Apigian-Kessel: Uncle Aram, the ‘Juknavor’

My father called him a juknavor, the Armenian word for hermit. Unlike other Hyes in the community, Uncle Aram Palulian would never socialize with anyone except my parents. Outside of work, he was content to remain in the second floor Judson St. apartment in Pontiac, Mich., which he shared with his lovely wife, my Aunt Haygouhie. She was a Zonguldaktsi like my mother, her second cousin.

The Black Sea air of the coal-mining town of Zonguldak apparently produced very beautiful Armenian women because all of the ones I knew were attractive and fair. Haygouhie was striking, tall and slender with black hair, possessing a soft, sweet, and charming manner, devoted to her husband and their only child Dicran. (Although by then a grown man with a family of his own, talk was that his mother would walk miles every day to his shoe repair shop to take him a healthy warm lunch regardless of the weather.)

Ironically it was my father who had the responsibility of locating Uncle Aram, the Gesaratsi who had escaped the Turkish army but whose whereabouts were unknown in this country. My father located Aram in Detroit’s Greek Town by accident and asked if he wanted to be reunited with his wife and son. One would expect Aram would have been thrilled by this prospect, but he told my father he would have to think it over. In a matter of time he joined his family. It seems he thought he did them a favor.

Now as an adult aware of Armenian history and its tribulations, I have learned to take a softer stance on this generation of survivors who perhaps had developed peculiar personality traits. They must have harbored emotional trauma resulting from the loss of home and family, deportations, and an uncertain future.

Uncle Aram never learned to drive a car, preferring instead to board the bus to his hourly job at Pontiac Motor Division. He’d return home to the easy chair in the corner of the living room stationed next to his beloved record player, which no one was allowed to touch.

I was just a child of three or four, but I remember every detail of that apartment and the behavior of those who dwelled within. I would accompany my parents to visit auntie and uncle, climbing the long stairway to their home.

When it was winter and we opened the entry door, the cool air would embrace my face and the stairwell would be filled with the sweet fragrance of fresh apples and oranges, and many bottles of wine. Uncle Aram liked his wine and very loud classical music.

My aunt’s kitchen was always filled with freshly baked cookies for her two grandsons, who she called manch. I remember the sweet little choreg-like pastries she would treat me to as I’d watch her prepare sourj.

Aram was a chauvinist. He acted like he was a pasha and his wife was his servant. I never saw him get out of his chair. He didn’t have to; whatever he requested, Aunt Haygouhie would obediently bring to him. He was an attractive, fair-complexioned man, not looking like a typical Armenian. He had the behavior of an intellectual coupled with an air of superiority. Aram had studied medicine in Istanbul. Stacks of French medical books were a testament to that time, outnumbered only by his vast collection of classical music albums.

Friday after work he would cash his check at the bank and go directly to Grinnell’s or Calbi’s music stores to buy classical albums. The clerks must have salivated when they saw him. He would select albums and take them into the soundproof listening room for final selection, often spending his week’s pay on records. Haygouhie had no say in this.

At Christmas time, Aram always gave these clerks boxes of chocolates and expensive fragrances. I remember one frosted bottle with a tassel on it.

New releases of Bach, Dvorak, Beethoven, Chopin, and Lizst, any and every composer, he bought and added to his collection. Every inch of space in the apartment was laden with records. When he died the number of albums reached hundreds.

He played his music and drank wine. The volume was turned up very high even when we visited. Haygouhie could only sigh, and everyone knew what she was up against.

On the upside, Uncle Aram taught my father to embrace the same music, giving him Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, and soon dad was buying Aram Khatchadourian albums. He had purchased a beautiful blonde cabinet Stromberg-Carlson radio/record player for his music-loving family. When the dining room table was set for company, dad would say to me, “Put on Khatchadourian,” and I would comply. Soon “Gayaneh,” “Spartacus,” and the piano concertos would replace conversation. We especially loved the bravado of “The Saber Dance.”

Music was the one time when the Armenian fedayees and the Hairenik Daily newspaper took second place in our home.

My childhood memories sustain me, but I still long for those days of close family and friends. Such colorful experiences growing up shaped me into who I became. My parents were popular social beings; others perhaps not quite as much. But my visits with Aunt Haygouhie and Uncle Aram remain a very special part of whom I am today.

Haygouhie died when I was only five and every Memorial Day I would accompany my parents to her gravesite with the white cross marker. Dad never missed putting flowers on her grave. He had lost his mother to the genocide and was concerned no one would put flowers on Haygouhie when he died. Father didn’t have to worry. He taught me well.

Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty (Serpouhie) Apigian Kessel was born in Pontiac, Mich. Together with her husband, Robert Kessel, she was the proprietor of Woodward Market in Pontiac and has two sons, Bradley and Brant Kessel. She belonged to the St. Sarkis Ladies Guild for 12 years, serving as secretary for many of those years. During the aftermath of the earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the Detroit community selected her to be the English-language secretary and she happily dedicated her efforts to help the earthquake victims. She has a column in the Armenian Weekly entitled “Michigan High Beat.”


  1. Bravo, Betty. Your eloquent and sensitive reminiscences sustain us in our memories of “how things used to be” and of relatives with similar peculiarities.  I was particularly struck by your wisdom in saying “Now as an adult aware of Armenian history and its tribulations, I have learned to take a softer stance on this generation of survivors who perhaps had developed peculiar personality traits. They must have harbored emotional trauma resulting from the loss of home and family, deportations, and an uncertain future.”

  2. Sireli Patille,
    Thank you for your kind words. Now as I look back, I hold very tender thoughts of my parents’ generation and the many interesting Armenians I was privileged to know. I see so many things clearly  by putting them in relationship with the genocide they escaped and survived, I salute them, I bow down to them and all they bravely endured. I had exceptional parents and for me that was just the beginning of a joyful childhood surrounded by people whose blood I proudly share.

  3. Sireli Betty,
    I always cry after finishing your writing. I think you are reminding my childhood with all post genocide generation in my neighborhood.It seems to me that I know your heroes since they are all alike.Yes, they were very special people with deep pain in their heart.I always remember their sad faces.You are trying to revive their memories and their lives. We do not have enough literature about that era. I hope one day you will put all these memories in a book in order to keep their life histories and give us knowledge about our forgotten generation. Thank you so much.

  4. Dear Ani, I seldom read comments to my columns, perhaps I should pay more attention. If I evoke memories of the past for my readers and bring them pleasure, I have accomplished my goal to inform and entertain. It is an honor for me to write for The Armenian Weekly. The editor has authorized me to express my opinions freely and to write about whatever I please. I am trying to divert my writings more to the “Uncle Aram” type of columns. I don’t want that generation to be forgotten. Time marches on but I feel the character and values they represented are somewhat lacking today.
    Don’t we all wonder what disipline they had to forge ahead without any apparent  mental deficiencies, raising a first generation of Armenian- Americans of which we are proud? Thank you for being a fan. I hope to meet both you and Patille some day.

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