I really enjoyed being French. I will miss it. It was easy to feel connected to the smell of lavender in Provence, the gardens of Paris, stunning art and architecture and compelling history. Bouillabaisse is my favorite food. With my dark hair, brown eyes and extremely tannable skin, my friends say I look French.
My French roots trace from John F. LeDoux, my handsome grandfather. He told me he came from “outside of Paris,” and served as an interpreter during the Great War. He was college educated and worked as a teacher before he immigrated to the United States. French was not spoken in our home, as his English was impeccable. A picture of Joan of Arc upon a horse adorned the wall. That amount of information was enough to fuel the imagination of a 10-year-old girl. But now, I yearn to know more.
The pandemic has afforded me time to delve into my family history. What part of France spawned our branch of LeDouxs? John LeDoux’s naturalization papers were easy to find, but harder to understand. His place of birth was listed as “Asia Minor.” With apologies to my high school history teacher, I had to Google it. How did a Frenchman, born in 1893, enter this world in what is now modern day Turkey? Reading that there were strong connections between that region and France, I supposed that his father may have been a French diplomat, teacher or soldier.
He had to cross the Atlantic. I scoured the ship manifests of that time. That search proved fruitless. I thought hard. A faded picture in my baby book shows him on a horse dressed in an American Army uniform. The Army must have an accounting of his service. His military records would serve to uncover his true identity. John LeDoux was drafted by the Army to serve as an interpreter in WWI. Before he could report he had to apply to officially change his name. His actual name was Meroujan Peckmezian. He was an Armenian born in Amasia, Sivas, Turkey in 1893.
Meroujan left Turkey in 1912. The port of Sampson in Turkey served as his jumping off point. Reaching Le Havre, France, he boarded the ship La Lorraine. His ticket shows he occupied a berth in steerage. After what must have been an uncomfortable trip in December and January, he arrived at Ellis Island in 1913. Joining my great uncle in Stoneham, Massachusetts, he worked in the shoe factory for the rest of his life. He smoked a stinky cigar, grew the most beautiful gladiolas and took his five-year-old granddaughter to Jordan Marsh in Boston where she was allowed to pick out her own Easter outfit!
Of course, so many questions linger. Why did he leave Amasia, Turkey in 1912? Why did he change his name? Yeghia Tashjian’s recent article in the Armenian Weekly helped me understand what was happening in the Ottoman Empire during that time. Perhaps the family livelihood had been taken by the Turks, as most had. Perhaps the school where he taught was shuttered. Perhaps the clouds of the imminent atrocities were gathering.
I first learned about the Genocide as a young nurse. A patient told me about escaping to Syria as a girl, with coins sown in her clothes. As I learn more about the Genocide, I can see that the Sivas region was ground zero for many Armenians during the 1915 wave of genocide. Reading that women and children were rounded up from Amasia during that time, I wonder what happened to his parents, my great grandparents. The gruesome retelling of the atrocities of that time keep me awake at night. How remarkable for a young man to have the courage to come to a strange land and never return to see his family again. I hope to learn more about my grandfather and our Armenian heritage.
I think that I will love being an Armenian. My family name Peckmezian means “maker of grape molasses.” I don’t know what that is, but I will find out. And the grocery delivery man told me I looked just like his aunt, a fine Armenian lady.