Alice and Guy’s Holiday Exchange


by Karen Topakian

“Thank you Alice, I needed new golf balls,” quipped Guy after prying open the metal lunch box and unwrapping the wax paper encasing my mother’s Christmas present – three kuftahs – Armenian stuffed meatballs.

The year was 1948. My mother was in her early twenties and single.

“Alice, did you make them?” queried Guy’s father, Uncle Sahag.

“Don’t be silly,” said Sarah, my mother’s mother.

“But you can’t keep the lunch box,” announced my mother as she extended her arm across the dark wood dining room table toward her cousin.

“I told Charlie the kuftah were getting stale and he better eat them or I was going to throw them out,” said Sarah referring to her husband. “Alice said she had a better idea.”

Alice did have a better idea. She and Guy, also single and in his twenties, exchanged gifts every year. But the gift giving became less in the Christmas spirit and more like April Fool’s Day.

My mother nibbled at her plate of cheese, fruit, coffee and homemade Armenian pastries as she anxiously waited Guy’s gift.

Guy ceremoniously handed my mother her Christmas present – a small package wrapped in holiday paper and said, “I hope you can use this.”

All eyes focused on my mother as she feverishly unwrapped the package and burst into laughter.

Suddenly breaking into Armenian, her only language, Badaskan, my mother’s grandmother, proudly observed, “Guy makes everybody laugh.” Her statement shifted the whole conversation away from English.

My mother stretched her arms out wide as she held up a piece of loose flowing pink silky fabric by its elasticized waist, a pair of her grandmother’s bloomers.

“Why are you giving her that?” continued Badaskan sternly.

“I thought you had some extra ones, Grandma,” responded Guy.

My mother’s father, Charlie, slapped his thigh laughing, “Guy, what are you crazy?”

“I didn’t think Alice had enough,” maintained Guy in his own defense.

“I’m not taking them home with me,” declared my mother switching back to English while holding her stomach to stop the pain from laughing. She held them out the garment for either her Grandmother or Guy to take.

Sahag, Guy’s father, just shook his head.

Shortly after the laughter subsided, everyone moved to the living room for a little more conversation. An hour later, my mother and her parents stood up to leave and started to say their goodbyes.

“Oh Alice, I have something else for you,” announced Guy after returning from another room.

“Please not more underwear,” declared my mother raising her hands to dismiss him.

He took that as an invitation to hand her his second gift. She unfolded it and again started laughing.

“Very funny. You know I can’t read Armenian,” announced my mother as she held up The Baikar, an Armenian-language weekly newspaper.

“You can’t have it anyway,” said Sahag chuckling as he took it back from my mother. “I haven’t read it yet.”


Alice and Armen’s Antics at an Attorney’s Office

Armen 001_2by Karen Topakian

On a crisp fall afternoon in the early 1960s, my mother and father paid a visit to an attorney in Providence to discuss their will. My mother dressed in a straight skirt, a crew neck sweater, a charcoal grey coat and high heels carried a small-ish but deep clutch handbag. She met my father in the lobby of a high-rise office building. My father, who worked downtown at the family’s electroplating business, General Plating, had changed from his normal grubby stained work clothes into a shirt and tie for the occasion.

A bit nervous about the surroundings and the visit, my father pushed the up button to summon the elevator. My mother checked her hair in the elevator mirror and straightened my father’s necktie, an accessory he wore infrequently.

The elevator delivered a gentle ride to the 28th floor. My mother entered the reception area at one of RI’s well-known law firms, Edwards and Angell, behind my father who gave their names to the receptionist.

They waited for their 3 p.m. appointment, seated on a comfy sofa. My mother carefully leafed through an issue of Time magazine laid out on the coffee table.

Within a few moments, a woman wearing a tailored dress approached them and ushered them into Mr. Edwards’ office.

An older man of average height and weight, Mr. Edwards stood up from behind his large wooden desk and motioned my parents into the two straight back chairs opposite him.

My mother sat with her ankles crossed under her chair. My father leaned forward as he laid out the terms of the will – who would inherit their assets and who would take care of my sister and me, if they died together.

Mr. Edwards took notes on a lined yellow legal pad as my father spoke. My mother added in a few details supplementing my father’s statements. She glanced around the office noting the awards and certificates dotting the walls.

Since they held modest assets, the appointment barely took 30 minutes. Mr. Edwards agreed to write up the will and mail it to my parents to review and sign.

As my mother stood up to leave, she reached across Mr. Edwards’ desk to shake his hand. Then she slipped onto her right hand a black leather wrist length glove. She reached her hand into in her left coat pocket for the other glove. She came up empty handed. Quickly she felt in her right hand pocket. No glove.

“Oh, where’s my glove?” she uttered aloud.

“What?” asked my father.

“My glove, I can’t find my glove?” answered my mother.

Without saying a word, Mr. Edwards pushed back his chair, strode across the floor to the door and alerted his secretary.

My parents remained in his office turning themselves around in circles looking for it while Mr. Edwards and his secretary frantically removed the cushions from the comfy sofa in the waiting area where my parents had briefly sat.

“Maybe you only wore one,” offered my father.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” responded my mother. “Why would I only wear one glove? I know I had two.” She checked her coat pockets. She ran her hands around the seat cushions. No glove.

Mr. Edwards returned empty handed.

He dropped to all fours reaching around under his high-legged desk.

“Oh please, Mr. Edwards.” said my mother shaking her head. “It’s not necessary.”

She peered down at their lawyer’s back as he wiggled and lunged in search of her glove.

My father shot her a look.

“I’m sure I left it in the car,” said my mother knowing full well she walked in with two.

“Nonsense. You came in with two, you’re leaving with two,” bellowed Mr. Edwards from under his desk.

My mother shifted from one foot to the other. She mouthed to my father tell him to stop.

Mr. Edwards continued groping around for my mother’s black leather glove on the patterned rug outlining the space around his desk.

“Mr. Edwards honestly. It’s only a glove,” said my mother knowing full well how much she hated to lose anything.

He pushed himself flat on the floor and reached beyond the desk struggling to feel her leather glove.

She continued checking her pockets and her seat cushion. She thrust her hand into her handbag. Rooted around amidst her wallet, lifesavers, tissues and lipstick. But no glove.

My mother removed her right glove as her hands began to perspire. She gestured to my father to say something.

“Mr. Edwards, I guess it’s not here,” said my father. “We don’t want to take up any more of your time.”

My mother pushed her hair back from her damp brow as Mr. Edwards continued searching in vain.

“Thank you for looking,” repeated my mother. “I’m sure you have more important matters to attend to than my lost glove.”

Mr. Edwards searched for an other moment, then pulled himself out from under his desk, shook their hands and apologized for not finding her lost item.

My parents thanked him again for his efforts, walked briskly out of his office without turning back. Once they stood outside on the sidewalk, my mother exhaled audibly.

“I’ve never been more embarrassed,” she confessed. “But where’s my glove?”

Later that evening, while my father was brushing his teeth in the bathroom, he heard my mother yell.

“Oh my god, I found it.”

“What?” called my father.

“My glove. I was emptying out my handbag and found it crumpled on the bottom.”

She held it up for him to see as he peered around the doorway.

My father groaned loudly and returned to the bathroom.

Family Dinners with Nana



by Karen Topakian

“Armen, what do you think about the steak?”

My father didn’t answer.

My Nana frequently asked my father this question during Sunday afternoon dinners where my grandfather, a funny man with sharp mind for business and big smile, always sat at the head and my father, a practical man of few words, sat at the foot. Nana half sat on her chair, nearest the kitchen ready to jump up at a moment’s notice to add more food to the table, as needed. My mother, sister and I filled in the empty seats.

During most of my childhood years, my parents, sister and I often ate these dinners at my maternal grandparents’ house in Cranston, RI.

Nana served roast beef or steak, vegetables, rice pilaf, a salad and a homemade dessert in the dining room, seated at the mahogany dining room table, set with a tablecloth and cloth napkins.

She prided herself on her cooking. She enjoyed and encouraged everyone’s compliments about her culinary accomplishments. But she mostly sought out my father’s approval.

Shortly after we arrived on Sunday at 2:30, Nana ushered us into the dining room to eat dinner. We took our seats and started passing the food.

“Mom, thank you for going to all this effort today,” said my mother passing the bowl of green beans stewed with a lamb bone, tomatoes and onions.

“Armen, have more pilaf,” offered my Nana waving a big spoonful in his direction.

“This time you made it right,” declared my grandfather in Armenian, enjoying his second bite of green beans.

“Armen, did you try the steak yet?” inquired Nana beaming.

My father didn’t answer.

“Mom, the pilaf came out perfectly,” praised my mother.

“Alice, pass Armen the salad. He doesn’t have any,” chided Nana.

“Mom, I heard Anna wasn’t feeling well,” mentioned my mother. “Do you know how she is?”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” responded Nana. “Armen, I almost made potatoes instead of pilaf but I know how much you like my pilaf.”

My father didn’t answer.

“Dad, do you want us to give you a ride to the bazaar next Sunday?”

“Armen, you haven’t said what you think about the steak.”

“Leave him alone. Let him eat,” grumbled my grandfather. “I’m not going. There’s too many people and it’s too loud.”

“Don’t say that. You know you’re going,” declared Nana. “Armen, it must be good because it was an expensive cut…”

My father didn’t respond.

“I’ll only go if the girls go,” announced my grandfather smiling at my sister and me.

“Does anyone want madzoon (yogurt)?” asked Nana as she started to rise out of her chair. “Armen, does the salad need more dressing?”

“Dad, we’ll pick you up in time for the chicken and pilaf dinner,” offered my mother.

“Armen, what do you think of the steak?”

“Why do you keep asking him?” challenged my mother.

“Armen, I made a delicious apple pie and I’m sure you’ll like it.”

“Dad, have you talked to Kuzoian’s lately?” inquired my mother.

“Armen how’s the steak?”

And finally my father answered, ”Tough.”






Nana’s Dating Advice



by Karen Topakian

Nana, my 100% Armenian maternal grandmother, born in the US, embodied many modern ideas. She sent her daughter, my mother, to college in the 1940’s when few women enjoyed higher education. She learned to drive in her late 40s and worked fulltime when many women stayed home and let their husbands chauffeur them around. Up to the minute in so many ways, except for dating,

Dating occurred for one reason and only one reason. To find a husband or a wife.

Nana strongly believed this and felt compelled to share this unshakeable belief whenever possible. She coupled her compulsion with her love of giving advice of all kinds.

A small feisty woman with a ready smile and an overstocked refrigerator, Nana couldn’t help herself. My grandfather often tried to stop her without success.

One typical late afternoon in the late 1960’s, after my mother picked up my sister and me from high school, we stopped in to visit my grandparents who were in their late 60s.

Nana sat at her kitchen table next to the window that overlooked her backyard, talking on the phone. The sun streamed in and brightened her sunny yellow kitchen and the sleeve of her shirtwaist dress. She motioned for us to take a seat.

We sat down and tried to avoid eavesdropping but couldn’t help ourselves.

“Stop wasting your time,” snapped Nana she glared at the phone

My mother, sister and I looked at each other quizzically.

“How long have you been seeing him?” Nana demanded to know.

My mother whispered to Nana, “Who’s on the phone?” Nana didn’t answer.

“Is it getting serious?” interrogated Nana as she stiffened her back.

We hung on every word desperate to know who was receiving her advice this time.

The kitchen door opened and my grandfather walked in. When he saw my family, he broke into a broad smile. A man with a hearty laugh, a shock of white hair, who always wore a suit.

My mother put her fingers to her lips and pointed to Nana.

He gave us hugs but ignored my mother’s warning.

“Who’s he talking to?” asked Grandpa Charlie who often referred to my Nana by a pronoun. And often not the correct one for her gender. Since English wasn’t his first language.

“We don’t know,” whispered my mother.

Nana motioned for us to be quiet.

“If it’s not getting serious, you’re just wasting your time,” proclaimed Nana as she slammed her palm on the Formica tabletop.

I wracked my brain. Who was unmarried and dating in our extended family? I eliminated everyone in my generation, we were all still in high school.

“Beverly,” whispered my sister, referring to the only unmarried female adult relative.

“What does your mother say?” quizzed Nana.

“No, I’m sure she doesn’t agree with you.” Followed by a slight pause. “Because she wants you to be happy with the right man. And he doesn’t sound like the right man, if he’s not serious.“

“Beverly,” we all affirmed quietly in unison. Beverly, an unmarried women in her early 40s, lived with her mother to help care for her in her advanced years.

“You’ll just have to break it off. Tell him you don’t think the relationship has a future,” explained my Nana. “The right man is out there. You just have to look harder.”

In a few moments, she ended her call and ushered us into the den to sit in more comfortable chairs. She returned to the kitchen and brought back a bowl of grapes, cut up oranges and apples and a few napkins.

“Who are you giving advice to this time?” asked my grandfather seated in his comfortable lounge chair as he thumbed through the day’s mail.

“Girls, have some grapes,” said Nana pointing to the clear glass bowl she had set on a sidetable.


My mother, sister and I groaned.

“What were you telling her?” asked my mother.

“I was just making conversation,” answered Nana. “How about an apple? My brother the doctor always tells his patients to eat an apple.”

We shook our heads.

“You know what they say, an apple a day…”

“It sounded more like giving advice,” responded my mother.

“Why are you bothering people, telling people what to do?” asked my grandfather looking up from a letter from his stockbroker. “Did he ask you for advice?”

“She,” laughed my Nana. “Beverly’s a she.”

“Who is she dating?” asked my mother.

“I can’t tell you.”

“Why? Who are we going to tell?”

“Alice, tell the girls to eat some fruit. It won’t spoil their dinner,” reminded Nana as she chewed on a juicy Concord grape.

“Did she ask for your advice?” repeated my mother.

“I‘m concerned about Beverly’s future. She’s getting older.”

“You always try to help everybody. You need to mind your own business,” piped in my grandfather.

“Now Charlie, you know I give good advice. I told you we needed to visit Leon Boghosian in Pawtucket when he was sick. And isn’t it a good thing we did, because he died not long after?”

“I didn’t go because you said so. I went because I wanted to,” declared my grandfather.

“Can’t her mother help?” questioned my mother trying to nip an argument in the bud.

“You know her mother, she’s very nice. But she’s provincial,” explained Nana.

“I didn’t realize she called you so often.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know. She calls me for advice often,” claimed Nana as she motioned for me to pass her the fruit bowl. She selected two orange slices and started chewing.

“When people call me for my advice and they follow it, they thank me.” Nana picked up the near empty fruit bowl and walked into the kitchen.

”Why would anyone take dating advice from someone who hasn’t gone on a date since the early 1920s?” questioned my sister.

My Father and the Isetta

Armen 001_2

by Karen Topakian

Every year, my father’s family business, General Plating, bought a new car for one of the owners: my uncle, my dad or my grandmother.

My parents also needed a second car. This one my parents bought used.

The best second car my father bought, the Isetta, arrived when I was very young, in the mid ‘50s.

This Italian designed, single cylinder, one door, two-seater, egg shaped car, painted fire engine red measured 7.5 feet long by 4.5 feet wide.

My father entered the car by swinging open the hinged door in the front, which housed the steering wheel and instrument panel. Climbing through the canvas roof provided the only emergency exit.

He proudly drove the car home to show my mother.


“It’s kind of small,” said my mother hesitatingly as she circumnavigated it in a few seconds.

“It looked bigger in the guy’s garage,” admitted my father.

My father enjoyed the attention he received when people commented on the car. He loved its uniqueness. But not its frustrations.

“Hey Alice, I need to take your car tomorrow,” said my father as he hung up his coat in the hall closet.

“What’s the matter with yours this time?” asked my mother while folding laundry in the den.

“Same thing. The transmission,” stated my father. “I’m still looking for a mechanic around here who can read Italian. Why the heck didn’t they translate the manual into English?”

Eventually my father found a mechanic literate in Italian. But the mechanic needed a part to fix the car. A part only available in Italy.

“Armen, sorry you’ll have to take the bus to work tomorrow,” apologized my mother when my father returned home from work. “I need the car to go grocery shopping.”

“Looks like I’ll be riding it a few more times,” groaned my father as he strode to the bedroom to change his clothes. “The mechanic said the part’s waiting on the dock in Italy. Some kind of labor strike.”

My mother shook her head as she tore lettuce into a salad bowl for dinner. She always thought the little “bubble car,” named for its bubble shaped windows, was dangerous and unreliable. Reliably however, it  wouldn’t start on cold dark winter mornings. Some days it would start, go less than a mile and conk out. Forcing my father to abandon it on the side of the road and take the bus.

On one such cold February morning, my father called on my mother to help.

“Hey Alice, can you give me a hand?” yelled my father while opening the breezeway door and letting in a blast of cold air. “I need you give me a tow.”

My mother stood at the kitchen sink shivered and grimaced.

“Now?” she asked looking at the clock marking 7:30. “I’m not dressed.” She pointed to her robe and slippers.

“Yes, now. Throw a coat on over your bathrobe. I’m going to be late.”

My mother pulled her big blanket-warm blue winter coat out of the living room closet; summoned my sister and I who weren’t school age yet into the living room and instructed us to sit on the two chairs facing the big window and not move till she returned. We climbed up on the chairs and kneeled to look out.

“Sit right here and don’t move so I can see you. I have to help your father with that crazy car of his,” she shook her head as she left the house.

My father managed to back the car out of the driveway, cross our narrow street, position it in the church parking lot facing our house.

She backed her car out of the driveway. Following his directions she pulled in front of his car. She blew on her hands to keep them warm. Her bare legs remained cold.

He yanked a grey rope from the back seat of the Isetta, removed his warm gloves, tied a bowline to his car’s front axle and tied the other end to the station wagon’s rear axle. He directed my mother who wasn’t familiar with the fine points of car towing.

“Rev up the engine. Go three miles and hour. Tap the gas. Don’t hit the brake,” yelled my father from the Isetta.

“Too many instructions,” she thought but she complied. The car didn’t start.

She could see him in the rearview mirror waving his arms frantically. His mouth moving but she couldn’t hear him. She knew she wasn’t doing anything right. And she knew he was mad. So she stopped looking in the rearview mirror.  But she kept driving hoping his engine would start and she could stop.

She muttered out loud, “When I said, ‘I do,’ I didn’t know towing a car would be a part of that.”

My sister and I watched transfixed as my parents slowly drove around in circles.


Kudos from the Grim Reaper


by Karen Topakian

I had no idea this year would start off with so many corpses. Thank you.

You know I started out the year so depressed after listening to everyone wish for peace and harmony in the New Year, that I contemplated suicide. I thought, what if it’s true? What if people suddenly love and respect each other in 2015? What if peace breaks out across the land? What if the tension in the Middle East lessens? What if Boko Haram realizes they’ve misread the Koran and shouldn’t send girls into slavery but should support their education and growth? What if everyone fighting a religious war re-reads their holy book and changes their ways? Honestly, I became bereft and inconsolable. For a moment, I thought I might have to find other work or worse…kill myself.

Until Wednesday.

Imagine my relief to see so much carnage, and in Paris of all places, a world-class city! Plus you killed more journalists. What could be better than killing writers? Heck they were cartoonists, drawing pictures! Those lazy good for nothing people merely want to share their ideas and perspectives. Their work can sometimes ease tensions and bring peace. I hate when that happens.

Kudos to you all. Keep’em coming. And you know how much I prize dead innocent people not just women and children.

Regardless, you’ve already made my annual New Year’s resolution – senseless death and destruction – come true.

Honestly, I think 2015 may turn into my best year yet for sectarian violence and deadly diseases.

Especially with the death rate from Ebola growing. Excellent work. Again you almost put me out of business last year when the numbers dropped but now the outbreaks back and I’m back too, baby.

And, I’m ever hopeful on the domestic violence front. So many more football players could strangle, choke and kick their wives and girlfriends before the year ends. I see this as a potential growth area.

And here’s a bonus I hadn’t even considered. Nine people died this year in Japan by choking on mochi. Wow, didn’t see that one coming. Who knew pounded glutinous japonica rice paste could kill people. Gotta love it. I just never know where death will erupt next.

For the record, natural disasters can always revive my spirits. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tidal waves, fires, lightening strikes. Love’em all.

But I find greater joy and satisfaction from a good ole’ man made disaster. Especially ones, which could have been avoided. Bridge collapses due to a lack of infrastructure funds. Industrial accidents due to lax regulations. Environmental disasters caused by greedy corporations. Love each and everyone.

I’m also looking forward to more deaths from human made climate change. Sea level rising in heavily inhabited coastal areas will keep me in business for years to come. Not to mention droughts and violent storms. I’ve got every reason to feel hopeful.

And don’t get me started on my affection for Mafia gangland slayings. Victims mowed down in lunch spots, barbershops, bowling alleys and casinos. Sadly, I haven’t seen a good one in a very long time. But the police have picked up the slack, filling the void, by murdering unarmed people.

How could I forget honor killings?

Thankfully, we’ll always have Paris. Recently, I’ve put my faith in religious killings. Where the zealots reach for the stars and their assault rifles. God love’em.

Thank you all for pulling me right out of my whirlpool of depression. I couldn’t be happier. Business is booming. Gladly hustling new guests across the river Styx. Here’s looking at you!

What Should We Buy Your Father for Christmas?

Grandpa K

Grampa K

by Karen Topakian

At holiday time, my mother shouldered the Christmas shopping responsibilities. She took great care to find the right gifts for my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins. But every year, she struggled with ideas for one family member – my paternal grandfather, Grampa K.

Grampa K, a mild-mannered man by nature, didn’t know that he caused such consternation. He wasn’t a fussy man just a man of very simple needs who often lamented the consumer culture pervading America.

“Boys,” he said to his adult sons when they helped him empty his barely filled wastebaskets. “America is drowning in trash.”

His lack of need or desire for material things may have stemmed from his emigration from Turkey to the US at the age of 16, to escape conscription in the Turkish military. After leaving everyone and everything behind to make a new life in the US, he learned to live on very little.

Or his lack of need or desire may have appeared after seeing his life almost end at age 49 when he suffered from his first of several heart attacks and then retired. Regardless, he lived a quiet life with my grandmother, Liz, who co-owned the family business, General Plating, with her two sons. He spent his days volunteering for Armenian Church organizations, gardening, reading books about Armenian history and culture and teaching himself French on educational TV.

His sedentary life didn’t require much stuff. Because he was retired, he didn’t need work or professional clothes. He rarely needed or wanted anything.

The two gifts that offered him the greatest joy and pleasure were flowering houseplants to supplement his indoor garden of robust African violets that occupied every window ledge in his two-story home. And cow manure for his vibrant outdoor vegetable garden. He could barely contain his delight every spring when my father drove up the driveway with a station wagon full of steaming bushel baskets from the local dairy.

His lack of want or desire for anything else presented a great challenge to my mother. And every year she struggled. My father offered little assistance.

“Armen, one last gift. What should we buy your father?” asked my mother as they walked into Macy’s Men’s Department

“I dunno,” answered my father as he faced a display of men’s dress shirts.

“Give me some ideas,” begged my mother. “He’s your father.”

“Ok. A shirt,” suggested my father.

“We bought him one for his birthday,” responded my mother.

“Then a sweater?” shrugged my father as he touched a wool pullover.

“We bought him one last year,” answered my mother putting down her heavy shopping bags for a moment and rubbing her wrists.

“You always say they don’t turn up the heat and their house is cold. Maybe he needs another one to stay warm,” said my father holding up a pair of corduroy pants to his waist.

“It’s just so boring,” lamented my mother as she wandered past a row of sport jackets and suits.

My father drifted toward her.

“Armen, think of something?”

“I’m drawing a blank.”

“Look around. Maybe something will come to you.”

“I doubt it,” muttered my father under his breath as he returned to the stack of corduroy pants.

“Ah hah! This is perfect. Armen, what about this?” asked my mother holding up a charcoal grey v-neck sweater vest. “It will keep him warm but it’s not one more sweater.”

My father gestured two thumbs up and walked back towards her. “Good idea. How did you think of that?” asked my father.

“It came to me,” she said pointing to a table piled high with them. My mother couldn’t wait to wrap it up and hand it to my grandfather.

Though my mother sought a unique gift for Grampa K, he never seemed to mind receiving the same gifts. Grateful for any present, large or small. He always smiled followed by a thank you, which erupted slowly from his thin lips in his slightly high-pitched and melodious voice tinged with an Armenian accent.

“Lizzie, look at this,” he would say holding up every gift for my grandmother to see.

That Christmas day, like every year, we spent eating breakfast with my paternal family at my grandparent’s home in Cranston, RI.

After enjoying a hearty meal, all 11 of us relocated from the dining room table to the living room to open presents.

First, he opened up the gifts from his wife, smiled broadly and said, “Thank you, Lizzie. How did you know I needed more socks?”

My mother proudly handed my grandfather his present. He carefully unwrapped the red and green paper without ripping it. Folding it neatly, so it could enjoy a second life. He gingerly opened the box, peeled back the tissue paper and removed his gift.

Holding up his sweater vest for all to see, he smiled and stated, “It would be nice, if it had sleeves.”


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.


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