Every Hair A Wanted Hair

Armen 003_2

by Karen Topakian

When my father met my mother in the summer of 1948, he sported an attractive head of thick, dark, wavy hair. Within a few years, he had succumbed to male pattern baldness – a dramatically receding hairline accompanied by finer, shorter thinner hair forming a U shaped pattern.

Despite his hair loss, my father kept going to the barber and not just any barber but Pete the barber whom he had frequented since high school.

“I need to get my ears lowered,” said my father on a Friday night using a colloquial expression from the 1940s. “But it’s too cold to get a haircut.”

My father shivered as he spoke

“What difference does the weather make?” wondered my mother while putting away the groceries.

“I’ll stop at Pete’s tomorrow on the way home from the shop.”

“Didn’t you just get a haircut?” asked my mother as she neatly slid a box of crackers into an empty space in the kitchen cupboard.

“It’s getting long.”

My mother shot him a quizzical look

“I can feel it growing over my ears,” he chided her while tugging at imperceptible hairs.

She squinted at his head for a moment and shrugged.

“Seems like the longer you’ve been going to him, the less hair you have.”

“At least I don’t have to carry a comb anymore,” he declared proudly.

The next day, as my father brushed past my mother on his way to the coat closet, he harrumphed. “Pete raised his prices fifty cents.”

My mother studied his thinning hair and said, “He should be charging you less. Next time why don’t you ask him to charge you by the hair.


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.

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.


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.


Hard to Find Good Help

by Karen Topakian

Armen 001_2


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he disappeared.

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

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

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

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

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

The next day my father left a message.

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

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

My father left another message.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I would.”

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

He finished painting the house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My father was right.  Sort of.

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

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

My mother kicked my father under the table.

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

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

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

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

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

My father shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


11 years ago today, my mother placed a phone call to me I didn’t want to receive.

My father was too weak to get out of bed, she said. And needed an oxygen tank to breathe.

I knew what this meant. His lung cancer had progressed. The end was near.

While on the phone with my mother, Nina Dessart, my trusty and trusted co-worker, over heard my call and began an online search for a flight to Providence that day.

As soon as I finished talking to my mother, I phoned Peg to tell her my dad’s health had taken a turn for the worse. She too quickly began searching for a ticket.

I paced the floor, unable to focus. Unable to map out a work plan for Nina that would encompass the days ahead. Nina had only begun working at Agape a few weeks before. New to the Foundation but not new to working with me or to working hard. She would have to cope because I couldn’t.

Peg and Nina found me seats on a red eye flight to Providence. But leaving from Oakland. How would I get there? We didn’t have a car. And I didn’t think I had the strength to endure the multi-step public transit process.

Our good friend Anne Jenkins stepped in, offering the much-needed late night ride.

Once the flight arrangements were made, I phoned my mother to tell her I would arrive the next morning. She wept with joy and sorrow.

I left my office to go home and pack, not knowing when I would return. Only knowing the journey would be long and painful.

Packing took all afternoon. I sank under the weight of making the simplest of decisions.

I kept focusing on the prospect of losing my father. Of never seeing him again. Of never hearing his voice again.

Peg arrived home to find me paralyzed amidst a pile of clothes and an unpacked suitcase. She made us dinner and finished my packing.

Later on that night, Anne picked up Peg and me for the drive to the airport. Anne distracted our attention with stories that made us laugh for a moment or two.

My dad lived for another 10 days. 10 days I will always treasure.

Thank you Anne, Nina and Peg for moving with compassion and lightening speed when I couldn’t move at all.




Eskimo Pies and My Dad

by Karen Topakian

It’s quite ironic that today January 26, the anniversary of my father’s death (number 10), should occur during the same week that we recognize the Patent Day for the Eskimo Pie (January 24, 1922). Here’s why.

My father, a slim man, slightly less than 6 feet tall, always kept in good shape. But he liked his sweets. He could afford to eat dessert every day. Though he held the lofty title of President and co-owner of General Plating Company, he performed physical labor. 8 hours a day

During the evening, he would look to my mother and say, “Hey Al, got one of these?” to which he would make the gesture in the photo. This was the universal sign for an Eskimo Pie. The chocolate covered ice cream novelty. His dessert of choice.

If my mother said yes, his eyes would light up.

That was the cue for one of us, my sister, my mother or I, to get up and get him one from the freezer. (This was the 60s. It was what women and girls did.)

If she said no. He would follow with, “Pie-my? Cake-make? Cookie-mookie?”

My mother always had one of those. Thanks to the parade of home made baked goods produced by my grandmother who lived a few blocks away.

My father rarely went without dessert. But we all knew what he preferred. The simple Eskimo Pie wrapped in tin foil.