My Parents were Regulars

Armen 001_2by Karen Topakian

My parents were regulars. For decades, they dined at the same restaurant, Twin Oaks, a family run Italian restaurant tucked away, deep in an older residential neighborhood in Cranston, RI.

Known for its pasta dishes, juicy steaks and thick cut pork chops, Twin Oaks eschewed trendy modern restaurant décor by sticking with dark wood paneled walls, deep leather booths, black leather bar seats and paper placemats.

A combination of the food, the ambiance, the customers and the wait staff brought my parents back night after night, year after year, decade after decade.

Customers arrived at Twin Oaks running the gamut from suits and ties, dresses and skirts, to jeans, shorts and construction boots.

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights my parents would drive up to the valet guys, hand over the keys and spend a few hours eating and chatting with their friends.

Occasionally my mom went alone. The two guys working valet would want to know why.

“Hey Alice, where’s Armen?” asked one of the valet parkers as he opened the driver’s side door. “What did you do, sneak out without him?”

Before my mother answered the other guy said. “It’s Thursday, he’s playing tennis, right?”

My mother laughed, tossed her head back, handed him her car keys and declared, “You know me so well, don’t you?”

When my parents arrived together, as soon as they entered the sprawling 650-seat restaurant, their paths diverged.

My mother would exchange greetings with the maître’d, Joe Zito, who managed a long list of hungry waiting customers seated on chairs and benches. She’d breeze past him en route to the back bar where the bartenders managed the seating assignments.

She’d squeeze past the hurried waiters directing young bus boys carrying trays piled high with full bread baskets, black salad bowls brimming with iceberg lettuce and glasses of ice water. And glance at the patrons dining, searching for a familiar face. When she found one, she’d wave or walk over to greet them in person.

“Hey Alice, join us for a drink,” her friends would offer sliding over to make room for her in the leather upholstered booth. “Oh thank you, I’m with Armen. Maybe another time.”

As soon as Greg, the bartender, saw my mother approaching, he’d start making her drink – a vodka martini, extra dry, extra olives and rocks on the side.

My father however, rushed past the maitre’d, the waiters and bus boys withholding all pleasantries except for a nod or a smile, moving quickly to the back bar where he caught, Greg’s attention.

“Hey Greg, any tenderloin tips left?” inquired my father knowing that the Tuesday daily specials sold out early.

“One, Armen. Should I put your name on it?” asked Greg, a friendly man with blonde hair blue eyes and a quick smile.

“Yes,” answered my father followed by his drink order.

In a few moments, my mother joined my father.

“Did you see the DiPretes sitting across from the bus boy station,” inquired my mother as Greg reached over to hand my mother her drink. “They asked me to sit with them and order a drink.”

My father shook his head.

“How could you not see them? You walked right passed them. Don’t you pay attention to your surroundings?” she asked.

He walked away a few steps to chat with a couple eating at a nearby table.

Greg caught my mother’s eye and pointed to two empty seats at the wooden U shaped bar.

My mother shook her head no.

A few minutes later my father noticed a couple who had arrived after them occupying the seats. “Aren’t those our seats?” challenged my father exasperated. “Weren’t we next in line?”

“We were,” said my mother. “But they were in between the man who can’t stop talking about his daughter’s herb farm and the woman who likes to gossip about the judges she worked with.”

“Geez Alice, I’m hungry.”

”I have my eye on two perfect seats, on the corner,” said my mother nodding. “Far from the blaring television and the loud cash register.”

My father glanced up at the spot she described and saw two people seated with drinks in their hands. “Have they even ordered?” my father impatiently asked. “We’ll be here all night.”

“They’re waiting for the check,” answered my mother.

“How do you know?” queried my father raising his eyebrows.

My mother shot him a look.

“I know. Because you pay attention to your surroundings.”

Within a few minutes, Greg motioned them to the two seats in question.

“See,” said my mother. “That wasn’t so bad. And now we’re in our two favorite seats.”

Greg placed two white placemats in front of them along with water glasses and silverware.

“Alice, what can I get you?” asked Greg leaning across the bar.

“Can I see a menu?” responded my mother.

“Alice, how many times have you eaten here and you still need a menu?” needled my father sipping from his drink.

“Maybe something will jump out at me,” my mother shrugged.

She opened the large plastic covered menu and exclaimed, “It’s Tuesday. I’ll have tonight’s special, the tenderloin tips.”

“Sorry Alice, Armen ordered the last one,” said Greg.

“When did you do that?” she asked incredulously as she playfully swatted my father with her menu.

“While you were busy yakking to everyone on the way in,” answered my father.

“Not fair,” said my mother. “No wonder you weren’t giving Greg your order.”

“I’ll give you a minute. Do you want an Alice salad while you’re deciding?” queried Greg referring to her salad order, which she preferred served on a plate versus a bowl.

“Yes. I always want a salad.”

My father motioned for my mother to return to the menu.

Impatiently, my father recited the choices: What about the chicken or the scrod? My mother kept shaking her head.

“Well, what do you feel like?” grilled my father.

“Tenderloin tips,” declared my mother.

My mother caught Greg’s attention and placed her order.

“I’ll have the eggplant sandwich and…”

“No bread. Because you don’t like the eggplant on the sandwich ‘cause you think it’s too much bread,” said Greg.

My mother nodded.

“But you still want the bread basket with Italian bread?” asked Greg winked.

“You know me so well,” she laughed glancing at my father slowly shaking his head.


My Grandfather, the Inventor

Grandpa K

Grandpa K

by Karen Topakian

My paternal grandfather, Grandpa K, an Armenian emigree who arrived in the US at the age of 16 to escape conscription in the Turkish military, embodied the word inventive. A thin man with graying hair, a fair complexion and a soft sometimes high-pitched voice, he worked for his in-laws’ electro-plating business, General Plating, until 1949, when he suffered his first heart attack. And then he rarely worked again.

Instead, he kept himself busy for the next 30 years growing vegetables in his backyard garden and flowering houseplants throughout his two-story, four-bedroom house in Cranston, RI. While his wife, my grandmother Liz went to work everyday at General Plating, Grandpa K read books, magazines and newspapers in English and Armenian, taught himself French from a daily public television show and volunteered for Armenian organizations.

The thing that set him apart – he invented a few things. Things already invented by others. These included items like placemats, scrapbooks and flowerpots.

Grandpa K believed in the maxim, “Waste not, want not.”

“Dad, where’s your trash? I’ll empty it for you while I’m here,” offered my father on a typical Saturday afternoon visit.

“Look in that waste basket,” answered my grandfather as he pointed to the slightly dented round red metal can in the corner of their smallish kitchen.

My father peered inside. “There’s only an empty plastic bag that held oranges. And a wax paper wrapping from a butter stick,” exclaimed my father.

“That’s our trash,” claimed my grandfather. “You know what I’ve said to you boys, America is drowning in trash.

My father shook his head, picked up the can, walked down the back stairs to the backyard, unlocked the black wooden garage door and emptied the two items into a 10 gallon steel drum with the words “potassium cyanide” in big red letters emblazoned on the side of his parents’ trash can, one that had previously stored chemicals at General Plating.

When my sister and I slept overnight at my grandparents, we ate breakfast in their kitchen seated at the wooden table overlooking my grandfather’s garden. My grandmother set our plates and glasses atop a flattened white paper towel encased inside a clear plastic bag, the open end sewn up with white string.

My sister and I exchanged quizzical glances while I traced the stitches with my forefinger, “Grandpa, did you make these?”

My grandfather answered in the affirmative.

“Did you know you could buy them in the store?” I responded.

“Wellll,” declared my grandfather in a slow high-pitched voice. “Why would I buy them when I could make them?”

An avid newspaper reader, my grandfather made it a point to save and preserve his favorite items: a syndicated advice column called, “Ask Uncle Ray,” a mash-up of Dear Abby and Hints from Heloise or any articles about Armenia. He needed a scrapbook. So he fashioned one by flattening an empty Ritz cracker box and slicing it in half. Each half formed the scrapbook’s front and back. He saved church flyers or other odd pieces of mail and laid those 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper in between the covers. Then glued his articles onto the pages. Punched two holes on the book’s left hand side, threaded a spare shoelace through the holes and tied the ends in a bow.

We didn’t realize the extent to his archiving until we cleaned out the basement after my grandparents passed away. These “books” filled a few shelves.

When Grandpa K needed scores of flowerpots to plant his menagerie of African Violets, gloxinias and gardenias, he cut off the top half of a cardboard Hood’s milk carton and planted a seedling in the squared off bottom. Every available windowsill and flat surface displayed his flourishing green thumb.

These flowerpots didn’t detract from the splendor of his plants.

His inventiveness also extended to customizing things to his personal specifications.

Almost every August 15th, my family celebrated my grandmother Liz’s birthday by eating cake, ice cream and watermelon in their screened-in front porch. My father and his brother, my Uncle Ted, corralled a few webbed lawn chairs from the backyard onto the front porch to accommodate the 11-member family. One chair stood out. The one my grandfather sat in.

“Dad, what’s that wrapped around your chair?” asked my uncle pointing to the loose graying strands of torn fabric tied around the chair arms.

“Welll, when I sit outside in the afternoon to read, my arms hurt from resting on the metal,” answered my grandfather holding up his thin white arms. “Sooo I ripped up an old pillowcase and tied them around. Now my arms don’t hurt anymore.”

“Dad, why didn’t you say something?” challenged my uncle. “We would have bought you a new chair.”

Rubbing his forearms on the roughly tied fabric, my grandfather grinned from ear to ear. “I fixed it the way I like it.”



“Hey Alice, what do I wear?”

Armen 001_2

By Karen Topakian

This refrain echoed through my family’s modest RI ranch home every time my father had to go anywhere other than work.

At his job at General Plating, he often wore worn out, stained seersucker pants and a shirt. It didn’t matter what he wore at the shop because the hot liquid chemicals he worked with ruined everything.

But when he had to go somewhere, anywhere else: wedding, funeral, out to dinner, visiting family, birthday party…he asked for help. Particularly since the time he showed up at a friend’s dinner party and opened his jacket to reveal a plaid vest and different plaid pants to ensuing laughter.

Since then he would stand in my parents’ bedroom and holler to my mother, “Hey Alice, what do I wear?”

“I don’t know, Armen,” she yelled back while pawing through her own closet in her small dressing room a few feet away. “How about pants and a shirt?

“No need for sarcasm,” he retorted. “Do I need to wear a suit?”

“Why would you think that?” responded my mother. (My family habitually answered a question with a question.) “We’re only going out to dinner with the Nahigians.

My father opened the wooden sliding doors to his closet and stared blankly at the neatly hung pants, shirts and sport coats. He aimlessly moved a few wooden hangers across the rack.

“How about my charcoal grey pants?” asked my father.

“The heavy wool ones?” answered my mother. “We’re not eating dinner at the North Pole.”

“I don’t think they’re wool,” he said trying to assess by rubbing the fabric between his fingers.

“You don’t know?” she countered while pulling out a pair of black silky pants, holding them up to her waist, gazing in the mirror and shaking her head. “Do you mean the ones we bought at the sidewalk sale last summer?”

My father froze in his tracks. He waited a few minutes. “Yes,” he said cautiously. Then waited again.

“Ok, yes, that’s a good idea,” pronounced my mother.

My father quietly uttered a sigh of relief. He pulled the pants off the hanger, put them on and added a black belt.

Pleased with himself, he opened a drawer in his blonde mahogany bureau, chose a blue striped long sleeved dress shirt and put it on.

Feeling proud, he strode to my mother to show her his selection

“Oh, I like that shirt on you. Didn’t the girls buy it for you for Christmas?” she asked while removing a different pair of black pants from her closet.

He shrugged, “I think so.”

“But those pants,” she argued. “They’re too big. You can’t wear those. You’re swimming in them.”

“What do you mean?” he asked her while looking at himself in her full-length mirror

“Look at them,” she asserted pulling the pants away from his thin legs. “You can’t wear them.”

“You know I don’t like to wear tight clothes,” he explained

“There’s a big gap between tight and too big,” she remarked. “For once, why don’t you help me figure out what to wear?”

“You don’t need my help, Alice,” he declared. “You always look nice.”

She removed a red silk top from the hanger, pulled it over her head, examined herself in the mirror and nodded. “Good enough.”

Dejected, my father lumbered back to his open closet and stared.

My mother brushed past my father on the way to her bureau and stopped for a moment. She pointed to a pair of black pants and proclaimed, “Wear these.”

“How did she do that?” he mumbled to himself

He took off the grey pants and put on the black ones.

“I guess I need a tie,” he muttered to himself.

“Yes, you need a tie,” she replied while holding up necklaces, looking in the mirror, searching for the right combination.

My father groaned.

“Why don’t you wear your leather vest with it,” added my mother, which she knew would make him smile.

“I can?” he asked happily.

Thirty minutes later, my parents met their friends at a restaurant, when the wife saw my father she loudly exuded, “Armen, you always look so nice. Ohh, I love your vest.”

“My daughters and my wife picked them out,” acknowledged my father proudly, while my mother beamed.

A Battle of Wills

by Karen Topakian



In my maternal family, not eating falls under the sin category. Very few experiences warrant food refusal. When someone says they can’t eat, they better have a good reason. A reason on which everyone can agree. Another trait common in my maternal family – stubbornness. Here’s what happens when the two collide.

One Sunday afternoon in the late 1960’s, my great grandmother and her older daughter, my aunt Sophie, arrived at my maternal grandparents house in Cranston, RI for Sunday dinner.

My great grandmother, Dickranhouie a.k.a Agnes, emigrated from Armenia to the US at 19 to find work. Back then it was an uncommon experience for a woman her age to travel alone to the US. She found work and eventually met and married her husband, my great grandfather, who died in the 1940’s.

My sister and I called her Gramma. Tall for her generation, topped with thick white hair, Gramma always wore a skirt and jacket or a dress, a strand of pearls and earrings.

During my lifetime, she lived with her older daughter, Sophie, a small practical woman with a quick smile and endless energy, and Sophie’s husband Eddie, until he passed away. Then mother and daughter lived together for decades in the neighboring town in a ranch house with a big front and back yard.

Gramma could out bake, out cook and out knit anyone. She didn’t boast about her efforts or urge you to eat her food. You sought it out.

Aside from her domestic talents, Gramma missed out on a career on stage.

For example, if any young woman in our family wore a short skirt, as was the norm in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Gramma would exclaim out loud, “Ah-mort,” the Armenian word for shame and shake her head.

On this particular Sunday, my aunt Sophie and Gramma warmly greeted my grandmother, Nana, in her sunny yellow kitchen. Sophie prominently placed her homemade apple pie on the kitchen counter. Gramma made her way to the couch in the living room where my parents, sister, grandfather and I sat. A moment later, Sophie and Nana joined us.

As soon as Gramma sat down, my mother motioned for my sister or me to offer her the assorted appetizers of Muenster cheese, crackers and dry cured black olives laid out on the coffee table in front of the fireplace.

“No,” said Gramma dramatically extending her arm, palm facing out, turning her head away. “I can’t eat a thing. I’m so upset, my half-cousin’s daughter in Massachusetts died.”

“Who’s that?” asked my father.

“I can’t believe you’re still upset,” said Aunt Sophie dismissively. “She died several days ago.”

She never once came to visit you!” exclaimed Nana firmly. “You’re barely related.”

“I took care of her when she was a baby,” protested Gramma.

“That was a long time ago,” retorted Nana. ““Have some cheese and crackers, you’ll feel better,”

“No, I can’t,” repeated Gramma half in English, half in Armenian turning her head to the heavens. “I can’t eat a thing.”

“Would you like something to drink?” cajoled my mother. “A glass of water?”

Gramma held put up her two hands, tilted her head and answered in Armenian, “just a drop.”

My mother beckoned my sister or me to fetched her a glass of water.

Gramma half-heartedly sipped from the glass, occasionally.

Nana left the living room to put the final touches on dinner. A few minutes later, she summoned us into the dining room. The dark mahogany table brimmed with a roast, rice pilaf, broccoli and a salad. My father carved the roast. Nana watched what we put on our plates.

“Sophie, that’s not enough pilaf!” scolded my Nana when she looked at her older sister’s plate. “Here have some more.” Piling it on to her plate. Sophie fended her off with her fork.

Everyone’s plate held Nana’s cooking except one. Her mother’s.

“Ma, you have to eat something,” said Nana pointing to the broccoli.

“No,” said Gramma dabbing her dry eyes with a handkerchief. “I’m too upset.”

”You could still eat a little something,” chided Nana. “It’s Sunday. The Lord’s day, you have to eat.”

“I can’t swallow,” Gramma touching her throat.

“You could try. Maybe you’d like a little yogurt?” asked Nana exasperatedly as she started to get up.

Gramma furiously waved her away with both hands creating a small draft.

“If she doesn’t want to eat. Stop trying to make her!” argued Sophie emphatically.

“How do you know she wouldn’t like a little yogurt?” snapped Nana.

“That’s enough,” exclaimed my grandfather to my grandmother raising his hand in the air. “Sophie how’s Dolly?” asking about Sophie’s daughter.

Gramma sat with her hands folded in her lap, sighing audibly.

We continued eating while Nana unnervedly eyed her mother’s empty plate.

After we had finished eating dinner, my mother, sister and I cleared the table and re-set it for dessert. Nana proudly brought out a plate of her homemade cookies and Sophie’s pie. My mom poured the coffee as my grandmother sliced the pie.

“Ma, how about a cookie?” asked Nana. “It’s perfectly good. It’s homemade.”

Gramma shook her head vigorously.

“Maybe I could drink a little coffee. Just a little,” whispered Gramma using her thumb and first finger to emphasize the size.

My mother poured her a cup, placed it on a saucer and slid it across the table to my great-grandmother. At the last instant, Nana slipped a cookie onto the saucer and said, “Ma, just try the cookie.”

Nana and Nixon

by Karen Topakian


My maternal grandparents lived a few blocks away from my childhood home in Rhode Island. I spent many hours with them, almost as second parents. Since my mother was an only child, my sister and I received tons of love and affection from them both.

My Nana, a short woman with grey hair, a ready smile, a quick laugh and a refrigerator full of food, harbored tons of energy for parties and socializing. She loved to discuss the two topics one should avoid in polite company: religion and politics.

I don’t know which she loved more the Armenian church or the Republican Party.

President Eisenhower’s photo adorned the bookshelf in their den along with an “I Like Ike” button and banner. Because she spoke about Mr. Eisenhower as frequently and as affectionately as she did about her beloved brother, Mark, I thought she knew the president. Much later, in life I learned she didn’t.

“Nana, have you ever voted for a Democrat?” I once asked her.

“Of course not,” she answered.“There wasn’t one worth voting for.”

After Eisenhower, she loved Nixon best. After his mid-office resignation, she continued to display a photo of the Nixon family on the wall in her cheery yellow kitchen – Pat, Tricia and Julie standing around a smiling Dick playing the piano.

One Sunday, when my father was driving my family, including my grandparents, on an excursion, Nixon’s pending resignation came up in conversation.

“He’s a criminal,” said my mother disgustedly

“He ought to go to jail,” muttered my father.

“He’s a crook,” said my grandfather with conviction.

“Say what you will, he’s still a good-looking man,” said Nana with pride.









Returning to the Scene of the Crime

by Karen Topakian


If I had a choice, I wouldn’t go to Livermore, California in August. It’s crazy hot.  And it’s scary dry.

But I don’t go to Livermore for the weather.

I go because nuclear weapons are created, developed and tested at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  I go in August to commemorate the dropping of the first atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945.

I go to risk arrest because I cannot stay home and let the anniversary of this event go unmarked. Go unnoticed.

Though Robert Oppenheimer and his gang developed and tested the atomic bombs dropped in Japan in New Mexico, Livermore Lab continues the legacy.

Plus Livermore flourishes in my backyard. My ‘hood. Staying away feels like I’m permitting them to conduct business as usual in my backyard.

And so I go to Livermore. To step in. To say no. To use my body against the further creation, production and testing of nuclear weapons.

The Lab and I have a long history. I’ve made this journey on this day and others, for more than 25 years, Sometimes wearing my Greenpeace campaigner hat, sometimes wearing my Western States Legal Foundation board member hat or my Agape Foundation executive director hat. This time, wearing my concerned citizen hat. Always with other nonviolent activists and people of faith, young and old, organized by Western States Legal Foundation, Tri-Valley CARES and other local anti-nuke organizations.

Under the baking mid-morning sun, I risk arrest lying on a hot black tar road at the entrance to the Lab’s West Gate. My body and my fellow protestors’ occupy the pavement.

The sun bears down on my back. On my arms. On my legs. I can feel sweat forming on my face. I don’t wipe the beads away. The smell of hot road fills my nostrils. Flies land on my hands. I don’t swat them away. I don’t move. I’m lying there, feigning death. In a mock die-in. To replicate the lives of those who fell on the streets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on two August mornings when the US chose to unleash the unthinkable.

Fellow protestors outline our bodies in chalk on the pavement. Mimicking the effect of the Japanese people whose bodies, seared by the impact of the bomb, only left a shadow outline on the street.

A white piece of paper, proudly pinned to my chest, bears the name of Hiromu Morishita, a hibakusha, a survivor of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. Mr. Morishita, president of the Senior High School Teachers’ Society and the Hiroshima Peace Education Institute in Japan, was one mile from the atomic bomb explosion, which severely scarred the left side of his face and blew off his ear.


I think about all the lives lost on that day. And about the lives of those lost most recently in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe. I don’t distinguish between innocent lives and the lives of the not so innocent. I’m saddened by my inability to stop those deaths or to stop these weapons.

Committed to nonviolence, I haven’t seen a war I’ve liked or supported. They all end in bloodshed, trauma and destruction. They weigh heavy on our souls. Making us small and inhumane.

Eventually an Alameda County Sheriff approaches me, tells me if I leave I won’t be arrested. If I stay I will be. I don’t move. I can’t. And still remain true to myself.

I rise from the ground when the officer tells me I’m under arrest. Escorted by an officer in camouflaged riot gear, I walk past the phalanx of heavily uniformed police. The officer asks for my ID, then handcuffs my hands behind me. One hand holds my California drivers license.


A female officer pats me down, looking for weapons, sharp objects. The only item in my pocket, a pin of Greenpeace’s ship, the Rainbow Warrior III. To remind me of one more reason why I am standing on the other side of the law.

Another officer helps me into a waiting van, already occupied by my fellow protestors. We introduce ourselves. Some I have known for decades. Others I meet for the first time. All friendly. All here for the same reason. The last person to join us, a nun in her 80s who attends religiously. We total 30.

The van drives a short distance; officers escort us out of the van into a warehouse, set up to handle the booking. Two women record the information on my license on two separate forms. I sign them both. I ink my thumbs for fingerprints. I receive a copy of my citation for blocking a roadway.

Since we are the last arrestees, the guards quickly escort us out the gate.

No officer asks us why we spent our morning remembering this day of horror for more than 200,000 Japanese people. But we all know why.

This wasn’t my first trip nor will it be my last to the scene of this crime.












Hard to Find Good Help

by Karen Topakian

Armen 001_2


My father had an uncanny knack for hiring people. The wrong people.

Like the man from the pest control company who spent more time making a deal with my father about the TV in the basement than exterminating rodents. Or the roofer who preferred picnicking on our front lawn with his buddies to fixing the roof.

Almost universally, everyone my father hired wouldn’t merit a recommendation from the Better Business Bureau.

When my parent’s modest brick front ranch house needed painting, my father looked no farther than a neighbor’s hire to do the job. And that was good enough for him.

“Hey Alice, see that guy walking up the street?” asked my father pointing through the kitchen window on a spring day. “He’s painting the church. I’m going to ask him to paint our house.”

“How do you know he’s a good painter?” asked my mother wiping the counters.

“The church hired him, didn’t they?” replied my father.

“You don’t even know what he charges,” said my mother shaking her head.

“That’s why I am going across the street. I’ll ask him.”

And he did and he hired him. Then the trouble began.

My father saw the painter walking, because he came from the bus stop. The painter didn’t have a car. He didn’t have any tools. He didn’t have a ladder.

My father drove him to the paint store to pick up the paint. My father provided the ladders.

In May, the painter started scraping the clapboard sides and back of the house. When the temperature climbed, my mother offered him cold water. She let him inside to use the bathroom. They chatted briefly. She left him alone to do his job.

Then he disappeared.

A few days later my father asked when he returned home from work, “Did the painter come today?”

“No sign of him,” replied my mother standing in the kitchen with her hands on her hips. “It’s been days. Don’t you think you should call him?”

“I can’t call him,” responded my father shuffling through the mail. “He only left us an emergency number of some woman.”

My mother declared, “I think this is an emergency.”

“Okay. I’ll call tomorrow and leave a message,” responded my father reshuffling through the mail.

The next day my father left a message.

A week later, my father asked my mother the same question about the painter.

“Does it look like the painter came?” answered my mother. “Why don’t you call him again?”

My father left another message.

Every few days, my parents repeated the same conversation. My father left one more message. With the same results. No painter.

For six weeks, the outside of their house stood in the same raw unfinished state. Every time my mother went in the back yard to hang up the laundry, she saw the reminder of the half-finished job and seethed.

One day in July, my mother spied the painter walking up the street toward the house. She darted out the kitchen door to meet him on the front lawn. “Where have you been?” she demanded.

“I got another job,” the painter answered matter-of-factly.

“But you had a job…here. Painting our house,” said my mother dumbfounded.

“I got an offer for another job,” he argued. “You wouldn’t want me to pass it up?”

“Yes, I would.”

My mother glared at him and went back inside. The two never spoke again. She never offered him water or the use of the bathroom.

He finished painting the house.

The next time my parents needed their house painted, my father spied a tall lanky guy painting the neighbor’s house.

“Hey Alice,” said my father. “I found someone to paint the house.”

“Did you check first to make sure this one had a car?” asked my mother.

“Yes, he has a car,” said my father sarcastically. “He’s painting the Miller’s house,”

“What’s the hitch?” asked my mother. “Because I know there is one.”

“No hitch,” answered my father. “He’s just a house painter.”

My father was right.  Sort of.

A few minutes later, my father walked into the kitchen followed by a young man standing roughly 6’5”. He introduced him to my mother as their new house painter. They sat at the kitchen table as the guy pulled out a piece of paper from his back pocket to fill out the bid.

“I never did this before,” said the guy. “I never priced a job.”

My mother kicked my father under the table.

My mother saw the words, Customer Pays for Paint, at the top of the page.

He presented them with a bid of $1,500.

“Looks good to me,” said my father excited about the low price. “Where do I sign?”

Both men signed the paper and discussed when he would start.

After the guy left my mother said to my father, “He bid too low. He didn’t add in the paint costs. He doesn’t even know how much paint he’ll need.”

My father shrugged.

“But then again he probably won’t need a ladder,” added my mother.

Within a few weeks, he finished the job and my father paid him the $1,500.

A few months later, when my father came home from work, my mother ushered him into the back yard.

“Look at this. The paint’s already peeling,” proclaimed my mother pointing to the back corner of the house.

“I’ll scrape it and touch it up with some leftover paint,” retorted my father.

As they walked back into the house, my mother stopped. “While you’re at it, here are a few more. Here, here and over there,” my mother announced gesturing at several places on the back of the house.

“Armen, you got what you paid for. A lousy job.”

“I can’t call him back to fix it,” admitted my father. “He might remember I never paid for the paint.”


I Should Have Listened to You

by Karen Topakian



My father rarely wanted things. He could not be defined as acquisitive. Unless he saw some kind of an angle. A deal.

That’s when he decided he wanted a leather jacket. At the time, they didn’t have the extra money to buy one off the rack. Then he saw an ad. Probably in TV Guide. For leather jackets from Finger Hut. Two jackets, his and hers, for the price of one.

“Hey Alice, look at this great deal,” said my father. “We can each get a leather jacket.”

“What kind of leather jacket?” asked my mother who purchased her clothes carefully.

“I don’t know what kind. A leather jacket,” said my father. “Does it matter?”

“It does to me,” answered my mother as she walked over to my father to see the picture of the jackets.

“I’m going to order it,” said my father. “And look it also comes with a handbag. What a great deal.”

My mother rolled her eyes.

Several weeks later, the jackets arrived.

“Mine fits,” said my father calling my mother to the full-length mirror in their bedroom. “Try yours on, Alice. Let’s see if yours does.”

After taking one look at hers she announced. “I’m not wearing it. The leather’s so thin, it feels like cardboard. Plus the color. It’s hideous.”

Even my father had to agree that the rancid butter color offered no appeal.

“Are you going to send it back?” asked my mother.

“Try it on Alice, just try it on,” begged my father.

My mother refused.

“Look at yourself in the mirror,” said my mother pointing to the sleeve length. “It doesn’t even fit right.”

My father examined himself more closely.

“I guess you’re right, Alice,” said my father as he doffed the jacket, folded it up and put it back in the cardboard box from whence it came. “I should have listened to you.”


On a warm summer day, my father read an advertisement for a mail order fruit tree, which he couldn’t resist.

“Hey Alice, where’s the checkbook? I want to order a fruit tree to plant in the backyard,” said my father to my mother. “It’s a great deal.”

“Here we go again,” muttered my mother. “What kind of a fruit tree?”

“A fruit cocktail tree. It grows all different kinds of fruit on one tree,” said my father pointing to the advertisement. “It says here you can harvest bushels of fruit from the same tree – nectarines, peaches, plums, and apricots.”

“I’m not harvesting anything,” said my mother after glancing at the ad. “Do you really believe one tree can produce all of those different fruits?”

“That’s what it says,” said my father as he hunted for a pen.

“I have my doubts,” said my mother. “Honestly Armen, when will you learn?”

Fast forward to January. The front doorbell rings. My mother opens the heavy wooden door. A gust of arctic wind blows in her face as the mailman hands her two spindly tree trunks with a few branches grafted to it. The small root balls covered in burlap. She signs for the “package,” closes the door and marches to the phone.

“Hi Annette, can I please speak to Armen?” asks my mother to her sister-in-law who worked at the family business, General Plating.

“What do you want, Alice. I’m busy,” said my father when Annette handed him the phone.

“Your trees arrived,” said my mother. “In fact, two trees arrived. Why did you order two?”

My father removed the phone from his ear and yelled to Al, one of the two non-family member employees. “Alice is on the phone. Our trees finally arrived.”

My father instructed my mother to put the trees in the garage,

When he returned home from work, he immediately examined the trees standing in the back of the unheated garage.

“What am I supposed to do with them now?” asked my father. “I guess I’ll have to wait till spring to plant them”

“I can hardly wait,” said my mother.

Once the frozen ground had thawed out, my father dug a hole in the backyard to plant his “orchard.”

“You’re laughing now, Alice. But you just wait and see what happens next.”

And wait they did. But the tree never flowered nor fruited.

“Armen, I’m going to the market, do we need any fruit? Or are we about to harvest?” asked my mother.

My father didn’t respond.

“Admit it Armen, you fell for it again,” said my mother.

“Maybe if it hadn’t arrived in the dead of winter,” offered my father in excuse.

My mother shot him a withering look.

“I guess you’re right,” said my father. “I should have listened to you.”

Which he did until he spied the next “good deal.”

Three for the Price of Two


Nana – Sarah Asadorian


Grampa Charlie – Charlie Asadorian


by Karen Topakian

One Friday night in the 1960’s, my maternal grandparents (Charlie and Sarah) invited my family for dinner to their home a few blocks away from ours in Cranston, RI. A common occurrence. Conversation at dinner usually ranged from news about the Armenian Church, the family or the costume jewelry industry.

Because both sides of my family worked in costume jewelry.

My father, Armen, his brother Ted and their mother owned an electroplating business in Providence, RI on Richmond Street, officially called General Plating, which we all referred to as, “the shop.” They employed a cast of interesting characters including the long-standing Al and Jenny.

My grandfather had owned a jewelry manufacturing and sales business with his brothers. When it closed, he started a small jewelry sales business, which he ran from a small office in his basement. He installed a rudimentary desk probably from my father’s stash of salvaged wood, plugged in a desk lamp and stored his jewelry in a floor to ceiling safe. The only missing item – a telephone.

During the 1960’s, AT&T was THE phone company. And they owned your phones. You paid your bill based on the number of phones in your home or business. My grandfather already paid for two in his modest ranch house and didn’t install a third because he thought paying for three was extravagant. Grampa Charlie didn’t like to spend money foolishly. Paying for another phone seemed foolish.

My father’s family business operated under a similar mentality. General Plating ran on sweat, grit and hard physical work. My father said their motto was, “Why buy it, when you can make it.” It should have been, “Why buy it, when you can scavenge it.”

“Charlie, guess what Al and I picked up today from a business that just moved out of Richmond Street?” asked my father grinning.

Whenever a tenant moved out of their building, my father and Al hightailed it to the newly vacated space, looking for items left behind. They were quite adept at moving and removing anything they could use – desks, chairs, file cabinets…

“What?” asked my grandfather, a man who loved hearing General Plating stories.

“We picked up a few telephones to use down the shop. We’ve got an extra one,” said my father. “Let me know if you can use it.”

The vacating business had left the phones behind because they belonged to the phone company but that didn’t deter my father.

The wheels in my grandfather’s head started turning.

”I need a phone in my office” said my grandfather, finally finding a solution to his problem. “But I don’t want to pay for it.”

“I’ll bring it by tomorrow,“ said my father.

Both men were pleased with themselves for finding a thrifty solution.

The next day, my father rigged up the illegal phone by dropping phone wire from the bedroom phone to the basement and hooking it up to the newly pilfered one on my grandfather’s desk.

A few slaps on the back and everybody was happy.

A few months later, on a Friday night in the 1960’s, Charlie and Sarah again invited my family for dinner.

Earlier that day, an AT&T employee had come to the house in response to a complaint from my grandparents about their phone service.

“How many phones do you have?” asked the repairman when he first arrived.

“Two,” said my grandfather quickly without looking at Nana.

“Two,” repeated the repairman. “Where are they?”

My Nana showed him the black phone in the kitchen and then led him to the powder blue princess phone in their bedroom.

Nana returned to the kitchen where my grandfather sat at the table reading the newspaper.

After a few minutes, the repairman walked back and asked if they had a basement. Nana said yes as she opened the door to the stairs and flicked on the light.

Now my grandfather could only stare at the newspaper too nervous to concentrate.

In what seemed an eternity, the repairman ascended the cellar stairs back to the kitchen,

“Did you know there’s another phone in the basement?” asked the repairman.

“I don’t know how it got there,” said Nana as she chopped parsley for dinner.

“We hardly ever use it,” said my grandfather with his eyes fixated on the newspaper.

“You have three phones and you’re only paying for two. I’m going to have to charge you.”

Nana didn’t like the sound of this and she knew my grandfather didn’t either. She needed a solution, quick.

“Do you know Harry Vartanian? He works for the phone company, too,” asked Nana. “His mother is my cousin.”

“No,” answered the repairman. “Lady, a lot of people work for the phone company.”

Nana glanced up at the clock as she continued chopping. “It’s almost five o’clock. Would you like something to eat?” Nana believed she could solve all problems with food. “You must be hungry after a long day. Why don’t you have a little something to eat?”

When he didn’t respond immediately, she opened the refrigerator and said, “Let’s see. I have cooked chicken, a big piece of apple pie, homemade yogurt, orange Jello, a few slices of pot roast. I could make you a nice sandwich.”

The repairman began to smile. And she smiled back.

“Charlie, move your paper. Make room for this nice man.”






Underwear Wars

Armen 001_2

by Karen Topakian

It was hot day. It was a sunny day. It was summer in New England. The grass was long and my father needed to cut it.

He returned home from his job, donned a white v-neck T-shirt and a pair of baggy grey shorts. He walked into the garage, pulled out the power mower and started to cut the grass in the back yard of my parent’s suburban ranch house.

Before he finished, my mother yelled that dinner was ready. In he walked to the kitchen, washed his hands and sat at the table ready to eat. Tiny beads of sweat had formed on his upper lip, his stomach growled ever so slightly. He was ready to eat.

My mother glanced over at him from the stove and asked, “Armen, what are you wearing?”

“Why?” he asked. (My family often answers a question with a question.)

“A T-shirt,” he said. “I was cutting the grass.”

“I know you were cutting the grass,” she said. “But you’re wearing that to dinner?”

“What am I supposed to wear, a suit?”

“Are those my only two choices?” she asked.

In a few moments, she placed a platter of ham steaks and sliced pineapple rings on the table..
 My sister and I served ourselves. My parents ate without any further discussion about his attire.

A week later, after the rain poured and the sun shone, the grass had grown. My father returned from work, tired and hot from a long day, changed into a v-neck T-shirt and the same pair of shorts. He pulled the power mower out of the garage and proceeded to cut the backyard once again.

When dinner was ready my mother called to my father to come inside. He entered from the backyard, washed his hands, sat at the table ready to eat.

Again my mother asked, “Armen?” pointing at his T-shirt.

“What? I’m cutting the grass,” he said.

She shook her head, “Do you have to wear that to the dinner table?”

“I’m not changing my clothes to eat. I’ll be outside in another 20 minutes. I just have to cut the front yard and the side.”

She sat down at her seat carefully unbuttoned the five buttons on her white cotton three-quarter length sleeved shirt. Removed it. Hung it over the back of her chair and began to serve us our dinner: spaghetti with meat sauce and salad with Italian dressing.

“Alice, what are you doing?,” asked my father.

“I’m serving dinner,” she said.

“But you’re in your bra.”

“I know. If you can eat dinner in your undershirt, then why can’t I can eat mine in my bra?”

And that’s exactly what she did. And no one said another word about it.



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