During this time of the “Great Pause,” it can be mentally therapeutic to recall the moments that defined the direction of our lives. It may have been individuals, events or experiences that captured our imagination and motivated us to follow a path. In particular, as members of the greater Armenian nation, recounting those moments can be a teaching moment for your children and grandchildren. For those in our emerging generation who are experiencing these moments or have yet to, it can be catalytic. Each of us has a story that is worth recounting and sharing during these moments of reduced public activity. It is quite possible that your knowledge of this moment is recalled retrospectively. You realize that time months or years later. Take a moment to think about the path you have chosen and what forms in the road you were guided to or traveled. What were the influences? For many of us there are personal family journeys, professional ones and our ethnic identity. I would like to focus on the latter. As American Armenians, what were those moments of inspiration? Can we identify that time in our past that shaped who we are today? In the hope of encouraging others to recall and share, I would like to share my own journey.
The moment of inflection for myself was actually a year of incredible emotion, enlightenment and direction. The year was 1965. I was just 13 years old, but I was about to experience a remarkable set of events that gave my life a path and ultimately meaning. In a broader context, 1965 in the Armenian community was the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. For those younger readers who may view annual commemorations and activism as a part of our daily lives, that was not the case prior to 1965. There were commemorative activities, but for the most part they were religious events with the community. The 50th anniversary, which has been called by some “The Great Reawakening” changed the course of our history. The commemorative activities that year launched a new era of activism and gave birth to the recognition movement. In 1965, Uruguay became the first nation to formally recognize the Genocide. The year was filled with nationwide activities, printed educational material and local events. In my own community of Indian Orchard, like all communities in the US, a committee was formed to direct activities. My father was on the committee, and I remember the excitement at our dinner table when he would discuss details with my mother. I had heard of the Genocide, but my knowledge was very limited as it wasn’t a “mainstream” topic. A new era was about to be introduced, and I was all ears. There were printed materials, posters and other educational documents available.
It started during the early months of 1965 and continued into the spring as the commemorative activities were scheduled. Our community had secured a local television show slot that would consist of a requiem (hokehankisd) by our church followed by the screening of a documentary on the Genocide. It was a nationally produced film intended for public distribution. I was invited to be a part of the TV service since I was a tbir (acolyte) at that time. Our priest, the venerable Der Khatchadour Guiragossian, was the celebrant, my father was the deacon, our choir was in the studio and it was led by a special guest conductor—the renowned Armen Babamian from New Jersey. I had never witnessed such a range of emotions among the community members—tears, pride, joy and sadness. The documentary and printed materials contained photos and footage that I had never seen before and gave a visual definition to the term genocide. I read every booklet published and was stunned by the brutality and complete devastation. It shook me to the core.
One of my first thoughts was the remarkable strength of the sweet and loving survivor women I knew to rebuild their lives after such an experience. It was just the beginning of an entirely new perspective of the older generation. I never looked at my grandparents and others of that generation the same after that spring. My love and respect for them was universal. Little did we know that out of that year’s activity would blossom a movement led by the sons and daughters of the survivors to reclaim our dignity and begin the march for justice.
Earlier that year I joined the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF). Our small community did not have a junior chapter. The by-laws allowed individuals to join at age 13 in the absence of a junior chapter. The AYF was a popular youth group in our community, and joining became a rite of passage. It was assumed in our tight community that all of us in Sunday School simply joined the AYF. There was an initial novice period that led to full membership and voting rights. I will always be indebted to two women who took a young kid under their wings to guide me through those early days. Marion Meregian (Derderian) and Helen Coulombe (Atanian) will always have a special place in my heart for the kindness they extended with explanations, transportation to meetings and general inclusion. We call it mentoring. They taught me the value of reaching out to those younger so they can establish a path. It inspired me to continue the process with teaching in Sunday Schools, camps and elsewhere. Everything we do is diminished if we don’t extend ourselves to mentor, inspire or help others who follow us. It is the critical ingredient to continuity and sustainability. Each of us knows a Marion or Helen who helped us through important transitions, and this should inspire us to always give back.
The AYF was a great source of acquiring knowledge and life skills. Immediately upon joining, I gained access to chapter meeting educational discussions, printed history and access to regional conferences where my appetite for learning about our history, culture and politics was fed. The AYF structure has always encouraged accountability at the chapter level. As teens, we were planning dances, conferences and community service events. The impact of working on these programs enabled project management, team building and financial skills at a relatively young age. Those skills and others were applied during our continued education and also in professional capacities. The greatest attribute of the AYF however has been its ability to gather diasporan youth with a variety of interests and give them a solid identity with their heritage. I joined the AYF in 1965 when my primary interest was to play basketball. I started playing in the AYF league, but quickly learned there was a great deal more to the Armenian world. It was the AYF that guided me to my passion for Hai Tahd. With my faith developed through the church, the AYF helped me feel complete. It prepared me for a journey that began at 13.
I also experienced unprecedented sorrow that year. My grandfather, for whom I was named, passed away in the late summer. It was the first death in our immediate family in my young life. We adored our grandpa. He had a remarkable life, much of which I learned about after his passing. He came to America from Sepastia, alone at 18 years of age in 1913, to earn money and return. That dream was crushed with the outbreak of WWI and the Genocide. He returned to fight the Turks in the Middle East in 1917 as an Armenian Legionnaire (gamavor). He left historic Armenia with my Adanatzi grandmother after the fall of Armenia Cilicia in 1920 and raised his family. In 1947, with their sons home from the war, he “retired” from the foundry work in Indian Orchard and began running a chicken farm in Franklin, MA. This is the grandpa I knew—the simple farmer with whom I’d spend my summers. He never spoke much about that time, but there were some pictures and a few thoughts from my father and uncles. It created a mystique among the grandchildren that only increased our admiration. In the evenings, he would go to Camp Haiastan (upper) to play cards with his Genocide survivor friends. I sat dutifully with snacks that he would buy for me as these titans of our survival recounted the old days, debated politics and played their beloved pinochle. I was amazed at the passion and knowledge of these men. My grandmother ran a number of Armenian Relief Society (ARS) events in Franklin with equal passion. It was a great lesson for me. I loved them. They loved the mission of our heritage, so I loved the mission also.
I used that initial love to build my knowledge base so that it would sustain me in the coming years of maturity. When my grandfather died, it was the first wake and funeral I had attended. I was unusually fine during those few days, but a few weeks later, I hit a wall of grief that I had not experienced before. It passed with some time and conversation with my parents, but the experience changed me. I wanted to know more about this man I lost and the historical context of his life. My desire to read and participate only increased from that point. He has remained, along with my father, as a source of inspiration to this day.
During this moment in our lives when we have more “quality” time, what were those experiences of inspiration that influenced and guided your Armenian identity? We all have them, and they are all important. But why? I believe it is simply because within each story or memory is an opportunity to inspire another. Your history is a part of your families’ history. Recall that time. Refresh your own ideas and share them with your loved ones. The evolution of your identity is an important legacy to share. Don’t let it remain dormant. Recalling the past can be inspiring when it has the ability to influence the future of others. What is your story?