To remember…“Bringing into one’s mind an awareness of something that has preceded the present.” Last week’s column was devoted to a very personal story of inspiration. It is my story, but similar to others that you may hold close to your heart. This is the core of why this column exists: to inform, to encourage dialogue, to suggest solutions and perhaps to inspire. There are many common themes in the Armenian experience. Ask yourself why Armenian strangers get excited when they meet. Sometimes it may take a gentle reminder, a shared experience or “stirring the pot” to release those thoughts. It has given me great joy to receive such positive feedback through various forms of communication on my most recent column. It has been gratifying to know that many of you could identify with the storyline from your own experiences.
One comment on social media in particular, however, was a bit more critical, and I felt I should give it some attention this week. Writing should not be simply about feeling good, but connecting and establishing a dialogue. This individual focused on one of the basic premises of the column. He did not understand the “common fascination” with ancestors. He stated that we have nothing in common with them including their sins and virtues. His view was that we should be concerned about our descendants, not our ancestors. I have found that all comments are useful. The goal should be to be better and find new avenues for discourse. My initial reaction to his comments was profound sadness. I cannot imagine how empty a life must be to disregard everything that came before us. We can certainly argue the validity of his comments, but empathy for what he is missing was front and center. I did intend to write back, but a young man named Aram took charge. His response was civil, articulate and substantive. He is part of the young professional generation. I was ecstatic for two reasons. For one, the quality of his response focused on the generational transformation that has contributed to the survival of a distinguished culture. Second, he is a third generation American Armenian who is informed, passionate and committed. At the end of the day, isn’t that the point? Sustainability! He wasn’t reciting public rhetoric. Aram responded based on his own experiences and beliefs. His value system through his family, education and community was speaking. He made my point simply by responding. Thank you and well done, Aram.
Armenians are a nostalgic crowd. I confess to being part of that culture. We have anniversary dates for everything. Many of us can tell you the age of Yerevan, the conversion to Christianity, and how many years since Vartanantz. It seems like our calendar is filled with the 25th anniversary of this and the 50th of that. I am certain we could write an entertaining satirical comedy about our communal behavior in this domain. Of course, this can lead to serious questions about the increase of our energy and activities when “rounded” anniversaries occur. For example, there was unprecedented organization for the 100th anniversary of the Genocide, but a significant dropoff for the 101st. Did the cause change? Were the issues resolved? It is a nuance that impacts all people, but our value on remembrance gives it a more prominent role. Whether it is about grandparents, the Genocide or church anniversaries, why do we remember?
There is no doubt that the Genocide has heightened the Diaspora’s awareness toward the past. It has generated many new options including scholarship, particularly in the last 50 years, family research/genealogy and of course, our quest for justice. The events of 1915-23 and more recently a broader view of 1895-1923 have demanded a connection of the past and the future. The absence of justice links the past to today. Our church sainted the martyrs of the Genocide giving special meaning to families who lost whole branches of their tree. The Armenian family has always placed a high value on those older. The term “elder” denotes the respect and authority given to a group through seniority. Many of us were raised to show respect to our elder relatives before we were excused from the room. I remember in my youth our home was always filled with relatives and friends of the survivor generation. My father insisted that my sisters and I greet and hug each one before running off with our cousins. This was not negotiable. It was never a problem because we loved these wonderful people who always had time for the younger generation. This respect is retained and maintained even after that generation has passed on. For many Armenians, these ancestors are a gateway into Armenian history, and we experience our identity with them in mind. Remembering our past is about more than respect. It is a vehicle for experiencing the concept of them “living in our hearts.” They are the bridge between life in the diaspora and dreaming about their lives in the homeland.
Bringing our past into the present is an identity building process. Our roots are deep, and that depth is a magnetic attribute. I remember the first time I went to Armenia, and we attended badarak at Soorp Hripsime in Etchmiadzin. Prior to the service, we toured the edifice as a historical monument. When the badarak began and particularly during the “topor” (the procession around the sanctuary), I was overcome with emotion as I began to think of all our warriors, Catholicoi, common folk and historical figures that graced the giant basalt stone floor that I was now standing on. Built in the seventh century, I quickly ran through an abbreviated chronology of what those walls had experienced. It filled me with spirit and energy. The past had become the present to guide the future. Without a love for our past and its value, it would have remained just another monument to tour.
A few years ago, I was teaching a summer class at St. Vartan’s Camp on Armenian history. One of the questions I asked the campers was who they were and how they arrived in upstate New York (the location of the camp). After an initial set of responses that referred to their hometowns and family, I asked them to dig deeper. How long had they been in that town? Who in their past had first moved there? Who was the first to come to this country and why? What cultural norms did they bring that influenced their family today? Their names…their favorite recipes…their family traditions. The point was that the answers to these questions would unlock pieces of their own identity. Our past is a series of dates and places only if we relegate it to a static moment in time. If we choose to view it as a portal into who we are, it is enriching. When we can connect our family history to major historical events, it builds an even stronger bond. Think about how we try to understand where our ancestors were during the Genocide and under what circumstances they moved into the diaspora. In America, the decision to work in factories on the east coast or move to the farmland of Fresno had significant implications to succeeding generations. Others made their way to Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria or Iran, while later generations looked for further opportunities in the Americas. Still others built communities in Europe and South America. All are important because they are pieces of a puzzle when you look in a mirror.
To illustrate this point of relevance at the camp, we had a teaching program called the “Time Machine.” Basically, camp counselors dressed in period costumes of famous Armenian historical figures. They “traveled in time” from the past to present, and we would conduct informal interviews with them, similar to a talk show, about their “trip,” their impact on Armenian history and its importance today. They would ask questions of the campers about the “present” and the connection points. Honor would sometimes emerge. The campers would ask questions of the “guests” before they returned to the past through the time machine. It had a remarkable impact not simply on sharing important moments with the campers, but it opened their curiosity both in the classroom and when they returned home. For the counselors to be Khrimian Hairik, Mesrob Mashdots or General Antranig, it was an experience that they would not forget. Over the years, we would focus on a variety of themes such as Armenian artists, clergymen of the 20th century, important women in Armenian history, Artsakh and many others. It was gratifying that many campers would return home to their families to complete “homework” on their own family histories and how they connected to our modern history. It made history and remembered a real event for them.
As a culture, we can sometimes overwhelm those who are on the fringes of our heritage with our focus on “remembering.” My response has always been that I would rather err on the side of more remembering than less. Our faith and church encourage us to remember those no longer with us through requiem prayers for their souls. It is often said that the greatest legacy is to be remembered. This is one way we honor those we love when they no longer have an earthly presence. They leave us gifts, books they wrote and pictures that were taken, but the most important inheritance is the memories woven into the fabric of our hearts. We remember to learn, to honor, to inspire, to love and to make our lives more whole. It is a very honorable cultural norm of our nation. Our responsibility is to bring the past forward and make it relevant to our present. When we look at remembering as an enabler for future identity, we truly learn the value of our “long and winding road.”