan had also been in love with his cousin’s wife and he had fled to America when she was pregnant with his child, and when the wife came to West Hoboken after her husband died, Ohan supported her family, one of whom was his son, with his work as a laborer.
Armenag’s jewelry sold so well in these years that he moved Vartanush and his nephew Ashod and niece Armen to a nicer home in the next town of West New York where his other sister Nevart and her two boys had moved when her husband Ohannes was earning good money as a photoengraver, and when Manushag arrived she moved there with her new husband whose name was also Vahan who had fought the Turks with the Armenian Legion of the French Army.
Vartanush’s son Ashod, Arthur in English and Archie to his pals, and Nevart’s son Garabed, named for Garabed who was killed, Charles in English and Charlie to his pals, were both precocious artists when they were boys, and Armenag was talented not only in his jewelry but in drawing as well, and Zaruhi would ride the trolley from Highpoint Avenue to visit them in West New York whenever she could.
She worked all week, yet her Sundays and holidays would be filled with picnics and feasts for the rest of the decade while there was always plenty to eat.
She was twenty-five by then, and unable to conceive she went to a doctor who opened somewhere inside her that was blocked, and nine months later she lay in her bedroom in terrible pain all day and night while Annah was in the kitchen and the iceman carried his chunk of ice with the burlap on his shoulder and the customers came for their bottles of araq, the baby finally arriving in a healthy nine pounds and his umbilical cord buried in the back yard so he would always be tied to the earth and never know loneliness.
It was in December after the Great Crash and the beginning of the Depression, and she nursed him for two years while she returned to the factory that was around the corner where Annah would bring him to her breast.
The sweet Vartanush whom everyone loved was now suffering from colon cancer and she wore a sac at her side when Zaruhi brought her baby to show him to her, Armenag out of work and his face drawn from worry and grief while the teenage Ashod was the sole support of their home with his job as a clerk.
Meanwhile Zaruhi’s fights with Vahan had grown so fierce she wouldn’t have sex with him and their marriage would soon end; she was no longer a girl but a woman and no longer under Annah’s control.
Vartanush died and Hagop and Ashod and Armen moved back to West Hoboken, and when the destitute Armenag had nowhere to go he went to Zaruhi’s factory where she took off the ring he had made for her when he was flush, and he found a room in West Hoboken as well.
She was leaving Vahan, she said to him, regardless of whether he would marry her or not, and there was nothing he could say.
Her boy Tomas turned out to be so much like her there seemed no trace of Vahan, yet Annah and his father adored him, and it was unthinkable to separate them. He was four when they all had moved from Highpoint Avenue to an apartment by Bergenline Avenue, and when Zaruhi decided to leave she moved with her Tomas two blocks from them in a building on the Avenue owned by an Italian who welcomed her.
Years earlier she had worked for an Armenian whose son Yesnik was her age and he married her friend Anahid when he became a lawyer, and they had been good friends when she asked Yesnik for help with her divorce.
Back one day when she was a servant girl in Beirut, she was delivering a can of lunch to her master in town when an old Armenian man called to her from the street and asked her name so he could send it to an exchange where survivors could find each other, and she told the old man she didn’t know her last name but she was from Adana and she remembered her cousin Arshag on her father’s side who was her older brother’s age, and the old man sent her name Zaruhi and Adana and Arshag to the exchange, and a while later a letter came from Arshag to her master’s home saying she should wait there for him to come and get her, but it was too late since she was already going to America with Annah.
Alas, replied Arshag, he would never see her again, yet he told her that in America was her mother’s first cousin Petros who lived in Binghamton, New York, and she would eventually find him there whom she would call her uncle.
He lived on a farm with his wife and seven children, and after Yesnik began the divorce she paid the rent to her Italian landlord and took Tomas on the train to Binghamton where they stayed the summer with who had become by then her new family.
Then in September she pleaded with the principal to admit her little Tomas in the school around the corner though he wouldn’t be five until December, and he would wait for her after school in the little movie theater up the street until she came home from work, and in time he would see his father and grandmother who lived by the school.
Yesnik said she mustn’t be seen with anyone for two years until the court appearance, but Armenag had rented a room near her, and she did see him there secretly.
Then one day came old Ohan offering to help her.
He was in his seventies by then, yet still so healthy he was known to walk for miles to save the nickel trolley fare, and having become like an old hayseed so thrifty and indifferent to his dress he was nicknamed Cockroach Om-mo, the word for uncle since he was actually a cousin of the old Petros of the Najarian family.
Yet he was a kind old man who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and seeing the single mother Zaruhi who had always been fond of him and was now alone with her boy, he offered to help her with the rent and to look out for her, and when he first came for dinner and started to crumble in her soup the stale bread he brought in his pocket, she told him to put it back and served him her fresh bread from the Italian bakery.
He slept on a quilt on the floor and was out in the morning walking wherever it was he would save the nickel trolley fare, and she was happy to see how happy he was to have found a home after he had lived alone for so long, until one day Manushag’s husband Vahan came and said:
“Zaruhi, why is Ohan living here? If you need money I can help you.”
No, she said, he was only looking out for her, and Vahan said Annah was spreading the rumor that she was sleeping with him, so the humble Ohan had to leave and return to living alone.
She had always known how devoted Annah was to her son Vahan for whom she had once bought a ring with the gold coins and only a cheaper one for his bride to be, and having lived with her ex-mother-in-law for twelve years the ex-daughter in law Zaruhi knew how far and wide Annah’s gossip would spread as if it were a kind of vengeance; yet Yesnik would soon succeed with the divorce and she and Armenag could finally wed.
It would be in Manushag’s new home in North Bergen that was only a short ride away, and it was on Manushag’s birthday that was the same as George Washington’s, and Manushag wanted her little Aram to be the best man though he was only five, and Armenag’s sister Nevart’s son called “Big Aram” was a first rate violinist and he played with the family friend Vartan who was a professional oud player and Manushag’s Vahan played his clarinet, and there was much merriment with song and dance all day and evening.
But alas, Armenag’s nephew Ashod and niece Armen couldn’t come because their father Hagop stayed loyal to his cousin Annah, and the eight-year old Tomas who was now Tommy to his pals was the only one who could breach the divide between their families.
He had turned out to be a good-natured boy who blended in with everyone, and Armenag became a second father to him who was actually his godfather and took him to the World Fair in Queens that would be one of the most treasured memories of the little Tommy’s childhood.
He was ten by then and his mother was pregnant, and she cried worrying about him when she and Armenag had to leave him alone on the train to Binghamton, yet he waved happily through the window while he sat like an adult as the train pulled away on the tracks in Weehawken up the Palisades along the river.
And when he returned at the end of August his baby brother was named Petros after Armenag’s father, yet Tommy would call him “Pete” like the Petros in Binghamton whom he called “Uncle Pete.”
Once again Zaruhi’s second child was so much like her there seemed no trace of Armenag, and her two boys looked so alike they were like full brothers and not half, but as the little Pete grew up he would question her about Tommy’s other family.
And it was around then that she and Annah met at a banquet in Swiss Turn Hall one day, and she cried as she said that Annah finally had her revenge in regard to Armenag’s stroke, and the old Annah, who was in her eighties by then, said softly:
“I didn’t want revenge, my daughter.”
Yes, the young Zaruhi had been in fact like her daughter when Vahan was so sick he was suspected of having T.B. and the doctor said he had to be isolated, and Annah took her daughter-in-law on the train to California until he could recover.
Annah’s oldest son Karnig had settled in Los Angeles with his wife Araxi, and Annah and the eighteen-year old Zaruhi lived with them in what for Zaruhi would be the time of her life while Annah had her hands full keeping the young suitors at bay.
Hollywood had become the center of the world by then, and Araxi and her friends would treat the vivacious young ingenue to party after party where they would pose like Flapper Girls in their incessant photographs, and from then on California would always seem like a Shangri-La to the star struck young Zaruhi, and her uncle Petros in Binghamton would later move there to Pasadena when he retired.
It was Annah who had taken her to California, the same Annah of the stinking raisins and the petticoat stuffed with her pay, the Annah who took her gold away and was as devoted to her Vahan and she would later be to her Tommy and Pete, the Annah who was not like a mother yet would treat her like a daughter despite the girl’s ambivalent feelings.
Vahan didn’t really have T.B. and the trouble in his lungs were instead from his heavy smoking, and when she returned to the factory and Annah to her bootleg, Annah, who seemed to know every Armenian in every city, would when the young Zaruhi was not working take her like a daughter to visit friends all the way to Paterson by trolley and to Watertown in Massachusetts by ferry, and the years passed until the baby Tomas was born.
Annah died after the last meeting in Swiss Turn Hall, and though Zaruhi wouldn’t go to the funeral, the old bard would loom in her memories for the rest of her life.
The Korean War began after Annah died and then Armenag also died, and after Tommy was drafted she asked his friend Bela to help her and little Pete take the bus from Jersey City to Camp Kilmer from where Tommy would be sent away.
Meanwhile her ex-husband Vahan was driven there separately by a friend, and after they each said their separate goodbyes, they went together to a Howard Johnson motel restaurant where they sat around a big table and Vahan paid for their sandwiches and desserts.
She hadn’t seen her ex-husband in the sixteen years since the divorce, and they didn’t speak to each other while Bela and the friend carried on the conversation, and the little Pete looked at his mother and then at his brother’s father wondering what they were thinking, the silence between them dissolving in the blur of his memory except for the “club sandwich” he had never heard of, which was a stack of triple slices of toast with bacon, lettuce and tomato whose taste he would never forget.
Vahan died of a heart attack while Tommy was in Germany, and she went to view the casket in the funeral parlor in her son’s place since he couldn’t fly back, and she would later say that she felt the ghost of the corpse would rise and start fighting with her again.
Yes, she would say, she had always felt guilty for taking her son away from his father, yet she would make up for it as best she could, and she hosted in her parlor the meal that was forty days after the funeral called the hoki josh, the dinner for the soul, which was for Vahan’s friends whom she had known but not seen since the divorce, while the little Pete who had just entered puberty sat on the couch in the kitchen reading his comic books and stuffing himself with her lulu kebab and pilaf.
Tommy married and moved away after he returned from Germany, and after her Pete left for college she was only fifty-three when Manushag wanted to fix her up with a well-to-do widower, but she had enough of husbands and said she had always been able to take care of herself.
She had moved near Manushag in North Bergen, and since Annah and Vahan had died, she could once again visit Armenag’s nephew Ashod and niece Armen whom she had known since they were children; and though Ashod, whom Pete called Archie, lived in Woodstock during the spring and summer where he had become a painter, he returned in the fall and winter.
Ashod was only seven when she and Annah came from Ellis Island and stayed with Vartanush until they could find a place of their own, and when they first came into the kitchen Vartanush said of her little Ashod who was drawing on the porcelain table top:
“There he goes again, making his little snakes.”
And the young Zaruhi would be fond of him from then on. And when his sister Armen was a little girl she once sewed a dress for her that Armen would remember for the rest of her life.
Meanwhile Ashod’s cousin Charlie had become so successful as an illustrator, he hired an architect to build a home in Tenafly that was all woods in those years, and Charlie’s wife Edna was so fond of his aunt Zaruhi that she would often be invited there, especially when Edna was giving birth in the hospital and she stayed in Tenafly caring for little Craig while Charlie was working.
In the meantime, the little daughter of Manushag’s son Aram was the same age as Tommy’s toddlers, and Tommy and Aram brought them for her to babysit on the weekends.
And so, passed the years of her family togetherness until she followed Tommy to Fresno, and several years later she flew back to see everyone and stayed with Ashod and Armen who had moved to a little bungalow in Long Island after their father Hagop died.
Back when Ashod was painting half the year in Woodstock and the other half in West Hoboken, she had told him his work was too dark and he should brighten it. She had a good eye and he respected it. Her older brother was a precocious artist before he disappeared on the march, and she had inherited the same genes for art that she had passed on to Tommy who was also talented as a child and was ambidextrous like Archie and Armenag, which added to Manushag wanting to believe that he was really Armenag’s son, which angered Zaruhi though she understood it was because Manushag was so fond of Tommy.
Ashod no longer painted in Woodstock, yet his paintings did indeed brighten, and he had stacks of them in the dirt floor garage by the bungalow. She stayed there a week and then of course visited with Manushag and Charlie and Edna and her dear friends. She was blessed with a friendly nature and she loved people who loved her in return.
Then back in Fresno she continued to see her old friend, Zimruth, whom she had known from West Hoboken and who had settled in Fresno with her husband Yerem and now lived alone in her old age on the other side of town where Zaruhi would ride the bus to see her, and when Pete came on weekends he would often drive her there and get to know Zimruth herself whose name meant emerald.
Zimruth had been raped by a gang of Turks during the massacre when she was a girl and she was never been able to bear children afterwards, and Pete used what his mother had told him about her in his novel where he created a chorus he called the daughters of memory as if Zimruth was one of them.
Just as Annah once narrated her history of families to the young Zaruhi in the coal stove apartment on Highpoint Avenue, so too did the old Zaruhi now tell her own version to her Pete with her own talent for storytelling in which she turned Annah’s memories into her own saga like an old bard improvising on an ancient theme.
She of course never knew the paterfamilias Petros and his family, yet she could imagine him by his old photo with his walrus mustache that Armenag had enlarged and framed and now hung on the wall by her bed.
His first wife was from an educated protestant family in the missionary college city of Kharpet that was north of Diyarbekir, and though it was unknown how she came to marry Petros, she had brought her Bible, and after she died when her boys were still children the Bible was later given to her second son Garabed when he married Arpi, and Arpi kept it when she was saved by her Kurdish neighbor, and when Arpi couldn’t go to Alexandria with Boghos’ widow Zabel, she gave the Bible to Zabel, and Zabel’s daughter Manushag later brought it to America where Manushag once told little Pete it would go to him since he was the last Najarian. But after Manushag died it stayed with her son Aram whose last name was his father Vahan’s.
Both Manushag and Vahan were long gone by the time Zaruhi became the bard of the Najarian chronicle, and she had broken her hip when Ashod died, and Pete went back to Long Island to salvage his beloved Archie’s paintings in the dirt floor garage.
Several years passed while Pete tried to promote the paintings for Archie’s sake, and his mother Zaruhi was in the nursing home when he learned that his cousin Aram had stolen them from him.
Aram didn’t really want the paintings that he thought were worthless, but he got involved in the theft with his wife Lillian, whose Armenian name was Shushanig, and their greed led to their betrayal.
It was another family story that Pete would publish in his book, The Paintings of Art Pinajian, and it would end with the family Bible that Manushag said would go to him as the last Najarian.
He loved her who he called his “Auntie Manushag,” though she was really his first cousin, and his first memory of her was when she held him naked between her legs in the bathtub like his mother would, and her body was soft with big breasts and her hair was reddish and she had a beautiful face like a movie star’s.
She was like his second mother and his mother had brought him to her home in North Bergen when his school where he was in first grade was closed because of the heavy snow, and he slept in one of the double beds in the room with her sister, his Auntie Astghig who was crippled by a car accident when she came from Alexandria and she had to walk with crutches, and she too had a beautiful face.
His cousin Aram had his own room next to Auntie Astghig, and he was not only like an older brother but was his godfather who was only eight when Uncle Vahan had to stand behind him and hold his arms at the baptism.
He loved his cousin Aram and would sneak into his room and try to wear his baseball glove that was too big for his small fingers, and Aram would treat him like his little brother.
And on Thanksgiving of that same year Uncle Vahan drove his paralyzed father to the dinner and Auntie Manushag sat her beloved Uncle Armenag at the head of the table in the dining room, and Tommy and Aram came from the football game of their rival high-schools, and little Pete would remember this grand event for the rest of his life as if everyone were his family.
But they were all gone except Aram when Pete asked him over the phone to send him the Bible, and Aram said no.
“You have no children,” he said, and he said he was going to leave it to his daughter who had four children.
Yet she had married an Irishman and her children were growing up Irish and the Bible would lie in the closet with the fly leaf of the names and birthdates written in an illegible Armenian script none of their Irish family could read, and Pete would never see the Bible or Aram again.
Such was the end of Pete’s story about the Najarian family in America after the massacre.