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The Greatest Gift of All

It’s funny how some things hit you unexpectedly, out of the blue. June 17, Bob’s birthday and Father’s Day, was fast approaching and a thought occurred to my always-active mind that had eluded me all these many years, or perhaps I had just taken “The Greatest Gift” for granted.

Time has a way of evaporating and before you realize it, with the busy life syndrome, decades have passed, but the gift of memory is there to cause both elation and sadness.

The man I married on June 29, 1963, was of German-Irish ancestry. His father, Bertram, a Lutheran, was of pure German heritage. His mother, Marguerite, was Irish Catholic to the core. Both were born in Saginaw, Mich., and were married there.

I’m assuming Bert’s conversion to Catholicism in order to marry his Irish love must have caused some conflict in his Lutheran family, but I was never privy to information substantiating that fact.

When Bert and Marguerite moved from their hometown of Saginaw to Pontiac, it was to accommodate his job transfer as a superintendent at the Pontiac Motor Division in the engine department as a metallurgist. He had the good fortune of never being unemployed at any point in his work career or during the Depression.

The couple purchased a new construction brick home on the west side of town considered the more desirable location in Pontiac, called Indian Village.

It was 10 years after Bob’s parents’ marriage before he was born. He remained an only child who, of course, was raised a devout Catholic, attending catechism classes but graduating from public schools. His childhood was idyllic; he spent summers at their family cottage on Elk Lake, swimming and fishing. Even as an adult, Robert faithfully attended daily early morning Mass. I had a deep appreciation for his well-mannered, gentlemanly comportment, which I accredited to his upbringing.

The Great Divide

Then Robert Joseph Kessel met a young lady who was of Armenian heritage and definitely not Catholic. That did not deter our relationship. If it didn’t before, it has now impressed me what an important sacrifice he made for me. My sacrifice for him was to agree to have our marriage performed in the Catholic Church, but he knew I would not convert.

It was my father who introduced me to Bob, and it was also my father who advised me to marry at St. Michael’s, the family parish. His reasoning was that Bob attended church regularly, whereas the long distance to Detroit made it difficult for the Apigians to attend St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church.

I agreed but deep down I was silently troubled. I was steeped in Armenian heritage and the injustice of the genocide was deeply rooted in me. For years, I was a very strong vocal Tashnag member of the AYF. It had never crossed my mind that I would marry a non-Armenian. My parents loved Bob and had no objection to our union.

I had refused the marriage proposal from a young East Coast Armenian as being just too far away for my comfort and I was too young. I was a victim of separation anxiety and it had a profound effect on my decisions. As the youngest of four children, I was very close to my mom and dad; my siblings had all wed and I was 14 and alone at home with my parents, almost like an only child. Even after marriage I never lived more than 10 minutes from them.

Bob and I bought a party store six months after our wedding. It required long, arduous hours but it was gratifying to see the business prosper. Other than my parents, we had no social life. After closing the store in the evening we often went to relax at my folks’ house. Bob and Dad would have a beer and boereg or Dad would barbeque hot dogs late at night.

Ten years after marrying and now parents to two young sons, we decided as responsible parents that the boys must have a Christian upbringing.

The decision to attend St. Sarkis Church in Dearborn, a one-way trip of 30 miles, came without any disagreement. The boys had been baptized there as well.

Bob had given up attending Catholic Church right after our marriage because the business was a 7-day, 15-hour obligation.

The boys were enrolled in the Sunday School program and the four of us attended church together every Sunday. The boys would be in class and their father and I in church. Bob faithfully followed the Badarak from the transliteration pew books provided.

For me, it was a welcome turn of events to again become part of an Armenian community, since by this time my beloved Pontiac community had dwindled. Our ARF agoump was now history. It had been sold and reverted back to its original life as a church.

At St. Sarkis I became a volunteer along with new friends to package maas every Sunday; afterwards I attended Badarak, learned about my church in Krapar and Ashkharapar Armenian, followed by a very social coffee hour. Bob’s only complaint was I was often part of a group that was the last to leave.

I became secretary in the Ladies’ Guild and attended church conventions. I volunteered at church baking sessions and became a writer going reporting on the Guild activities. In my desire to bridge the total community, I covered lectures, book signings, and important community events at all three Armenian churches to the best of my ability. I made many new friends and Bob, the odar Armenian By Choice (ABC), was always right there beside me.

He adapted to being the rare non-Armenian at all the events I attended. He basically was a quiet, conservative man. I was selfish in not thinking he could have felt out of place, uncomfortable. He gave up trying to get me to go to German festivals, but at least I did go to Ireland, which I loved.

When the Detroit “Azadamard” Gomideh honored me at a reception as “Hamagir of the Ages,” I faltered at one point in my speech when I described my father’s exodus at age 13 from Keghi, never to see his parents again because of the genocide.

Tears swelled up in my eyes and I choked, not able to continue. It was Bob who quietly urged me on as he whispered to me repeatedly, “Go on, go on,” as I looked to him for support. I swallowed hard to get my composure and got through my talk on that memorable day, because Bob the Irish-German never, never, ever stood in my way. He never was an obstacle in allowing me to carry on my love for my heritage. He knew how important it was to me, the three-time cancer survivor, the lover of all things Armenian, to continue to expand my mind, to be an integral part of an Armenian community, to remember our martyrs. He never complained when I spent long hours on the computer writing and doing research.

Bob encouraged me to be Armenian and that was “The Greatest Gift” he could ever give me. Neither flowers, nor jewelry, nor clothes, nor any other gift could have meant as much to me. He had been indoctrinated by my father in the beginning about Armenian history and politics.

When he became seriously ill and in the hospital, I called the local Catholic Church to come to the hospital. Bob took Extreme Unction, made his confession, and the broad smile I saw on his face said it all. The visit by a Catholic priest after all these years made him feel like a part of that flock again. He was truly elated at his sacrifice for my happiness as an Armenian, and finally his return to his Catholic roots was a small repayment for his “Greatest Gift” to me.

Although he’s now away we still chat with each other on a daily basis. It’s never too late to say “Thank you” to the Armenian pesa for his most generous of gifts.

2 Comments on The Greatest Gift of All

  1. avatar Shant Harootunian // July 2, 2016 at 12:28 am // Reply

    Betty-A truly warm and inspirational remembrance of Bob.Tok Azvadzuh hokeen louysavareh.

  2. avatar Hagop Varoujian // July 3, 2016 at 6:15 am // Reply

    Very touching, beautifully written. God bless!

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