Rendahl: ‘Why Should I Care about Being Armenian?’

Special for The Armenian Weekly

“The people here today obviously care about Armenia,” an attendee said to us, speakers at the recent Armenian Relief Society Eastern Region Youth Connect Program. “But what do we say to those who ask why they should care about being Armenian now that they’re American?”

My great-grandmother Sena and I drank from the same well on the farm, our bodies irrigated by the same sweet, cold water.
My great-grandmother Sena and I drank from the same well on the farm, our bodies irrigated by the same sweet, cold water.

The question wasn’t directed to me, not really. It was directed to my co-panelists, who both have Armenian roots and stories. Their responses included the word grandmother several times, and the word guilt, among other things.

When they were finished I said that I had something to add, though it wasn’t about guilt or an Armenian grandmother, since I’m not Armenian.

“That’s why you should feel guilty!” one of my co-panelists joked.

I told them how my dad has told me stories of my ancestors for years, over and over and over again, unwittingly creating what I’ve recently termed an “emotional bank account.” The account holds the riches of possibility and success, of knowing where those before you have been and how they got there. You can make withdrawals from an emotional bank account during the darkest of times, when you need to remember what can be overcome. And you can make deposits during the best of times, when you’ve clearly seen your value and what you have to offer.

My emotional bank account has been accruing interest for years. The principal amount was deposited by countless people before me, some of whom I’ve been lucky enough to learn about. Like my great-grandmother who migrated to the United States at age 19 and who in 1899, at the young age of 26, founded the farm where I grew up. In her journals she wrote about the homesteading experience in North Dakota:

“Buildings had been erected across the road from us during the summer and in the fall a family named Peterson moved in. They had five children. You could see them running around the prairie picking up things that they put into a big sack. In answer to my question about what they were picking, Mrs. Peterson explained that they had learned what people used for fuel out here. So the fuel problem was settled for the present anyway. None of the new settlers had any money. It usually took all they had to get started. The “buffalo chips” weren’t as bad as you think. We dignified the fuel with that name, but most of the dried chips were the calling cards of the range cattle that roamed over the prairies.”

There was another of my great-grandmothers who was a suffragette and who served in the New Hampshire state legislature for 19 terms, earning her the honor of being the longest serving woman legislator in the country. Gail Underwood Parker wrote about her in a book called Remarkable New Hampshire Women. In the chapter entitled Legendary Legislator she writes: “A movie ticket cost twenty-four cents and a year at Harvard University cost four hundred dollars in 1930 when Hilda Brungot first campaigned to represent the people of Berlin in the state legislature. … Her personality was always strong and she was not to be crossed. Tolerant of all races and religions, Hilda didn’t stand for any black or anti-Semitic jokes being told in her presence. Known as a bit of a rabble-rouser, she believed in absolute separation of church and state.”

“Politically, Hilda was respected on both sides of the aisle because she voted her conscience and her constituency and was willing to compromise only if it would help advance a cause she advocated. Some of her views were well ahead of her time, such as when she fought for labelling the contents of food products — in the 1940s. Also ahead of society were monthly “conscience raising” groups Hilda led at her home for women, counseling about the dangers of spousal abuse and encouraging self-sufficiency and self-confidence.”

My great-grandmother Sena and I drank from the same well on the farm, our bodies irrigated by the same sweet, cold water. My other great-grandmother Hilda left in her wake the legacy of advocacy for those who struggle to make their voices heard. My great-aunt May served as a missionary in Madagascar for some seven years, unable to leave the country during World War II. She taught me to keep playing the piano through my mistakes because people might be dancing to the music. My great-aunt Carrie still lived alone and baked bread at age 100. She lived to be 106 years old and in her 90s, she would take her guitar to the nursing home to “play for the old people.” Her home county in Minnesota was the namesake for the tiny North Dakota town where I was raised.

Not everyone has the luxury of knowing these riches. My great-uncle Junald must have known this when he painstakingly researched and published three editions of our family tree, even before the days of the Internet and word processing. My cousin George, a genealogist on the other side of my family, sent me a 30-foot roll of pages taped together so I could show my niece and nephew our connectedness with the many who’ve gone before us. My dad must know, too, or he’d stop repeating the stories.

These are precious gifts that I try not to take for granted. But whether or not one knows such personal stories matters less than our willingness to receive those within our ready grasp. Armenians share an enviable emotional bank account. It’s not one just filled with oppression and loss. It is also one filled with pride and resilience and solidarity and tolerance and faith. The account holds all that is needed for Armenians to take the next steps with confidence.

In fact, it holds all that is needed to inspire any who turn their heads to watch.

Kristi Rendahl

Kristi Rendahl

Kristi Rendahl is associate professor and director of the nonprofit leadership program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Prior to starting with MSU in 2017, she worked for over 20 years with nongovernmental organizations on several continents, including living in Armenia from 1997-2002. She speaks Armenian and Spanish.
Kristi Rendahl

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  1. So glad that you share your insightful perspectives. Always meaty and full of heart. I especially appreciate your optimism.

  2. Thank you for sharing these very personal stories, Kristi. So pleased to see you interested in matters Armenian, inasmuch as they are matters of interest to humankind. In reference to you bio, … as a full-time translator-interpreter for over 2 decades, I have done some of my most memorable work with victims of torture and persecution, often in a “one-off” language for the person: French-speaking Africans, Turkish-speaking Kurds and even Armenian-speaking Assyrians.

  3. great expression of why identity/roots are important. First it helps us find meaning in our lives, positive meaning of perseverance, creativity, hospitality, faith especiually in dealing with Genocide. Second once you understand who you are, you are better equipped to relate and help others.

  4. What a beautifully written summation of what it means to be an American…to be human.

    My great grandparents fled Armenia in 1906 when they “saw the writing on the wall,” as Grandpa said. One uncle, after quickly establishing himself in Boston, went back to fetch his wife and children. He was never heard from again. One aunt was rejected at entry due to illness. She was forced to return to France alone at the age of 13 where she served as a housemaid to a French family while she struggled through smallpox, the disease that caused her to lose one eye. After a couple of years she was allowed to rejoin her parents here in the U.S.

    Everyone, whether or not their family immigrated to America, and whether or not they know of it, has a rich past filled with interesting, exciting, inspiring stories. I agree with your labeling this an “emotional bank account,” as I have drawn on my ancestors’ strength many times. I encourage all to find their stories!

  5. I really do enjoy your writing because it always inspires me to stop and think. Your perspective is very valuable as it puts our identity in a context that encourages a substantive foundation that can be built upon. Thanks.

  6. Thank you kristy,
    My heritage and is so important to me. We are so lucky to have a family that kept our traditions and history alive. I miss having long talks with Grandpa Junald. I want so badly to pass on the memories that he gave me to my children and grandchildren. You are such a talented writer. I’m so thankful I found this article. I’m so thankful I found you. I would really love to read some of Grandma Sena’s writings on how it was to be a woman homesteader in North Dakota. I think she was only 1 of 26 women homesteaders at that time. Again, what a great article.

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