by Pete Najarian
Freud’s greatest story for me was his little book Civilization and its Discontents that he began by describing the mind like the city of Rome:
“Historians tell us that the oldest Rome was the Roma quadrata, a fenced settlement on the Palatine that was followed by the phase of the Septimontium when the colonies of the different hills united together and then the town bounded by the Servian wall, and later, after the transformations of the republic and the early Caesars, came the city that the Emperor Aurealian enclosed by his walls.
“These places are now in ruins, yet they are not of the early buildings but in restorations of them, and all that remains of ancient Rome is woven into the fabric of a great metropolis that has arisen in the last few centuries since the Renaissance.
“Now let us suppose that Rome was a mental entity in which all the earlier stages of development had survived alongside the latest, the Palatine of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimus Severus still towering to its old height, the beautiful statues still in the colonnade of St. Angelo as they were up to its siege by the Goths, and where the Palazzo Caffarelli would also be the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus not merely in its latest form but in its earliest shape when it still wore its Etruscan design adorned with terra-cotta antefixae. Where the Coliseum stands now we could at the same time admire Nero’s Golden House on the Piazza of the Pantheon and find not only the Pantheon of today as bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but at the same time Agrippa’s original edifice instead, and the same ground would support the church of the Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the old temple over which it was built…”
All of Freud’s stories were about the mind and how it was tied to the body, as in taboos of excrement and menstruation and most of all sex that he would study as a scientist, and though his Das Unbehagen in der Kultur was one of the darkest stories ever told, he would put in it all he knew from its first chapter about the origins of religion to its dramatic end:
“The fateful question of the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent the cultural process developed in it will succeed in mastering the derangements of communal life caused by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. In this connection, perhaps the phase through which we are at this moment passing deserves special interest. Humans have brought their powers of subduing the forces of nature to such a pitch that by using them they could now very easily exterminate one another to the last person. They know this—hence arises a great part of their current unrest, their dejection, their mood of apprehension. And now it may be expected that the other of the two ‘heavenly forces’, eternal Eros, will put forth his strength so as to maintain himself alongside his equally immortal adversary.”
He was writing in 1929 before the atom bomb and the mass extinctions of life on the planet, and yet it was the same old story told even before writing was invented. Once upon a time, it said, there was life against death in a world of light and darkness, but why was it always filled with suffering?
Once upon another time in the year after the bomb, a woman around forty walked home from the factory at day’s end and climbed the three flights of stairs to the railroad rooms of the little apartment where her crippled husband sat on the small sofa between the stove and the kitchen window, her five-year old son playing with his toys on the linoleum and her sixteen-year old on his way home from his afternoon job as a soda jerk.
Her youngest in kindergarten by now, she had returned to the factory after sewing at home since her husband’s stroke, and she began cooking a simple meal of bulgur pilaf with lamb bones and green beans in a garlic and tomato sauce she served with a loaf of bread from the Italian bakery, her husband lifting himself with his cane to sit at the small table with the boy and his brother who would finish eating by the time she herself sat down, the boy leaving to listen to the radio in the parlor and the teen to his club around the corner.
She had worried about the club until a friend whose son was also there said they were just being boys. It was in a storefront with a pool table the older youth had rented on the street once called The Dardanellesbecause of the gambling cafes of the Armenian immigrants whose sons now mixed with the Italians and the Irish and Germans and some Syrians and Jews.
She herself had become international and polyglot after she lost her family on the death march when the English soldiers liberated her orphanage and brought Armenians who taught her Armenian since she had spoken only Turkish as a peasant child, and when she was a servant girl with an Armenian family in Beirut she learned some Arabic she would later use in America when she sewed with Syrian workers in a Syrian’s factory; then after sewing with Italians she learned her broken English with their accent and was with them when they joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union that cut her hours to only eight a day, which was around the time her divorce was settled when she was finally able to marry the man she loved who had come to live with her and her first born.
He was a jeweler who had a hard time selling his work during the Depression, but with the start of the second world war he began to earn enough for her to stay home with their baby, which was the first time she didn’t have to work anymore, for even when her first son was born her mother-in-law would bring him to the factory for her to nurse him. Now however she could stay home with her infant in her new happiness while cities were being bombed overseas.
They were then on the first floor where she had moved as a single mother when the Italian landlord welcomed her and her child. She knew him from his other Armenian tenants and he told her he’d rather rent to Armenians than his paisans who might gossip about his family. His two married daughters lived on the upper floors and she would share the apartment near his with his two youngest in what would have been the parlor where they would leave the sliding door open during the heat waves so the breeze could blow through.
She had to stay single for two years when her first husband could have claimed their son since divorced women had no rights, but he didn’t come to court to contest the divorce and the boy would see him and his grandmother after school since they lived only two blocks away.
Then one day one of the top floor apartments was vacant, but she balked when the landlord offered it to her.
It was bad luck, she said, to move in the same building.
“You a movin up,” said the old Italian, “not a down.”
The top floor was in fact much nicer, and from the kitchen window that was as high as the wash poles in the backyards there was a glimpse of the Empire State Building across the river and she could grow parsley in a box on the fire-escape, and from the parlor facing west at sundown the sky would be red above the rooftops. She had as a child grown up in a vineyard that was like a little Eden before the genocide, and though her life had been wrought with hardship, it now looked bright in her new happiness.
Her husband’s jewelry was selling so well during the war that he could afford a new parlor set with a matching couch and sofa chair and then an oriental carpet, and one day the Armenian merchant in his appliance shop across the street wanted to sell her a Frigidaire. It cost too much, she said, and like a typical Armenian businessman he said she didn’t have to pay it all but only a little each week.
It was the smallest model and the little freezer was barely big enough for the ice cube tray, but she wouldn’t have to buy a chunk of ice from the ice-man each week and she could stuff it with her leftovers without any worry. In the meantime, she sewed new gingham curtains for the kitchen windows and a delicate lace tied with a bow in the parlor, and the war years passed while she strolled her toddler to the little park nearby and her husband would show him off to his pals.
One morning after a New Year’s Eve party she told him how happy he looked as he was leaving for work. He was thirteen years older than her and she had been in love with him since she was a picture bride to her first husband who was his cousin. He had come to America as a teen when he fled the Turkish draft that would turn him into cannon fodder and his older brothers were later executed during the massacre; yet like her he had survived and endured and she now enjoyed cooking for him while he enjoyed her cooking that was rich with the fat of the lamb in their new prosperity while he looked forward to when he could move from silver to gold in his jewelry.
Yes, he said, he did feel happy as he stood by the door while she dressed their child on the little couch between the stove and the kitchen window on that last morning of her seven years of happiness.
She had seven years of happiness, she would say to a friend who had also been a picture bride to a husband she had not chosen, and the friend said she was lucky to have had seven years with a man she loved when so many others never had any.
And it was in that afternoon after he looked so happy that the message came from an Armenian neighbor who had been on the bus through the tunnel to Manhattan where he fell to the floor and the neighbor had gone with him in the ambulance to Bellevue Hospital.
She was so shocked after he was brought home that his niece who was her closest friend had to help wash him and empty his bed pan until she could recover. She had been shocked when she was torn from her mother on the death march, yet once again she would survive and endure.
The stroke was so massive said the doctor that he would either die or live for around another seven years, and he recovered enough to drag his foot to the toilet with his cane. Her niece said she should put him in a nursing home since it would be bad for the boy to grow up with him half paralyzed; she was only thirty-nine said his niece and could marry again, but she would never leave him, and though the boy couldn’t understand the slur of his speech she could converse with him as she did now at the dinner table while the boy listened to the radio in the parlor and his brother was in his club.
It was Friday and the boy could stay up after Ozzie and Harriet and The Life of Riley and then sleep late the next morning to play in the streets with the neighborhood kids while his brother worked in the ice-cream parlor.
Saturday mornings she did her laundry with the wringer washer her husband had bought when he was flush and it chugged as the blades turned back and forth until she lifted the load with a stick turned white from the bleach; then squeezing it through the rollers she carried it to the window where leaning out from the sill she pinned it on the line from the pulley to the pole in the back yard, the sheets and shirts flapping in the breeze as if they were alive and then smelling fresh from the soap and the breeze when they were dry; and after she spread the sheets over the mattresses she mopped the linoleum and vacuumed the carpet in the parlor where her husband had dragged himself to be out of her way.
She was done by noon and walked to the little shop of the Armenian grocer around the corner whose vegetable baskets lay on the sidewalk and his shop stuffed with jars of spices and the two barrels of green and black olives and the four sizes of bulghur in the bins, the lamb hanging from a hook in the refrigerator closet in the rear from where he carried a leg and shoulder he chopped and sliced for what she would cook in the coming week in her dolmas and kuftahs.
He didn’t sell chicken that was costly in those years, but for a special occasion she could choose one in the shop around the other corner where the chicken lady wore a rubber apron and rubber boots and would grab a bird from the cage and slice away the head and plunge the carcass in a barrel of hot water and pluck off the feathers.
Or some Fridays she might buy fresh fish from the shop by the ice-cream parlor, and she could always buy cheese from the shop on the corner whose bins were for the mozzarella of the Italians and what the Armenians would salt and curl with sprinkles of black sesame.
There were also meatless meals with red or green lentils or white beans or chick peas, her cuisine a cross between the Mediterranean and India Asia that she learned since her mother once cooked on an open fire in the vineyard where there was no rain from spring to fall.
On this Saturday evening she cooked a pot of dolma with the dried baby eggplants she had soaked and then stuffed with rice and the ground lamb and served as always with the fresh bread from the Italian bakery that was on the same street once called the Dardanelles.
After dinner she undressed and eased her husband into the tub in the small bathroom where she scrubbed and then toweled him and then led him to the bed where the boy helped dress him in his fresh pajamas and lift his paralyzed arm into the sleeve.
Then it was her and the boy’s turn in the tub and she held him between her legs as she sat on a little bench and doused him with a dish of warm water from the big pail under the faucets while turning his head when he tried to see between her legs.
He had grown too big for the crib in her bedroom with his father and now slept in a double bed with his brother in the next room, though she would soon need to buy two single beds for them. The stroke had left her husband impotent, yet she loved him no less and held him close as they fell asleep.
She ironed on Sunday mornings and never went to church except for baptisms and weddings. She remembered her father once brought her to a church when they lived in town during the winter rains, and though his face was a blur in her memory she remembered him burying his baby in a graveyard of a church in Damascus after her mother gave birth on the march, and he was buried there himself after he died with his pants soiled from what must have been a kind of dysentery.
Jesus meant little to her, yet she had a deep faith in her personal God who she called Asdvas Dada in Armenian, the Holy Father. At the same time, she never lost her peasant belief in superstitions, and on this Sunday morning she held her boy’s hand and dropped a nickel in his palm to light a candle and ask Asdvas Dada to make his father well.
He was old enough now for his brother to lead him the four blocks to the Armenian Orthodox church and show him where to drop the nickel in the brass box under the candles, which he would continue to do every Sunday morning in the years to come, his brother then leading him to his father’s nephew who lived a block from the church and had just returned from the army and was an artist who would become the boy’s father figure in the years to come.
She returned to the factory on Monday morning, and with her sons in school, her husband would play solitaire or read from the pile of the boy’s comic books or sit by the window in the parlor looking down at the avenue. A week ago, he and the boy were on the floor with tears in their eyes waiting for her to come home from work after he must have slipped and fallen and the boy home from school was unable to lift him. Hopefully it wouldn’t happen again but she could never be sure.
The factory was five blocks away by what used to be called Highpoint Avenue that led to the cliffs above the waterfront and the reservoir with the gulls gliding overhead. It was a small factory with two dozen machines and a trough for the dresses with the pressers behind them sweating in the steam in their sleeveless undershirts. She was not paid by the hour but was a piece-worker and since she was fast she was now earning enough in the post-war boom to afford an RCA Console radio and phonograph so her husband might listen to the Turkish- Armenian records that her son who was his godson would buy in Manhattan as well as the American songs of the Forties and even some classical albums.
Turning seventeen he had become the man of the house and she depended on him to read official letters and when the wash line broke he climbed the spikes of the pole with a new rope between the pulleys.
Her pay was so good that year she could even afford a summer room for two weeks in an Armenian boarding house in Belmar at the Jersey shore so they could escape the heat in the city, which was so stifling she and the boy would help his father sit on the steps down the three flights of stairs, step by step until he could sit on a chair on the sidewalk between the Chinese laundry man and the Jewish delicatessen.
Then in November 1950 he had a second stroke and she had to sew a plastic sheet for the bed after he couldn’t reach the toilet and then say she was Catholic to the nun at St. Mary’s hospital so it would accept him as a charity patient.
It was in Hoboken by a park that was later in a scene in the film On the Waterfront, and after a week had passed there was an early snow and so cold her son had to crank his ’36 Ford to get it started, and after he drove her and his brother down the viaduct to the charity ward she whispered to the boy to say goodbye to his father but he didn’t know how and just stood at his side touching his hand as they looked at each other and his were like pebbles in water.
The Korean War began in the same year and by luck her son was sent to Germany, and when he returned he lived with her and his brother until he married and moved to North Bergen where she and boy would also move and take the bus to work and school.
Then after he got his Photoengraver’s union card he was earning enough to move to Ridgewood in the next county, and he would bring her grandchildren who were only a year apart to stay overnight on the weekends. Her younger son who was now in college also came on weekends and after moving to London would fly back and stay with her in the summer break from his teaching.
But around ten years later photoengraving had been supplanted by a new printing method, and unable to stay in Ridgewood her son moved his family to Fresno in California around the time she was retiring and she could afford a little home near his with her life savings.
Her other son was living in Berkeley by then and he would drive across the valley to spend weekends with her. One morning he had a panic dream where he was searching for his childhood home in West Hoboken as if it were a safe haven, and when he asked her if she missed the old neighborhood she said in English and Armenian: “Those streets are still wet from my tears.”
In her garden now she had grown a lemon and grapefruit and satsuma and apricot and quince and persimmon and olive trees, plus a green garden of okra and fava beans and tomatoes and zucchini, and along the fence she tied a grapevine not for grapes though they were very sweet small seedless Thompsons, but for the leaves she would harvest when they were young and tender and jar in salt water and wrap around rice and onions in her sarma.
She also had in her front yard a pair of green and purple fig trees and a pomegranate tree whose fruit was not as red and seeds not as hard as sold in markets, but was for juice that was so sweet it tasted like ambrosia.
“I am like my father now,” she said one morning holding a shovel, though he was only in his thirties when he died on the march and she was now ninety-three. She would go to bed around nine and rise at dawn and sit in her rocking chair sipping her coffee while looking out the wide window at her garden and then work in it until noon when she would eat her main meal, and today it was the purslane her neighbors called weeds that grew between the cracks of the sidewalk and the borders of the lawns.
It was an ancient food and maybe even prehistoric that she sautéed in oil with onions and flavored with lemon juice, and she ate it with the bread she baked herself that was not as crisp as from the old Italian bakery but made with the same kind of dough from unbleached flour.
After a nap she watched her soap called As the World Turns whose story she could follow with her limited English. A filmmaker from Berkeley had made a documentary of her own story called I Will Not Be Sad in This World, and it would be shown in festivals across the country and abroad.
Then one morning her son called his brother to tell him she was in the hospital after she broke her hip and a surgeon inserted a screw in it. Her neighbor across the cul-de-sac was laying bricks in his front yard, and after she asked for some cement to plug the hole in her stucco to keep away the ants, she fell on the pavement losing her balance when her wheelbarrow overturned.
“She needed that cement like a hole in her head,” her son said to his brother. She had been a queen of cleanliness since she was a girl, but the ants won the final battle.
She could hobble with a walker after she recovered, and they hired a friendly middle-aged Armenian immigrant woman from Yerevan who cooked and cleaned while she sat in her garage that had become her second living room with a rug and a second rocking chair, and with the door open she tossed crumbs to the flock of sparrows that would peck in the driveway while the neighborhood kids rode their bikes around the cul-de-sac.
But one day when the caretaker couldn’t come she was left alone due to a mix-up in the phone calls and her son in Berkeley called his niece who found her on the floor in the bathroom with her skirt soaked in urine after she tried to use the toilet by herself.
She had a minor heart-attack, said the intern in the hospital, and it was the beginning of her decline. A while later when her son came from Berkeley for the weekend he found her smeared with her diarrhea after she had tried to rise to the toilet near her bed, and he learned how her father died when he was cleaning her.
In her story of the march she had said only that he got sick in Damascus and was buried there, and as he was wiping the diarrhea from her thighs she looked up at him between her legs and said this was how her father died and he finally knew what sick really meant.
Her sons and the caretaker did the best they could in changing her diaper and swabbing her bedsores with cotton Q-tips, but she would be left alone at night until she was finally approved for Medi-Cal and her son found a decent nursing home near his where he would come every morning and his brother would come on the weekends and sit at her side drawing her face.
She was in a room with two others and when she first arrived she was in a bed by the corridor, but her son from Berkeley had her moved by the window after the woman there had died, more for himself than her since she was beyond caring by then, and as he sat drawing her she would look out the window at the little plum tree that would blossom and then turn bare in the passing seasons as the world turned, her wrinkles deepening like the map of her life across the century from the death march to her rest home.
Her mind was clear at first, but after who knew how many mini-strokes it would mix memory and imagination like a dream and she would lie peacefully except when wincing with pain from her hemorrhoids.
Nor did she ever complain, said one of her nurse’s aides, a nineteen-year old Cambodian beauty like a Khmer princess who changed her diaper and dropped the old one in the bin.
She lay there for six years from the beginning of the new century to when she was turning a hundred and one, her body shriveling year by year until she was only skin and bones as if she were returning to the earth. She could only guess the year of her birth but it must have been in March since she remembered her mother once said in Turkish that she was wild because she had been a March Baby, and it was in March when she died.
He wanted to be at her side but he couldn’t keep sitting there, and his brother called a few days later and said she passed away alone in the middle of the night before the nurse’s aide came in the morning and found her body cold and inert.
She was the afterword of Freud’s Das Unbehagen in der Kultur. She was of the good-natured and the un-neurotic that would inherit the earth and hopefully save it. She was what Freud thought might face the challenge of those who make bombs and wars. There had always been millions like her and would be millions more.
Part 2 of this story, “After the Massacre,” is here