But is He a Swindler?

Grandpa Charlie

Grandpa Charlie

by Karen Topakian

Charlie Asadorian, my maternal grandfather and an Armenian immigrant businessman, often thought people who worked on his house might try to cheat him. Maybe because he spoke with an accent, maybe because he had experienced dishonest business people first hand. No matter how good the deal, he was wary. To protect himself, he suspected them first, assuming they were swindlers.

“What do you think of the new wall?” asked my father to my maternal grandfather while they surveyed the progress on the low stonewall separating my parent’s house from their neighbor’s.

“It looks good so far. I hope he knows what he’s doing,” declared my grandfather about the mason.

“John said he does good work,” responded my father referring to a well-respected mutual friend.

“I hope he didn’t charge you too much,” stated my grandfather who always sought a top-rate job at a cut-rate cost. “Are you sure he’s not a swindler?”

My father raised his eyebrows. “I hope not.”

Several months later, my father noticed some serious problems with the wall and mentioned it during a Friday night dinner with my grandparents.

“I have to find somebody else to fix that wall. Several big stones came loose and fell on the ground. The guy that did the work won’t answer my calls.”

“I thought he might be a swindler,” acknowledged my grandfather regretfully, disappointed that he turned out to be right.

“You always think you’re going to get cheated,” accused my grandmother.

On another occasion during a Sunday afternoon dinner with my grandparent’s, my mother discussed their newest home improvement project.

“Dad, our new bathroom is almost finished,” declared my mother. “You’ll have to stop by and see it.”

“Where did you find the guy?” asked my grandfather to my father.

“He’s a customer at Mal’s Market,” replied my father while cutting up a piece of chicken.

“How do you know he’s any good?” asked my grandfather who often relied on my father’s recommendations of good workers.

“Last week, I heard you cursing in the garage about the rakes, clippers and bushel baskets piled up on the floor,” said my grandmother holding a serving spoon full of pilaf. ”Why don’t you hire him to build the shed you want? What are you waiting for?”

“I’m not ready yet. I want to make sure this guy’s not a swindler,” said my grandfather laughing.

Shopping with Alice

img_8812by Karen Topakian

When we’re together, my mother and I often participate in a ritual – shopping. Sometimes it’s for something specific. Sometimes it’s just to look. For decades, we’ve visited the same stores – Talbots, Chico’s, Macy’s, Banana Republic… We always want each other to look our best.

My mother’s advice on clothes remains unsurpassed. She possesses a keen eye for color, design and appropriateness.

We intend to be tactful and diplomatic. But we aren’t always successful. Here are a few examples.

I snuck into the dressing room to try on a pair of French Blue cotton pleated-at-the-waist slacks that tapered at the ankle. I glanced at myself in the mirror and liked the way they fit. When my mother took one look, she said, “That isn’t the most slenderizing garment I’ve ever seen on you.” To which I responded, “Maybe I’m not going with slenderizing.” Just to be defiant I bought the slacks, wore them a few times before concluding she was absolutely right. They ballooned at my hips and butt. Not an attractive look. I never wore them again.

Our fashion commentary clearly worked both ways. When I was a teenager, my mother played bridge one afternoon a month to which every one took the occasion to get dressed up. She had recently purchased a slate gray pencil skirt with a wide belt and paired it with a lighter gray long sleeve silk button up blouse. Instead of complimenting her on the fit, I said, “You look like a prison warden.” Crestfallen, she responded, “Once you say that I can’t wear the outfit.”

As I struggled to find a raincoat for my mother amidst a sea of ones easy to reject – hoods, ugly colors, too long or too short. She held up a beige trench coat. “Don’t you already have a beige raincoat?” I asked. “You can never have enough beige raincoats.”

While plowing through pile of sweaters at Talbots, I spied a red V-neck cardigan. “Mom, what about this one?” She smiled and said, “Theoretically, it’s a nice sweater.” Then pointed out it was the wrong color red, the V was too deep and she didn’t like the buttons.


“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.”

Circulating Circulars


by Karen Topakian

“Can I help?” asked my mother at age 11 walking into the dining room of her extended family’s Providence home one Wednesday afternoon in 1937.

She directed her question at cousins Dolly and Eddy, ages 14 and 12 respectively, sitting at the oilcloth covered table, folding a big stack of orange advertizing circulars from Jimmy’s Market, a neighborhood independent grocer.

For the past six months, Eddy had a weekly job jamming them through residential mail slots.

“Sure,” Dolly chirped.

“How many did Jimmy give you?” asked my mother enthusiastically.

“It’s the same amount every week. 100,” answered Dolly without looking up from her stack as she carefully lined up the paper edges to form a precise tri-fold.

Eddy quickly nodded in agreement.

My mother smiled as she pulled a big stack closer to her. “I like doing this.”

Eddy glanced up at my mother, rolled his eyes and returned to folding, slowly.

“Jimmy must like chicken. Last time it was on sale, too,” announced my mother pointing to an ad.

Her cousins kept folding.

“Eddy, what time will you deliver these tomorrow?” asked my mother.

“Whenever I feel like it,” answered Eddy sullenly without looking up.

“My mother reached for more circulars trying to keep up with Dolly.

“He really pays you a penny a piece?” inquired my mother.

“For every one he delivers,” responded Dolly. ”He does have to go to every house in the neighborhood.”

“I think that sounds like fun! And he gets paid,” quipped my mother.

Eddy reached for another stack and shrugged.

A couple of minutes later Auntie Anna entered bearing fruit.

Dolly politely declined, “I don’t want to get my hands sticky.”

Eddy didn’t answer. My mother accepted.

Anna placed a small plate bearing a sliced apple and a tangerine in front of my mother.

My mother took a few bites, careful to keep her hands clean.

As soon as they finished folding, Eddy left the dining room; Dolly started her homework and my mother walked back to her quiet home a few blocks away.

The following Wednesday afternoon, my mother eagerly entered her cousin’s dining room and noticed the empty table.

“They’re not here,” said Auntie Anna seated in a rocking chair next to the radio.

“Don’t they have to fold today?” inquired my mother discouraged by their absence.

“Jimmy didn’t want Eddy to do it anymore,” announced Anna.

“How come?”

Anna shrugged. “I don’t know. Eddy said something about customers complaining.”

My mother shook her head and walked back home. She tried to figure out what could have happened.

A few days later, she spotted Eddy riding his bicycle down the street. “Hi Eddy, what happened with the circulars?”

“I got tired of delivering them so I stuffed them down the sewer.”


Can’t Take No for an Answer

by Karen Topakian



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.

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree! Thy Leaves are so Unstable


By Karen Topakian

Every year my mother wanted a nice Christmas tree. Because my father chased the elusive good deal, he picked the wrong tree, repeatedly.

Christmas One

My mother pressed the heel of her hands on the edge of the kitchen sink as she peered through the snow-streaked window looking for signs of my father’s car. She spied him turning into the driveway, with her eyes squinted, she hoped she would see a Christmas tree. Without a tree, it hadn’t felt like Christmas yet.

My mother audibly sighed in relief as she watched him wrestle the evergreen from the back of the station wagon. And drag it over the snowy driveway, through the kitchen and the hallway into the living room.

“Here’s your tree, Alice,” exclaimed my father proudly.

My mother stood with her hands on her hips in the living room doorway inspecting his purchase.

“I got a good deal.”

“Another good deal. Remember the last one?”

“But this one has only has one bad side.”

“Can you turn it around?”

He tossed his icy gloves on the floor, twirled the tree while watching my mother’s face.

She pointed to the short branches, barely long enough to hold an ornament. To the sparse amount of branches, leaving big spaces between the boughs. And to the trees thin frame.

“Only one bad side? I see four.”

He turned it again, this time looking at the tree.

“Alice, I swear, at the lot it only had one bad side.”

My mother walked back into the kitchen shaking her head.


Christmas Two

“I think it’s raining,” announced my mother during dinner one night in December.

My father looked out the kitchen window. “I don’t see any rain coming down.”

“I hear something that sounds like rain.”

“I don’t hear anything.”

My sister, Gail, and I ate our spaghetti and meatballs in silence until my mother corrected me for slurping.

When we finished eating, Gail and I asked if we could turn the lights on the Christmas tree. My mother agreed. We ran into the living room.

“Mom, come quick,” we called in unison as we stood in front of the tree.

My mother hurried out of the kitchen, “What’s all the yelling about?”

As she approached the living room, the ‘rain’ she heard grew louder.

“Armen, Come. Look.”

My father strode in from his chair in the den.

Now do you hear it?” asked my mother as she pointed to the needles cascading onto the wrapped packages under the Christmas tree. “Another one of your great tree deals.”

“But I was right. It wasn’t raining,” responded my father sheepishly.


Christmas Three

“Armen can you straighten the tree?” my mother asked my father one evening after work.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s tilted.”

My father reached through the decorated branches to give a tug.

He looked over to my mother for her approval.


Pleased with himself, he walked back into the den.

The day before Christmas, my mother again noticed the treeing leaning in a different direction.

That night, she told my father she was worried that the tree might fall over.

“It’s not going to fall over,” declared my father as he tugged on a branch.

The tree shifted.

He dropped down to all fours, brusquely moved some wrapped packages out of the way and inspected the tree at its base.

“The guy at the lot didn’t cut the bottom straight.”

“Would a tree with a straight cut have cost more?” she queried while rolling her eyes.

“Get the girls to hold the tree.”

My sister and I wrapped our small hands around the lower tree trunk while my mother grasped it tightly higher up. My father sprawled out on the floor, carefully unscrewed the bolts holding the tree upright jostled the tree into place and retightened the screws.

When he gave the all clear, we stepped away.

“Much better,” applauded my mother.

My father stood up, brushed off his hands, pleased with himself.

After everyone went to bed on Christmas eve, my mother hung our stockings and admired her handiwork one more time.

But the tree seemed to tip again, in a different direction than it had before. She attributed it to her blurry tired eyes, turned off the lights and climbed into bed.

She arose first on Christmas morning, donned her bathrobe, padded into the living room cast her eyes toward the tree and let out a shriek. My sister, father and I jumped out of our beds and ran into the living room.

There lay our fully decorated tree face down on the carpet, across the perfectly wrapped presents. Ornaments, tinsel and lights splayed out on the living room floor.

My mother covered her face in her hands and groaned.

“That’s it, no more bargain Christmas trees,” announced my father as we struggled together to right the tree.

And my father kept that promise. Until the next year.

The Hearing Test

Armen 001_2

by Karen Topakian

“How long am I going to sit here?” my mother asked herself while seated on her suburban ranch house’s concrete front steps.

She pulled her German shepherd Pasha, a little closer to pet his furry head. The summer sun warmed her bare knees.

My mother put her ear to the screen door to listen to my father’s conversation with the man who was testing his hearing. She heard muffled voices. So she waited. That’s all she could do. That’s all she’d been doing for the last 30 minutes.

It all started when the ordinary looking man in the dark colored business suit arrived for his appointment with my dad. My father greeted him at the kitchen door and ushered him inside where he promptly shook my mother’s hand. She returned to the kitchen sink to resume washing the lunch dishes.

My father ushered him to a seat at the kitchen table where the ordinary looking man placed a thick black leather attaché case on the table. He carefully unclasped the two locks, gently removed a machine full of dials, gauges, switches, wires and a headset, which he placed on the table.

“Mrs. Topakian, I will need you to leave the house,” he solemnly announced to my mother as she emptied the cold coffee grounds into the disposal. “In order to test your husband’s hearing, I will need complete silence.”

My mother turned from the sink toward my father, eyebrows raised and her head cocked to an angle. My father nodded in agreement with the ordinary looking man.

She wiped her hands on the terrycloth dishtowel then walked into the bedroom to find her sandals. Muttering to herself, “Why do I have to leave the house? Can’t I just go in another room? And what about the dog? He didn’t say anything about the dog. Would he able to stay but I had to leave?”

In a few minutes, she emerged. Opened the cellar stairs, retrieved the dog’s leash and walked out.

After attaching the leash, she marched up the street. Pasha, like any good dog, wanted to spend his walk sniffing. My mother let him bury his nose in the grass for a few seconds before pulling on the leash to keep walking. She needed to finish her household chores on her day off. And now the ordinary looking man had highjacked her plans.

“I need to go to Almacs and CVS. But my keys and list are in the house,” thought my mother. “Plus I need to bring in the laundry from the line.”

She rounded the corner onto Budlong Road and walked for a block before she took a right. She thought around the block would be enough time for the ordinary looking man to complete his test.

Pasha again pulled on the leash to get closer to a squirrel skirting across a lawn. She jerked him back. While he sniffed, she fumed at the inconvenience of having to leave her own house abruptly.

Soon they approached the main thoroughfare at the bottom of the street, Reservoir Avenue. My mother walked carefully on the narrow sidewalk, struggling to keep Pasha out of the path of the cars racing past.

As she turned the corner at the bottom of her street, she saw the ordinary looking man’s car still parked in front of her house. “Was he also testing Armen’s eyesight and measuring him for shoes? How much longer would she have to wait?”

So she sat and sat on her front steps until the ordinary looking man bid her goodbye as he walked past her and climbed into his car.

My mother strode back into the house and declared, “Armen, do you know how long I had to wait? I’m glad he didn’t come in the winter when it was snowing.”

My father looked up from the paper and smiled, “What did you say Alice? I didn’t hear you.”

Anything But The Meatballs

20150107-italian-american-meatballs-sandwich-vicky-wasik-8by Karen Topakian

“Hey Al, it’s almost lunchtime. Want anything across the street?” yelled my father to his co-worker Al Giblin, one of two non-family members who worked at General Plating Company, GPC. “I’m sending Karen.”

I cringed waiting for Al to answer. I knew the one food item I didn’t want to hear any one order. A meatball sandwich.

“No thanks Armen.” yelled Al in return.

Yelling ruled at GPC. My father, my uncle Ted and Al all yelled, even when the heavy machinery and spinning tanks weren’t piercing the air with a deafening drone.

I exhaled audibly.

On the days my mother didn’t make my dad’s lunch, Mike’s Lunch across the street filled in.

My father hadn’t asked me if I wanted to go to Mike’s before he bellowed to Al but I knew that as a 15 year-old working at GPC, you did what any adult asked. Whether you wanted to or not.

“Karen, here’s two dollars go across the street and get me a… let me see do I want a turkey sandwich or a…?”

“Please don’t say meatball sandwich,” I said to myself.

“Meatball sandwich. Yeah, get me a meatball sandwich.”

I shuddered. Then stuffed the two dollars into the back of my jeans walked up the stairs out of the shop, crossed the one way street, pulled open the screen door at Mike’s. Entered quietly, desperately trying to fade into the woodwork.

Mike’s Lunch may have been owned an operated by a Mike at one time. But at this point, husband and wife John and Edie Vartanian owned and operated the small mostly take out restaurant. A few ripped vinyl covered stools hugged the short counter where Edie stood taking phone orders and ringing up sales. A grease pencil in one hand and the phone in the other she wrote the orders on the back of a brown paper bag.

Edie, a once attractive woman, applied her full-face makeup with a trowel. Despite the dirt and grime sailing through this costume jewelry-manufacturing district, Edie was always made up down to the bright red nail polish. She wore a fabric headband to keep her jet black dyed hair away from her face.

Slews of big beefy men dressed in their blue-collar work clothes piled in before 12, anxious to place their order and start chewing.

Buster, the short order cook, occasionally emerged from the back wearing a knitted ski cap and a stained white T-shirt while he wiped his greasy hands on the apron tied around his waist.

Edie kept track of her customers, she knew who arrived when and called on them in order. All while filling coffee cups, answering the phone and kidding with the regulars sitting at the counter.

She didn’t know me by name but by association. When I arrived, I doubled the number of females in the place.

She leaned across the counter and said, “Liz’s granddaughter, right?”

“Yes, Armen’s daughter.”

“What’ll you have?” she asked while checking her nails for chips and cracks.

“My dad wants a meatball sandwich,” I answered softly.

She smiled. “Tell your grandmother I said hello.”

I nodded.

And then she placed my order in a voice that could summon the troops.

“Hey Buster, two balls on a roll. Traveling.”

On cue, every customer laughed and hooted, loudly. They looked at me and kept laughing. They pounded their feet and applauded.

I desperately looked for a corner to hide but none existed. My face flushed, I waited in silence for her to hand me the paper bag holding my father’s dreaded lunch and run back across the street.



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.

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.”