How many times have you thought about people older than you whose path you crossed but may not have fully appreciated their perspective at that time? You may have had great respect for them, but you simply could not grasp their depth until you were in their shoes. God has an answer for that void. It is called the wisdom of aging. I would like to convey one such experience in this journey we call our Armenian identity in the diaspora. My father Carnig was an active and respected member of the community. Other than professional relationships, his friendships were in the Armenian community. He was my mentor, and I followed his trusted footsteps into the Armenian world. As I began to find my way in my late teens and twenties, I became the beneficiary of the wisdom of many of his peers. One such encounter was with an iconic leader of the Providence community named Charles “Chick” Perethian. Everyone knew Chick, and he knew everyone. Chick was gifted with the type of personality that attracted friendships and trust. He had a network in the Armenian community that was unparalleled.
Our dear friend was the son of Genocide survivors and was raised in the Pawtucket community. He was a veteran parishioner of the Sts. Vartanantz Church in Providence. His dear wife Angel was the longtime administrator of the parish office primarily during the ministry of the iconic Der Mesrob Tashjian. I loved listening to Chick talk about his days in the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), the community challenges and particularly his love of the youth. During an Olympics dance or community event, our gang would be sitting together, and Chick would invariably stop at our table first and bark out his proverbial, “How are you doing, AYFers?” He was warm, sincere and full of wisdom. I would spend time talking with him at the dances, taking a break only for our traditional “brothers” haleh dance. Chick was a hardworking family man with the values of the greatest generation, who made his living as a leather goods salesman. He would travel around New England calling on footwear houses and serving accounts with leather products. Every month on the same day, Chick would be in the Springfield area and would come to my parents’ house for dinner. The day he visited was also my mother’s bowling league night, so she would prepare the dinner, stay for about half an hour and leave for the bowling alley. My father, Chick and I would enjoy dinner together and engage in intriguing Armenian political discussions well into the evening. I would marvel at the depth of knowledge of these two men and the brotherly respect they had for each other. Chick always asked the right questions and was sincerely interested in my thoughts and the work of the AYF at that time. He was a great sounding board for new ideas, and it gave me great comfort to know that these two patriots of the previous generation had our back. Those evenings together formulated a special relationship and made our social gatherings that much more impactful. Predictably at around 9 p.m., Chick would say he had to get on the road to attend the parish Board of Trustees meeting in Providence. When I would say to him that it was late, he would chuckle and respond, “The important issues are always at the end of the meeting.” With that, he would offer a farewell wave from his departing vehicle until the following month.
Their footprint in Armenian society is permanent.
During my youth, absorbing knowledge from individuals like Chick Perethian was always of paramount importance. Through our friendship, I began to comprehend the foundation of our community that we were inheriting. He was a generation older, but my comfort level with him made him more of a cool uncle. He represented a living example of the faith and heritage values that we received. He was a proud American and lived his life to advance our Armenian interests. They were representative of those who came before us and articulated in intimate detail how the AYF grew from the 30s to the 70s. These were men and women whose parents were survivors of the Genocide, were born into the Great Depression and went off to literally save the world from oppression at an age comparable to my own. They raised families and built many of the institutions we enjoy today. Their footprint in Armenian society is permanent. Of course, there were many who performed that task for our generation, but Chick was our guy and was always available to share his wisdom with us. As much as we think we had a full understanding of the interpersonal dynamics between our generations, it was not until we were in that role ourselves that we gained a true appreciation. This is the value of experience—memories and sustainable respect.
Many years ago, my father and mother explained to me that I will not understand their joy as grandparents until, God willing, we are blessed with this gift. Now that we are grandparents, I truly understand what my parents told me 30 years ago. It illustrates the importance of building relationships with the elder generation early, because in the absence of that initial relationship, the additional learning will not take place. That would be defined as a tragic lost opportunity. I am thankful that my parents, consistent with traditional Armenian family values, instilled in my sisters and I a deep respect for our elder generation. When our grandparents or others of their generation would visit our home, it was a clear expectation that we would display the respect and attention to them before excusing ourselves to act like kids with our cousins, or there would be a price to pay. It was never a problem because we adored the attention of our elders. I weep a bit when I see youth separated from elders because of geography or familial behavior. The mutual benefits to each generation are essential to fulfilling our potential.
It was this value established in my youth that created the opportunity for learning when my paths crossed with Chick Perethian. Though I loved the man dearly, I still did not have, as I look back, a full comprehension of what was driving his passion. We simply enjoyed it. We understood the side that displayed sincere interest in our needs as AYF members of that day and a common interest in engaging in the matters of Hai Tahd. What I did not understand at the time was the “rest of the story” that governed his joy. Chick was experiencing his youth in seeing us carry on the legacy of the AYF. Intellectually, in my 20s, I may have had a cursory understanding, but a full internalization did not happen until the generational role transition took place. We were providing him an opportunity to continue his value by receiving his wisdom. It was comforting for him to see the work that was such a significant part of his identity continued by those in the succeeding generation. It was a further confirmation that his path had been the correct one with the advocacy of a new generation. It provided an inner peace that we can appreciate only later in our lives. It is a latent gift that binds the generations with our common mission. I developed an even greater appreciation of the man and his peers so many years later. I have had similar feelings about our current youth the last few years. Whenever I or anyone from my generation are asked a question about our era or contemporary issues, it creates an instant bond that dismisses the generations and makes us all simply sons and daughters of the Armenian nation. It is a transformation that strengthens our community.
I taught Sunday school for many years at the high school level. Those former students are now adults and my peers as we share the responsibility of our faith and heritage. Life has a way of providing us with these new possibilities that are created out of the evolution of relationships. Students become peers, and mentors become brothers and sisters in a common purpose. These micro relationships and the depth of understanding that emerges from them are the essence of who we are as a community. Once the branches are defined at Junior Seminar, Olympics or Camp Haiastan, they sustain our growth for a lifetime as we can confirm through continuous joy in unpredictable ways. All of this is verification that our communities, our relationships and our participation are worthy of our investments. They pay bountiful returns and are able to sustain a sense of purpose. At the end of the day, if our intent on this earth is not to give to something greater, then what is the point? Tucked away in the seemingly endless capacity of our heart, we protect the memory of those who have been a part of our journey such as Unger Perethian. We are all better because of these people. If you are young, then identify those relationships and make the best of the opportunity. If you are older, please understand the importance of imparting your experience and knowledge. We have all been called to contribute to the continuity of our civilization. For that sacred responsibility, we must do our best to prepare for the task. Embrace knowledge. Protect the values of those who guided you. Take the time to inspire your children, and appreciate those who came before you.