“What about chicken and pilaf?”

nanaby Karen Topakian

“Nana, I’ve decided to become a vegetarian,” I announced to my maternal grandmother one spring afternoon in 1976, as she bustled around her sunny yellow kitchen making my grandfather’s dinner.

“Why would you want to do that?” she bellowed, looking at me while wielding a kitchen knife.

“I gave it up for Lent and I’m not going to eat meat anymore,” I announced smugly.

“That’s crazy!” she exclaimed while chopping carrots for a stew.

She paused for a moment before continuing, “What about chicken?”

“What about chicken? It’s meat.”

“You’re not going to eat chicken and pilaf!” she exclaimed referring to the signature Armenian dish.

I shook my head.

“Where does she get these crazy ideas?” she muttered to herself while slicing onions.

“What about your mother’s lamb chops?”

I shook my head.

“I thought you liked the way she cooked them?”

“I do like them. But lamb is meat.”

She waved her hand at me dismissively. I fiddled with the buttons on my shirt.

“You can eat the pilaf. There’s no meat in the pilaf,” she responded proudly for finding a loophole.

“But you cook it in chicken broth,” I countered.

“Yes. So.”

A few Sundays later, my family sat down to dinner in my Nana’s dining room. She emerged from the kitchen carrying a platter of roasted chicken, which she placed on the table next to a big bowl of rice pilaf.

“Karen, have some chicken,” offered my Nana seated to my right, reaching across my plate with a forkful of white meat.

I blocked her move with my right hand. “No, thank you, Nana. Remember, I’m a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat anymore.”

“Don’t be silly,” she responded, waving the meat-laden fork in front of me.

“Have a little. Who’s going to know?”

I shook my head defiantly.

“Why do you keep insisting she eat it?” reproached my mother.

“What will you eat?” queried Nana.

I pointed to the green beans, the salad and the looped Armenian string cheese piled next to dan hatz, Armenian cracker bread.

“That’s not enough.”

“I’ve heard enough,” announced my grandfather in Armenian.

“I don’t like the idea of killing animals for food,” I continued.

“If you think meat was once an animal, of course you wouldn’t eat it. But you can’t think that way,” Nana admonished me.

Having failed to appeal to humaneness, I resorted to her religious side.

“You’re a Christian, Nana. Doesn’t God say, thou shall not kill?”

But my grandmother had an answer for that, too. She emphatically plopped the meat back on the platter with a thud. “He didn’t mean animals.”

Can’t Take No for an Answer

by Karen Topakian

Nana

Nana

My sister and I had just come home from high school one day in the late 60’s, when the wall phone in my parent’s den rang. My mother, sister and I stared at it. Even though, we weren’t sure who was calling, we had a pretty good idea – Nana. Nobody reached for it. We all knew what she wanted – to give us her home made Armenian food.

My sister reluctantly picked up the receiver.

“I thought you weren’t home. The phone rang a few times,” stated Nana, exasperated.

“Hi, Nana.”

My mother and I nodded knowingly.

“Gail, tell your mother I made some bonjadabood for Armen (a soupy mix of spinach and barley),” explained Nana.

Gail put her hand over the mouthpiece. Before she could repeat Nana’s offer, my mother shook her head emphatically no.

“No, Nana. Mom said no.”

“It’s still hot. I just made it.”

“Mom said no.”

My mother continued to shake her head, without knowing what she was offered, because the contents didn’t matter. My mother saw these frequent Armenian food offerings as an interruption in her menu, which she didn’t appreciate.

Gail repeated her negative response.

“Let me talk to your mother.”

Gail stretched out the long curly phone cord and handed the receiver to my mother.

“Hi mom,” said my mother. “How are you?’

“Alice, I don’t know why you don’t want some bonjadabood. You know Armen likes it.”

“It doesn’t go with what I’m making for dinner,” explained my mother making a sour face at the thought of this dish’s gloppy texture.

“Then serve it tomorrow night.”

“You and dad enjoy it.”

“I made plenty.”

“I don’t need it this time.”

“Alice, why are you so stubborn. Send the girls over,” insisted my Nana. “It’s all packaged up.”

“They have homework to do,” declared my mother through clenched teeth.

“What about Armen? He can pick it up on his way home. If you call him now, you can reach him.”

“Mom, thank you anyway,” said my mother hanging up the phone.

An hour later, there was a knock on the kitchen door.

My mother opened it only to see my grandfather holding a big round metal pan covered with aluminum foil. “This is for Armen,” he said handing it to her.

“You didn’t need to bother to bring it,“ responded my mother frustrated.

He muttered in Armenian, shrugged and left.

My mother announced to the pan, “Why can’t she ever take no for an answer.”

I offer this post in memory of my grandfather who was born on Jan 17, 1895.

Keeping Secrets

by Karen Topakian

Nana

Nana

“I promised Nana I wouldn’t tell anyone,” I replied to my sister. Gail. “You know it’s a state secret.”

“Just tell me. I won’t tell anyone,” begged Gail. “Where did you go grape leaf picking?”

This conversation occurred after every grape leaf-picking trip I went on with my grandparents. Just like every other Armenian who picked their own grape leaves to make their own stuffed grape leaves, Nana kept her location a secret, to guarantee that the leaves were there when she was ready to pick them.

Picking grape leaves took place in late spring before the end of the school year and well before July 4. The process required coordination, logistics and military precision.

“Charlie, why aren’t you wearing a long sleeved shirt?” quizzed my grandmother as my grandfather walked through the kitchen. “You know there’s poison ivy.”

“Eh,” muttered my grandfather waving his hand at her.

Grampa Charlie

Grampa Charlie

“Then wear a jacket,” exclaimed my grandmother as he walked past her into the garage.

“It’s too hot,” he mumbled in response. “I told you I didn’t want to go today.”

“You know we have to pick them while they’re still tender,” explained my grandmother wiping her damp brow.

She returned to packing our lunch – sliced lamb sandwiches tucked into wax paper bags, cut up carrots and a few carefully selected apples. After filling a small jug with tap water, she put the food and a few paper cups into a soft-sided cooler.

A pile of flattened brown paper supermarket bags lay on the kitchen counter by the door. Bags we would use to harvest the picked leaves.

“Charlie, put this food in the car.”

My grandfather walked back into the kitchen picked up the cooler and asked in Armenian, “How many people are you feeding?” She waved him off.

She grabbed her handbag and followed him into the garage to fish out her conical straw hat that tied under her chin with a brightly colored scarf. I took the paper bags and closed the kitchen door.

With hat in hand, she climbed into the front passenger seat of my grandfather’s Buick Special while I occupied the backseat. My grandfather backed the car out of the garage and down the steep driveway. At the foot of the driveway, he turned to her and asked in Armenian, “Where are we going?”

“The same place we always go,” answered my Nana.

He drove in silence while my grandmother speculated out loud about the quality of the grape leaves.

“If they are too small, we won’t stay. We’ll find someplace else,” she mused aloud. “I don’t want them too big either. Nobody likes them when they’re big and tough. No one will eat them, right Charlie?”

My grandfather didn’t respond.

“We may need to find another place. Maybe we can try the spot we saw in April on the way back from my cousin’s house. Remember I saw grape leaves growing on the side of the road and said we could try there if this place isn’t right?”

Again my grandfather said nothing.

“Charlie, are you listening to me?”

“I’m not driving all over the state for grape leaves. It’s too hot.”

“Of course, you will. You like them as much as I do.”

“Where does Sophie pick hers?” asked my grandfather referring to his sister-in-law. “Everybody likes hers.”

“She hasn’t told me. Do you like hers better than mine?”

He sighed in response.

“When I ask them, everyone likes my stuffed grape leaves. Karen, you like my grape leaves, don’t you?”

“Sure Nana, yours are great,” I answered while I knew that Sophie’s were so much better.

My grandfather kept his eyes on the road

“Turn here or you’ll miss it. It’s down this road on the right,” directed my grandmother.

He turned off the main highway down a secondary road and parked the car by a long low stonewall flanked by a wild array of grape vines.

“Pull over so no one will see our plates,” instructed my grandmother. “I don’t want anyone to know this is our spot.”

“I can’t pull over, there’s a ditch.”

“Don’t be silly. Of course you can, there’s plenty of room”

After slightly adjusting the car, we got out each carrying a paper bag, which we carefully unfolded. Nana being shorter, selected lower vines. I stood near her to pick the taller ones.

“These look good, Charlie. We came right on time,” she announced aloud proudly.

He had chosen a spot farther away and out of earshot.

We all hunted for the right sized leaves, pinching them at their base, careful not too damage them and placing them carefully in their paper bags.

“Only pick medium-sized leaves,” once again she instructed me to hold out my hand and pointed to the size on my hand.

“You showed me last year and the year before”

“But your hand grows every year.”

“I hope not. I’m in my 20s.”

After picking a bag full, he walked back toward the car and us. “That’s enough, I’m getting hungry,” he declared.

She peered into his bag. “You could fit in a few more.”

“I’m getting too hot”

“Why don’t you get your hat from the car?”

“I don’t need it.”

She examined a few leaves from his bag.

“Some of those are too big. That one’s too small. I won’t be able to roll them.”

“They seem to fine to me. What’s wrong with them?” he asked.

He picked a few more and filled the bag.

“I’m not waiting any longer. I want to eat my lunch now,” he declared while he slapped flies on his exposed arms.

“I can fit more in my bag.”

He walked away.

“We’ll pick some more after lunch,” ordered my grandmother.

He took the cooler from the back seat, sat behind the wheel and started eating.

“I don’t think anybody else has been here. Because the best leaves are still here,” she said to me smugly. “Karen, don’t forget, don’t tell anyone.”

Alice and Guy’s Holiday Exchange

images

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.”

 

Nana’s Dating Advice

Nana

Nana

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.

“Beverly.”

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.

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 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.”

 

 

A Battle of Wills

by Karen Topakian

Nana

Nana

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.”

My Father’s One Protest Sign

Alice and Armen

Alice and Armen

by Karen Topakian

Despite my parents’ very traditional separation of tasks, on Sunday mornings, my father would readily head off to go grocery shopping.

It was the 60’s, when RI blue laws didn’t allow major supermarkets to open on Sunday. But a small market in our neighborhood, Mal’s Market, somehow stayed open until noon.

Every Sunday my father would grab his coat from the hall closet and yell , “Alice? Where’s the list?”

My mother clad in her bathrobe and continually caught off guard, would quickly rise from the kitchen table, put down the Sunday paper, reach for a paper and pen to scratch out a list. She would have liked to check the refrigerator and the cupboards to see what she needed. Except she knew she didn’t have time. My father stood in the doorway; hat in hand, keys jangling, ready to go. All he needed was the list. And she knew the rules: keep it short. Three items max.

The ink barely dry on the list, he was out the door in a flash. If my sister or I could don our coats fast enough, we could join him. But he would never wait.

When my dad entered the market with the black and while linoleum tile floor, he offered a big hello to Sue, the owner’s daughter, working at the sole checkout stand. He walked briskly past the bins full of fresh produce – iceberg lettuce, hothouse tomatoes, cucumbers, onions. Past the low aisles stocked with canned soups, mostly Campbell’s, clear bags of white rice and small boxes of jell-o. Directly to the back of the store in front of the big gleaming glass case full of freshly butchered meat where George Tashjian, the owner’s son, and a hearty thick waisted fellow bellowed hello in Armenian, which my father answered in kind. Then he’d ask, “What’s Alice’s got on the list this week?”

My father rattled it off: pot roast, lamb chops and ground chuck. George carefully selected the cuts and wrapped them up in big sheets of white butcher paper. While my father waited for his order, he joked with the other men who appeared most Sunday mornings to hang around the meat counter too; sort of the husbands’ Sunday ritual.

After George handed my father the last package, he wiped his hands on his stained white apron and asked, “What about bacon? See how lean it is,” said George, holding up a slab. My father answered, “It’s not on the list.”

“Sausage?” asked George pulling up a necklace of fat links of pinkish red meat.

“It’s not on the list.”

George tried a third time. “Armen, you didn’t say chicken. What kind of Armenian household doesn’t buy chicken?” My father repeated his stock phrase.

George gave my father a look. A pleading look. My father smiled but didn’t budge. “Alice can make chicken and pilaf,” said George. My father resolute, laughed as he shook his head no.

“I’ll give you a good deal,” said George. Bingo

My father, not one to ever pass up a bargain, nodded yes.

“I’m going to have hell to pay when I go home,” said my father to the other men as George cut up the chicken into parts, wrapped it in butcher paper and handed it over the counter. Some nodded, some shrugged.

One responded, “My wife would kill me if I came home with something she didn’t want.”

On the drive home, my father muttered under his breath about my mother’s likely unhappiness.

When he arrived at the kitchen door, my mother was standing at the sink, washing the dishes. He handed her the bag and kept walking. To the bathroom in the back of the house.

My mother, always genuinely interested in the lives of others, started to ask about George and Sue but my father had quickly retreated out of earshot.

It only took a minute for my mother to discover why. “Where did this chicken come from? Chicken wasn’t on my list. Where’s your father?”

We pointed to the bathroom.

Carrying the wrapped chicken, she stalked him to the bathroom. “What is this?” she asked through the closed door. Holding it up and shaking it.

“Why did you buy this?” asked my mother. “I asked you for three things and you bought four. And one that I didn’t want.”

“George gave me a good price.”

My mother laughed then caught herself. She wasn’t surprised, she knew my father well.

“I didn’t put chicken on the list because I’m tired of eating it.”

She walked back to the kitchen muttering under her breath.

The next Sunday, at 10:30 again my father announced his readiness to go to Mal’s. But this time my mother was ready. She had retrieved a piece of shirt cardboard from my father’s stack of dress shirts, pulled out a marker and written a sign in big bold letters: “NO CHICKEN.”

She instructed my father to take this sign to Mal’s and show it to George.

My father, a man who loved joking around, gleefully snatched up the sign and her list as he sailed out the door.

In he walked to Mal’s, shot a hello to Sue, marched to the back of the store and waited his turn. When George asked, “What’s Alice got on the list this week?” My father proudly held up his “NO CHICKEN” sign.

“Hey, look he’s holding up a protest sign,” shouted one of the regulars.

“I caught hell last week, George,” said my father. “Alice isn’t kidding. No chicken.”

George doubled over laughing. The other men joined in. George put down his meat cleaver, came out from behind the counter, grabbed the sign and waved it around the store, telling the chicken story to anyone and everyone who would listen.

In moments, my father was a celebrity. “Did your wife really write this?” asked one customer. “What a good sense of humor,” said another.

When the laughter died down, George announced, “That’s it, Armen, I’m never selling you chicken again. Never.”

Everyone laughed — but George kept his promise.

A few weeks later my father arrived at Mal’s with chicken on the list. George stuck to his guns. My father begged him. “George, Alice really wants chicken this week.”

“No,” said George folding his arms across his beefy chest.

“I’m going to get in trouble, if I don’t show up with chicken,” said my father.

“I will only sell it to you under one condition,” said George. “Alice has to call me up and apologize.”

And Alice did just that. And my father and his protest sign became legendary.

Never Can Say Goodbye

Image

Barbara Brenner

by Karen Topakian

I should have said a proper goodbye yesterday to my dear friend Barbara Brenner but I didn’t. I couldn’t.

Even though I’m confident that I truly will never see her again in this shape or form. I told her she certainly would appear in my dreams, my heart, my memory. Because all others who have passed before her do.

We just hugged. I kissed her on the cheek and said, “See you later alligator.”

A cowardly response.

I’m not surprised at myself.  I come from a family and a culture that appears physiologically and psychologically incapable of ever saying goodbye. To anyone. Under any circumstances.

Ask my cousins how many times we stood in their doorways wearing our coats, talking for another 15-20-30 minutes, even if we had just spent hours talking. Saying goodbye. While my father ran the engine in the driveway.

We and many others dubbed it, “the Armenian” goodbye.

I suggested to my parents that I thought the derivation of the lengthy departure ritual might have come from our ancestors who lived in small villages in Armenia, miles apart from each other. And goodbyes proved difficult because you didn’t know if or when you would see the other person again. My ever-practical father said, “but we can drive here in 15 minutes.”

And I can walk to Barbara’s in 15 minutes.

This time it’s real. And I know that. For the first time ever, Barbara and I didn’t end our visit referring to our calendars to make another date.