No Guts, No Glory: Yesayan Moves to Armenia

Catherine Yesayan’s message to me a few days ago came as a shock: “This will be my last e-mail to you,” she wrote. “I’ve rented my house and am ready to face a new phase in my life. I’m heading for an extended trip to Armenia.”

Like heck this would be her last message to me. I got hot on her trail seeking answers to what I felt was an unorthodox decision for this middle-aged woman to make. Unorthodox to a conservative, stay-at-home, unadventurous soul like me who has her nose pressed against the window watching others grab pieces of life. I admire her, envy her, and told her so.

My writer friend from Glendale, Catherine was leaping into somewhat unchartered waters to fulfill a dream of hers—moving to Armenia and writing.

Several years ago I read an interesting article in USA Armenian Life by Catherine, telling about her pampered early life growing up in Iran during the Shah era. With the handwriting on the wall, she, her husband, and three young children had moved to Glendale over 30 years ago. I immediately got in touch with her and we established a friendship that had brought us to this point.

The Yesayans were in real estate, and later Catherine became a house stager, preparing homes to their best advantage for resale to upscale California home buyers. I found out she had a great interest in being a writer and I encouraged her to do so. We became buddies and admirers of each other’s work. While others discouraged her, I did the opposite, and her articles began appearing in Asbarez.

She has taken cruise seminars and even a three week trip to Italy to improve her writing skills, while I remain a self-taught hack. She jumps into unchartered waters while I prefer the safety of relying on my personal life experiences and social events that occur in the metro Detroit area. I prefer the safety of my home office while she is renting out her home and uncluttering her life.

“I will spend two weeks in Paris, then two weeks in Denmark, and God willing on July 12, I will arrive in Yerevan. I will stay there until the end of October and I want you to come and stay with me at my apartment.”

In my youthful school days my geography books regaled me, the ardent student, with tales of the explorations of wanderers and dreamers like de Gama, Cortez, Jolliet, Magellan, and Coronado; in later years they were followed by the modern era’s Neil Armstrong and Jacques Cousteau. I now consider Catherine Yesayan the Armenian equivalent of one of them, an explorer.

I asked Catherine what the trigger was that catapulted her into this decision. “While I was purging everything, I came upon a file about a workshop I had taken in 2003 about a woman’s midlife with the question, ‘What would you do if you could do what you want?’ And my answer was, ‘I would like to go to Armenia and help rebuild the Nation.’”

“I’m not sure what I’ll be doing there. Perhaps I’ll teach English. I’d like to write and explore the country. I will look also look into volunteering. Perhaps I will join the Peace Corps.”

Ladies, there is a lesson to be learned here. Life does not end with menopause and an empty nest. You are the captain of your ship unless your first mate has other ideas.

She has less responsibility now since her aging mother passed away a few months ago. Her main regret is leaving behind her darling toddler grandson Markar. Sometime we just have to cut the strings and go for it. That’s a lesson I have yet to learn.

She says, “For our first trip in 2001 to Armenia, I fell in love with the country. I thought, ‘This is the place I’d like to retire.’ I guess this is the time to retire and head to Armenia.”

Catherine does have a daughter in Armenia so that will be of help to adjusting. When I tell her my concern is for her safety, she tells me, “For me it’s not that unusual. I have friends who live six months in Armenia and six months here.”

I told Catherine her frank answers may encourage other sedentaries to rethink their lives and take the big step, too, that she may be responsible for a new movement in the 21st century for us older babes to take. Why not take off for Armenia for several months or even a year? Right now I have at least five male and female friends heading for the homeland for extended stays.

“My family has been living in Iran for generations. My mother’s side of the family is from northern Iran. My grandmother’s father was part of head of the Dashnags of Iran. His trade of tailoring took him to Paris to bring back the latest fashions. My grandfather was a village boy before his family moved to Tabriz from the village of Moujounbar. After graduating high school in Tabriz, he received his degree in child development in Switzerland, becoming a very respected member of the elite in Tabriz, and also was a Dashnag.”

There is no doubt Catherine’s family were the elite even before Shah Pahlevi’s time. Her father’s family was from Tehran. Her grandmother graduated from high school in 1907 and married Catherine’s grandfather, who had also studied in Paris.

If you have followed Armenian history and wonder why we call those arrested and killed on April 24, 1915 “the cream of the crop”—the writers, lawyers, statesmen—it’s because they attended the finest universities throughout Europe. As Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at McGill University (Montreal) Dr. Rita Kumumjian put it, “They were better educated than you or I.” Ponder that thought with pride.

I take my hat off to my friend Catherine for her capability to see life as a cabaret; for her bravery; and for her enduring love for Armenia, the long-ago land of her ancestors. We wish her a safe journey. I know it will be a fulfilling one.

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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.”

4 Comments

  1. Serpouhie, there is no need for you to be concerned about Catherine’s safety in Yerevan. She will be safer there than you are in Detroit. All diaspora Armenians are not only safe, but welcomed in Armenia.Bravo for Catherine that she wants to volunteer. The need is greatest in the smaller villages.

  2. Very well said Perouz.
    When my wife and I joined the Armenian Volunteer Corps in 2002 for one year (www.armenianvolunteer.org) we had never been to Armenia before and having read many of the “horror stories” most Armenians like to tell and remember, we took all precautions not to get mugged in the street (we don’t even do that when we go to Detroit). We were of course pleasantly surprised to see how safe the whole country was. My wife kept telling people: “I don’t walk alone in downtown Ottawa at night, and here I am walking back alone from a late night at a karaoke bar in downtown Yerevan”…
    Needless to say, we fell in love with the country and the (real) people there, although we originally thought we would volunteer one year and get-out, we are now involved in many development projects in Yeghegnadzor, and spend half our time there.
    Please do come and visit us Betty and tell Mrs. Yessayan to do the same.

  3. And, of course, Antoine, this is the year to go. It is the year of the book in Yerevan and I can hardly wait to see the special exhibits at the Matenadaran. And the Genocide Memorial complex of exhibits and museums is a whole day of discovery after you lay your flowers, and say your prayers, and shed your tears, at the eternal flame. And then the market on Saturday with its fresh flowers and hand work and bargain souveniers. I am going back this fall. I have not been to Tatev yet, and must go. I want to ride on that overhead tram and pretend I am riding on the back of a groong, looking down at the world. But most of all, I am going to Talin. I want to see the monastery and the Armenian cemetery there. I want to explore Talin. And for those of us in the Diaspora who live in places where we seldom see another Armenian or hear our language spoken, there is something magical about being surrounded by your own language and culture and people day after day. You get off the plane at Zvartnots, and you know, this place belongs to you. Or maybe you belong to it.

  4. Hooray for Perouz, Antoine and wife, you are our modern day heroes and I love hearing your comments. You make the writing of my column a true joy. I know others are simply enjoying your comments just as I do. We wish you well and Antoine if you have a story to be told, let me know if you want to participate in a future column. You and Perouz are on the same wave length. Armenia is fortunate to have you as cheerleaders.

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