whose strong character and unwavering faith in God brought her out of the terrors of the deportations and massacres and saved me from the fate of so many of my countrymen.
Siranoosh Lazian Tavookjian’s journey from her native Tokat to Fresno, California is a remarkable story of survival and the will to persevere.
The objective of the Turkish government to eliminate the Armenians from Asia Minor was accomplished with the utmost cruelty and savagery. Siranoosh was one of the few who survived the massacres and fortunate enough to arrive in the United States after years of privation and struggle. This story reaffirms the love of an Armenian mother for her child and the faith which she had for the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Narrated in Armenian by Siranoosh Tavookjian
English Translation by Bob Der Mugredechian
November 22, 1984
Centuries ago Armenia’s Western boundaries were adjacent to Cappadocia and Pontius. Tokat was located outside of Armenia in the eastern part of Pontius. However there was a substantial Armenian population there in those days.
The history of this region goes back to 4,000 BC. There is little written knowledge of the history until 2,000 BC. Since then its history is better known. Romans, Persians, Byzantines and others marched across its strategic location between Europe and Asia.
There is a huge fortress on the hill dominating the city of Tokat. Although it is in ruins, it is still a formidable structure.
Tokat is located about 60 air miles south of the Black Sea and 420 miles west of Mt. Ararat at an elevation of 1800 feet above sea level. This region covers about 7,000 square miles. It is surrounded by thickly forested mountains. The highest peak is 8,560 feet.
Many streams and rivulets join to form the Eerees River which flows westward just north of Tokat then turns northward and flows into the Black Sea.
The forests contain thick stands of oak, fir and other species of trees. Fox, rabbits, squirrels, partridges and all kinds of wild creatures inhabit this area. At the lower levels wild roses, jasmine, carnation and scores of different kinds of flowers abound.
The mountains are rich in minerals such as bronze, iron ore, aluminum, manganese, coal, granite, etc.
The mountain chain north of Tokat keeps the moist air from the Black Sea from reaching the interior. Rainfall is from 10-20 inches a year, mostly in April and May.
Winters are cold and damp with snowfall. Summers are hot and muggy with highest temperatures in July and August.
The rich volcanic soil coupled with the hot summer season produces bumper crops of apples, pears, almonds, grapes, tobacco, etc; also grains such as wheat, corn, millet.
Farm equipment and techniques, at the turn of the century, were very primitive. They had learned from experience, however, to let the soil rest for a year or two before planting crops again. They used ox manure to enrich the soil which produced fine quality vegetables.
Domestic animals on the farms were horses, cows, donkeys, oxen, sheep and goats. The nearby rivers were full of fish.
The region surrounding Tokat had over 200 villages. At the end of the 19th century there were 50,000 Armenians living in the greater Tokat area.
There were no doctors or hospitals in Tokat. Medical practices were crude, primitive and mostly home remedies handed down from one generation to another. Certain women, through personal experience or taught by others, found cures for certain illnesses through local herbs, weeds and plants.
A remedy for arthritis or muscular pain was the cure of “shoosha kashel.” A barber usually was called to make small incisions, “X”s, on the person’s back, with a sharp razor. Then small cups were swabbed with alcohol, the alcohol was ignited and the cup quickly placed over the incision. The heated air would cool down and contract, drawing blood out of the cuts. The tradition was to make only odd numbers of incisions and not even numbers; there is no explanation for this. Somehow it was adhered to very closely.
Another cure was the use of sooloogs (leeches) to draw blood from a person who had pneumonia. Sooloogs would be placed on a person’s back. The would attach themselves to the body and draw blood, expanding like a balloon. What this accomplished was unknown. The period of childbirth was a high risk time. Midwives usually attended but really couldn’t do much. They would lose a child or a mother or both. There being no caesarean section performed, childbirth became quite hazardous.
From HISTORY OF ARMENIANS OF YEVTOKIA by Arshag Alboyajian
Tokat was the whole world to me, a girl six years old, when it went topsy-turvy as the edict went out from the Turkish government to deport and destroy the Armenians in Asia Minor.
My native land was a broad valley green with orchards, vineyards and gardens. The surrounding mountains were thickly wooded and provided a cool haven during the hot and humid summers.
Tokat was the central city of the region. It had many Armenian Apostolic Churches and several Armenian Catholic and Protestant Churches. There were several monasteries there as well as a seminary of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Although many Armenians were farmers and lived in the villages, a large number lived in the city and were craftsmen, teachers, business men and professionals.
My mother, Yeranoohi, was born on May 15, 1882 in Bizari, a village about 30 miles north of Tokat. Her father Hagop and mother Marta Karnagelian were farmers. Yeranoohi worked on the farm with her family.
The government taxed the farmers by taking one-eighth of their crops and domestic animals.
The villages had no schools because of government suppression and poor economic conditions. Even if they did, girls were not permitted to go to school.
Hagop and Marta were not well-to-do. They had six children, 2 boys and 4 girls all of whom were killed during the massacres with the exception of Yeranoohi.
In the autumn the women spent most of their time preparing food for the long winters. They hung fresh grapes in cool pantries which remained relatively fresh and juicy through the winter months.
They cooked lamb and beef and put them in large crocks filled with their own fat. This was a very sensible way to preserve meat, which was very tasty and nourishing even after months of storage. Raisins and dried fruit would serve as delicacies with almonds, walnuts and sunflower seeds.
Life in the villages was very simple and not given to many pleasures. The primitive tools and equipment used made it difficult to sow, plant or harvest their crops. In the winter, when heavy snows made it impossible to work outdoors, the villagers would rest by remaining indoors.
Story telling was a favorite pastime. Generally one of the older men and women would spin yarns of old heroic deeds or fables of giants and devils.
The poorly educated villagers were quite superstitious and believed in good and bad omens. They were very pious and the faith of the Armenian Apostolic Church was very strong in their hearts and minds. If they or their forefathers had not had this faith, they would have been assimilated as Moslems long ago.
Marta died when Yeranoohi was six years old. Mother spent the next eleven years doing household chores and farm work. Yeranoohi was twelve years old when the first major massacres occurred in 1895-96.
The villagers abandoned their homes and farms and fled to the mountains. They remained there 3 weeks. When so called peace was declared, they returned to their homes. The ravaging Turks had killed those unfortunate enough to have stayed behind. The local townspeople had pillaged the homes and farms of the Armenians. Everything of value was taken: furniture, sheep, cattle, whatever could be moved. The homes were left in shambles. The patient and industrious Armenians had to renew their farms and rebuild their homes again.
At seventeen, Yeranoohi was betrothed to marry Ohan Lazian form the city. Her aunt, who acted as match-maker, made the arrangements since Yeranoohi did not have a mother.
Contrary to local customs where brides and grooms seldom see their future spouse until the engagement ceremony or even after, Yeranoohi knew her future husband. She had seen him beforehand.
Ohan had 3 brothers, Ohanes, Krikor and Levon. He was a shoemaker and made a modest living.
Mother was a deeply religious woman. She attended the Armenian Apostolic Church regularly. She also believed in education for her children. Ohan and Yeranoohi had 6 children all of whom died in infancy except a son Mushegh and me. I was born on May 15, 1906. Mother had enrolled me in kindergarten. Although I didn’t learn much there I enjoyed going to school and playing with the Armenian girls my age.
I was the apple of my father’s eye. I would sand by the door anxiously waiting for Father to come home. He usually brought me a small gift or something sweet to eat. Father would pick me up and carry me in his arms saying, “You are my pretty rose, I love you.” He would then set me down and call to Mother, “What is this delicious meal you have cooked? I could smell it four houses down the street!” It would make Mother happy that she could please her husband and he appreciated her efforts.
At the beginning of World War I, Turkey sided with Germany against the Allied Powers. On July 24, 1914 all Armenian men between the ages of 18 to 45 were called to serve in the army.
A year later on May 13, 1915 all the leaders of Tokat were arrested and put into jail. May 31, 1915 was the last Sunday before the exodus. The priests and ministers preached their last sermons. (It was literally and actually their last sermons as they were tortured to death.)
The Turks said, “This is not a war, this is a wedding. Since foreign nations are killing one another, we are going to kill our enemies (Armenians).”
They ransacked and looted all the stores and shops of the Armenians in the city.
June 3, 1915 began as a typical spring day. The rays of the sun first brightened the mountain tops then as the sun rose above the eastern peaks it flooded the valley with its warm rays. Soon the city was bright and ready to bring another day of activity in its streets and business area.
But something was wrong. The city was a ghost town. With the leaders of the city in jail and their stores and shops in ruins the populace didn’t dare venture out of their homes.
Everyone was barricaded in his home, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. The Armenians fearfully prayed for their lives and the safety of their homes.
Suddenly at high noon, June 3, 1915 the storm began. Turkish soldiers, on foot and horseback, surrounded the city. They marched into Armenian quarters and began to call for all the men from 20 to 45 years of age to come out.
Since no one volunteered to come out they began to break down the doors to search the houses.
Several soldiers approached our house and knocked on the door. Mother and Father heard the commotion in the street and the blows on the door. Father said, “Our turn has come. The godless ones are here to destroy us.” Mother clung to him saying, “Don’t open the door. We will be safe here.” Father turned to her and said “If I don’t open the door they will set fire to the house and we will all die. It’s best I open the door and face them alone.”
Father opened the door. Immediately two ferocious Turks grabbed him saying, “Giavoor, you are going with us.” He was pulled from the doorway and shoved into the street. Several of his neighbors were already huddled together, cowering from the vicious blows on their heads. One was holding his hand to his face, his nose smashed in, blood gushing out. Men were being dragged out of their homes on both sides of the street. The air was filled with curses and shouting. Women were wailing and screaming in the doorways and windows.
Mother closed the door. She sank to the floor in anguish and despair. “What is happening? What are they going to do to my husband?” Tears and prayers were of no avail. Finally drained of emotion and exhausted from weeping she sat dazedly on the floor pounding her knees with her hands, lurching back and forth. Her prayers were not answered. She never saw Father again.
After they had taken the men they came after the boys 14 to 20 years of age. They rounded them up and took them away.
Word began to come through as to what had happened to the men and boys. They had been tied together, several hundred of them, and marched to deep ravines. There they had been savagely attacked with swords, rifle butts and heavy clubs and dropped into the chasm, bleeding, broken, dead or dying. Several had escaped the slaughter by remaining hidden under the bloody, distorted dead bodies until nightfall and managed to return to town.
My father, Ohan, and his 2 brothers were among the victims. My uncles, my Mother’s brothers, were among the youth who perished also.
The cunning, treacherous Turks had put out the call for all weapons to be turned in to the government, with the promise that there would be no reprisal, only peace. After collecting the weapons they then said, “See? The Armenians are armed to revolt against the Turks.”
The Armenian woman had barricaded themselves and their families behind closed doors, seeking the safety of their homes. I asked Mother, “Mama, where is Father?” She couldn’t answer. She just stared out the window, her eyes too dry to cry. I was too young to understand what was going on but I felt something was wrong. I missed my father very much. Then when the women and children were told to leave their homes, there was more confusion, tears and lamenting. The women had lost their husbands, fathers and sons, now they were being torn from their ancestral homes.
Earlier they had taken my grandmother, my father’s mother. Mother didn’t want to be separated from her mother-in-law so we went to join her. All that was left of our family were grandmother, Mother, my 2 year old brother Mushegh and me. We were herded into a large armory. We stayed there several days.
The armory was a miserable place crammed with women and children. There were no beds or bedding. We slept on the floor like dogs. They didn’t give us any food. Whatever some of the people ate was what they had carried with them from their homes. There were no rest rooms. There was only a designated area outdoors which was abominable. Within the armory the stench of unclean bodies, infants urinating on themselves and on the floor and the general lack of sanitation was like hell itself.
One morning they removed us from the armory, put us on ox-carts and took us a day’s journey away. They let us off then returned to town. From there on we were forced to walk. Now there were several hundred of us. Grandma plodded along as well as she could. Mother was strong and determined. She carried Mushegh as I tagged along. There wasn’t much conversation among the people. They were in shock from the loss of their loved ones and the blow of losing their homes.
I was wondering in my young mind what this was all about. I asked Mother, “Mama, where are we going?” She replied, “My child, I don’t know either.” We silently continued our sad exodus, not knowing where we were going or what was going to happen to us.
As we approached a village the gendarmes from there would come and relieve the gendarmes who were with us, who then turned back to their own villages. In this way there were always soldiers watching us and guiding us away from the main roads. Just as a shepherd has his dogs herding his flock by charging from left and right and to the rear so none would stray away, so the gendarmes would ride ahead to the sides and to the rear. If someone strayed away they would whip them back into place. Those who fell would be left where they were. Woe to the person who tried to help the fallen. Both would be struck down permanently. We were kept away from the main roads so the local population would not see what was happening to the miserable Armenians.
As we plodded along Kurds and Turks would raid our group, stealing anything of value: clothes, shoes, or money if we had any. They would grab the prettiest girls and young women and carry them off for their wives or harems. The depraved savages would rape those who resisted or dismember them with their swords. The boys they would also steal to convert them into Moslems or sell as slaves.
One of the soldiers was acquainted with my mother, having been from the same village of Bizari. He advised Mother to stay in the middle of the group. He told her, “Don’t go to the head, rear or sides of the throng. Your daughter is more likely to be snatched from there.” Mother heeded his warning. She also kept my face and hair as dirty as possible to make me undesirable to the marauding Turks and Kurds.
After the first few days I became very hungry. “Mama,” I said, “I’m hungry, when are we going to eat?” Mother said, “Dear, we are out of food, perhaps I can buy some bread at the next village.”
At sundown the gendarmes would stop us. We had no food to satisfy our hunger. We had no fuel to make a fire to keep warm. Without bedding or blankets we huddled together, like bees bunched up on a limb. We just lay on the open ground under the cold, dark sky shivering ourselves to merciful sleep from the agony of our hungry bellies and aching exhausted bodies.
The gendarmes would rouse us up before sunrise and push us on. It was early summer. The days were getting hotter. Some of the early fruits were ripening along the way. Some of the women would dare to sneak away from the group to pick apricots or plums. Anything to fill their shrunken stomachs. The soldiers would swoop down on them on horseback and whip them back. The merciless soldiers wouldn’t let the people even eat a little fruit to appease their hunger.
As the days wore on the villages became further and further apart. The farms and orchards turned to rocky mountain passes, swamps and sandy plains. The hot sun bore down on the poor wretches, burning their skin and scorching their bare feet on the sands.
Grandma was getting weak from hunger and exposure. She kept praying for help, but none came. Mushegh kept crying. Mother couldn’t soothe him. He was heavy in her arms. “Mama, I’m tired, when are we going to rest?” I asked. “Have patience, just a little more,” Mother replied. “We should be reaching another village soon.”
As we struggled along we came upon a horrible sight. There were bodies of women and children who had fallen from starvation and disease from previous marches. So we weren’t the only ones going to our deaths in this slow and agonizing way. The bodies had been stripped of clothing, only rags remained. Hungry wild dogs had ripped the corpses into hideous forms. Some of the bodies were bloated from the heat of the sun. The stench from the decaying flesh was awful. We covered our mouths and noses as we went shuddering by.
That first scene so etched itself on my tender mind that to this day I vividly recall the scene as if it had just happened.
We finally reached Kirkgoz (Turkish for forty eyes), a small village backed up against a wide river. There was a large bridge crossing it. Here they let us rest. We were tired, hungry and could barely walk on our bare swollen feet. We fell to the ground. Mother said, “This is a good chance to go to the village to buy some bread.” She returned empty-handed. The poverty stricken desert village had none to spare.
Grandma had asthma. She had trouble breathing. She couldn’t walk anymore. She wanted to ride. “I can’t walk anymore Yeranoohi, tell them to bring me a horse or a donkey for Grandma.” The gendarme said to her, “You take your children and go on. She is old. Sooner or later she will fall along the way. No use wasting a horse on her.” Mother returned to my grandmother and told her that the gendarme had said that we should go on, that he would do something for her later.
Grandma began to cry. “I know that they are going to leave me here,” she said. These words tore at Mother’s heart, knowing the truth in them. She knew that this was the last time we would see Grandma. Years later when she would relate this episode to me and my children she would cry like it was just occurring.
I missed my grandmother very much and did not wish to leave her behind. Mother said, “My daughter, we must go on. We can’t stay here or we will die like her.” We sadly joined our ever dwindling group.
Kirkgoz was Grandma’s last resting place. How she died, what became of her body, we shall never know. There is no grave or headstone to mark the site. Another one of the thousands of tragedies of the massacres.
The old, the very young and the sick couldn’t withstand the hardships we were exposed to. They fell like autumn leaves. Mothers would leave their infant children near a rock or a dry tree stump to die when they could no longer nurse them from their dried-up breasts. One episode that I shall never forget was when a young emaciated mother left her toddler son to die. The terrified child ran screaming after her, not wanting to be left behind.
On a hot afternoon we reached the Euphrates River. We stared at the grey rushing water and wondered what they were going to do with us here. Some of the young women and older girls threw themselves into the river to get away from the rapacious savages along the way.
Mushegh was whimpering. There was no consoling him. My bare feet were torn and bleeding. The huge “dava chokeran” stickers, that even disabled camels, had shredded my feet. Mother washed my feet in the river water, then fashioned some rags into bandages to ease the pain.
We had been walking through an arid region littered with decaying corpses, bones, rotting flesh and rags mixed with sand and debris. We waited in a daze for further orders.
A crude raft, made of huge, rough logs lashed together with ropes, was floating away from the shore. The gendarmes said we must get in the water to get on board. Mother waded through the muddy swirling waters shouldering Mushegh to the raft. She then returned for me and carried me safely on board. By then she was exhausted and couldn’t pull herself up on the crowded raft. She was left to drown. Fortunately she was able to grasp a short piece of loose rope hanging from the side of the raft. She hung on for dear life. Half floating, half being dragged along, she reached the safety of the opposite shore.
After the crossing we continued to walk. It was the same thing again; hot sand, stickers, bleeding feet. No food nor water in this no man’s land. The group had shrunk to less than one hundred people.
Three hundred miles and 3 months later, after what seemed like an eternity, we reached Soorooj, a town in Turkish territory, a day’s journey from Urfa. We rested there a few days, begging for food from the inhabitants. We were more fortunate than the deportees who had been sent to their deaths on the desert sands of Deir-el-Zor.
A small river ran behind the town. Soorooj had a population of about 1,000 people. It was a typical desert town with flat roofed mud huts. The business district was about two blocks long. There were a few trees along the river but not much vegetation otherwise. The dusty streets were deserted except for several bony dogs and two old men smoking their gargle (water pipes) at the door to a run-down cafe.
A Turkish soldier came to our ragged group and said, “From now on there will be no more killing or looting. We have orders not to harass or harm you.” We were each given a small piece of black bread.
Soon the native Turkish women came and were looking over the young girls to take to their homes. One came to Mother and asked if she could take me and keep me as her own. She said, “You may come and visit her any time you like.” Mother was ill, starved and worried about my little brother who was also sick. She was too weak to think of taking care of me. She knew she couldn’t provide for me any longer so she weakly said, “All right, you may take her.”
I was too weak to complain or resist, so I meekly obeyed. The woman took me by the hand and we walked away. I turned and looked at Mother crouched on the sand crying. I wondered if I would ever see her again.
The woman led me along several narrow streets to a white-washed mud house. It was larger than the small unkept houses nearby. She knocked on the door. In a moment a woman (her sister-in-law) opened the door and let us in. The women spoke rapidly in Turkish to each other, then the first woman took me to a room in which there was a large tub. She removed my clothes (which were really filthy rags) and holding her nose carried them out to the courtyard in the rear of the house. She told me to get into the tub. Picking up a jug of water she began to wash off the layers of dirt and filth that had accumulated over the past several months. She scrubbed and scrubbed until the flesh of my scrawny body turned pink. The water in the tub was black. The astonished woman muttered in Turkish, “I didn’t think you were such a pretty girl when I first saw you. Just look at you!”
After bathing me she dried me off with a huge towel. Then she dressed me in new underwear and a pretty dress. Oh, I felt good! The vigorous scrubbing made my whole body tingle.
Soon it was supper time. The family members came in to eat. There were two older brothers and their wives and their four children, a young man of seventeen who was a student and the old lady of the house. They saw the new addition to their family. The meal was simple: some cheese, pocket bread, madzoon (yogurt) and coffee. I couldn’t eat much. My shrunken stomach had not had a decent meal since we left Tokat months ago.
Later the woman showed me a mat in the corner of one of the rooms. She said, “This is your bed.” It felt soft and so comfortable after having slept on the bare ground so long.
The old lady, the matriarch of the house, had a deeply lined but kindly face. She took a liking to me. Every morning she would comb my hair and for some reason she would stare at my face. At that time my hair was full of fleas and my eyes shut from a local disease prevalent during the heat of summer. They said that in the winter it would get better. They took me to a woman to cure the malady. She told me to lie down. Then she turned my eyelids inside out and rubbed the inside with a thimble and some blue powder. The old lady then led me home with my eyes closed. I was in such pain I couldn’t sleep that night. In addition to that the fleas were causing a serious problem. The old lady decided to have my hair cut, shaved off. I sat on a stool. Someone, I don’t recall who, began to cut my hair. It was so thick with fleas that the clipper had trouble cutting through. They finally had to shave my head with a straight edge razor. After shaving my head they gave me a cap to wear. When we returned home and they took my cap off it was full of fleas. They hadn’t seen such a serious case of fleas before.
The young women were not permitted to go to town so the old lady or a little boy, her grandson, would lead me around.
Days passed. I began to feel better. A few weeks later Mother came for a visit. My eyes were still covered. I couldn’t see but I could hear what they were saying. Mother was telling the woman that a few days after I was taken away Mushegh had died. She said there was no one to bury the child. Someone had said, “Drag him away and bury him.” So Mother and another woman had dragged the body off to one side. They had scooped up some dirt with their bare hands making a shallow grave, then threw the dirt back, covering the body. In the morning they found the mutilated body, uncovered by marauding dogs, lying near the grave.
Mother left the house. Then she returned a week later to reclaim me since she had been told that she would be moved to another village. She thought that the people caring for me were decent people and would let me go back to her. It didn’t occur to her that they wouldn’t let me go to Mother. They said, “What are you going to do with the girl? Are you going to let her beg in the streets? She is barely recovering from her ailments.”
Mother went away dejected. A week passed. It was the last day that Mother was to be in the village before being sent away. She came one more time to claim me.
When Mother knocked on the door one of the brothers came out with his wife and sister-in-law. One of the women said, “Go away, there is no such girl here.” My eyes were still covered but I could hear them telling Mother to leave and stay away.
Mother left and did not return again. She was taken to Noozub (Nizip) then transferred to Birecik. She stayed in that village over a year.
The village chiefs distributed the Armenian refugees among the villages, five, ten or twelve, depending on the size of the village. Time went by. In the winter my eyes would open then shut again during the summer. The same happened to the natives but mine was more serious and painful.
The mukhtar (village chief) noticed that Mother cried a lot. She couldn’t contain her grief. He asked her, “What is the matter? Why do you cry so much?” She replied, “I have a daughter in the village of Soorooj. They won’t let me have her back.” The mukhtar said, “You can’t go there now but if you will wait until the fighting is over and there is peace in the country then we can do something. When things quiet down I will find the right person to go there with you, then you may go.”
Of the ten women who had been sent to Birecik only two survived, Mother and another woman. They had been living in a grain storage pit, sleeping on straw. They literally starved to death.
After the encounter with the mukhtar, Mother went to live in his house. She did laundry, house cleaning and other household chores. The other woman was sent to live in another house.
Time passed. One day the mukhtar told Mother that in one week a caravan was going to pass through Birecik and on to Soorooj. “I will send you with them,” he said.
When the caravan came Mother joined it for the journey to Soorooj. It was the rainy season. They had a difficult time slogging through the mud. Mother had no wet weather clothing or overshoes. She was wet and cold and caked with mud. Finally the rain stopped and the caravan rested and tried to clean up a little. There were several women in the group. One of the women asked Mother, “We have husbands in Soorooj, why are you going?” Mother replied, “I have a daughter there I want to see. They have taken her away from me. I don’t know the name of the family,” she continued, “but I know the house where they live.” Mother described me to the people gathered around her. “My daughter is a little girl with light complexion and curly blond hair.” One of the men nearby said, “Your daughter is alive. I have seen her. She lives with Haji Kamilar.”
Mother’s heart began to pound. She hadn’t had a happy moment in years. Her many prayers were finally going to be answered.
The caravan moved on. At last they reached Soorooj. The man who had spoken to her earlier advised Mother to go directly to the house to see her daughter. “Don’t waste time trying to dry your clothes to try to rest at Khatma Hanum’s house where you are to stay.” Mother did as the man advised. She went directly to the house where she had last seen me. The family with whom I lived had moved three times since Mother had left Soorooj several years ago. There was no one home. Mother went to a small grassy area under some scrawny trees. Overcome with grief she began to cry. Several women approached her and asked her why she was crying. Mother said, “I have a daughter who was living in that house over there, but there is no one there now.” One of the women said, “Oh, the family she is living with has moved to a house near the business district. I’ll show you where they live.”
It was late afternoon. Mother and the woman reached the house and knocked on the door. A young man opened the door. Mother said, “We have come to see my daughter.” The man grabbed Mother’s arm and shoved her roughly away from the door. “How do we know you are her mother? Everyone comes here claiming her. Go away.” Mother was so shocked and hurt by his rude behavior she was unable to respond. She returned to Khatma Hanum’s house in despair.
Khatma Hanum noticed the tears streaming from Mother’s eyes and asked her why she was crying. Mother said, “They beat me and shoved me away. They said I have no daughter there.” This infuriated Khatma Hanum. She grabbed a boorooj (a sheet-like garment used by Moslem women to cover the head, face and body when in public) and rushed out of the house. Taking Mother with her they walked briskly to Haji Kamilar’s house. Khatma Hanum was acquainted with the Haji Kamilar family. Upon reaching the house she knocked vigorously on the door. The door opened. Khatma Hanum charged in with Mother trailing behind her. The Kamilar brothers and their wives were seated on the floor on mindars (cushions). They looked up in surprise. Khatma Hanum lit right into them. “Don’t you have any compassion? Haven’t you any feelings? The poor woman walked all the way to Soorooj to see her daughter and you treat her like this? What kind of people are you?”
One of the women got up and said, “Oh, Khatma Hanum, we didn’t know this woman was the mother of the girl. Others came and said, ‘This is our daughter!’ We had to be careful so she wouldn’t fall into the hands of strangers.”
I was sitting on a mindar in the corner listening to what was being said. I guess it must have been four or five years since I had seen my Mother. As I looked at the woman, something snapped inside. My mother’s face looked familiar. Then slowly, long forgotten memories began to become clearer as I gazed at her face. I was naive and obedient to my elders so I didn’t show any emotion or say anything.
The women conversed for a few minutes. It was getting dark. They said goodbye and departed. My foster family told me that I must not speak in Armenian, which I didn’t know very well anyway, but I must speak in Turkish to my mother. I guess they wanted to understand any conversation my mother and I would have.
More than a week passed before Mother came again. This time she was told that she could come as often as she pleased. Mother began to come quite frequently. After staying in Soorooj for a month Mother wanted to return to her own village, Birecik. She decided to see me one more time before she left. After that last visit she was to leave the next day.
The old lady at Haji Kamilar’s house liked my mother. She said, “Yeranoohi is a nice woman. Let her come and become my maid.” Mother was already on her way to Birecik. Someone was sent after her to relay the message that the old lady had sent. Mother was quite relieved and eagerly returned to Soorooj. I didn’t know about the arrangement. Mother came and did her housework each day then returned to Khatma Hanum’s house in the evening. She did this for six months.
My foster family used to ask me if I wanted to go with that woman (my mother). They would say, “She is your mother.” I would say, “No, I do not.” I really didn’t know whether I wanted to go or not.
Soon the day arrived when my mother and I were to appear before the magistrate who was going to decide with whom I was going to live, my mother or the Haji Kamilars. My foster family felt secure that I would not seek my natural parent, but that I would remain with them.
My mother, the Haji Kamilars and I went before the magistrate. The small office didn’t have any furniture except a table and the chair on which the magistrate was sitting. We all stood before him as he recited some laws pertaining to family relations. Then he motioned for me to come forward near the table. I looked up at the Kamilars and they motioned that it was alright. I timidly stepped up to the table and stood before the magistrate. He said, “My daughter, the fighting is over. There is freedom in the land.” Then continuing he asked, “Who is this woman?” Barely audible, I replied, “She is my mother.” The Kamilars were dumbfounded. The magistrate looked at me and said, “You are free now to go to your mother.” Mother began to cry but this time for joy and the justice was done. After that decision Mother waited six more months during which time she visited me only two or three times. She didn’t want to disturb the decision to set me free and antagonize the Haji Kamilars.
The day arrived for me to leave. Mother came to the house with a gendarme to enforce the decision to set me free. The Armenian girls that were married and had children were not permitted to go where they pleased but the unmarried girls by law were free to go, that is why the gendarme came along to guarantee my freedom.
The old lady at Haji Kamilar’s house who took such a liking to me and fussed over me had died a year earlier. I kind of missed her. But I was glad to be with my mother. The rest of the family were unhappy to see me go but they wished me well as I took my mother’s hand and stepped out the door.
Most of the population of Soorooj were Turks. There were quite a few Arabs living there also. Many of the Arabs were from Urfa and were well-to-do. The young men in Turkey were required to serve in the army for a year. If the family had money they could pay the government and their sons would not have to serve. None of the young men in this village were compelled to join the army as they had the means to pay off the government. Armenian girls who lived with Arabs had tattoos on their arms and faces.
After thanking Khatma Hanum for her help and hospitality we said goodbye. Mother and I left Soorooj for another village where there was a railroad. From there the train was to take us out of the desert village to Aleppo.
The railroad was a crude primitive line with World War I type cars. We didn’t see any passenger coaches. The car we boarded was a small freight car on which sheep, goats, drums of kerosene, and crates of all sizes and shapes were hauled. We huddled in one corner among some sacks of grain. Other passengers had their goats and small children with them. They were sitting wherever they could find space. The car lurched and swayed along the rough track. The odd looking steam engine puffed along belching black smoke from its smokestack.
It was a strange and scary ride. I clung to Mother. The shrill whistle was a very unusual sound to our ears. We had never heard such a thing before. Despite the rough ride it was a pleasure compared to the perilous tragic march we had endured some years earlier.
Soon we left the open desert and began to pass through orchards, vineyards and green fields. Finally the train reduced its speed as it approached Aleppo.
Aleppo was a large city by our standards. It is situated in an open plain about 3,000 feet above sea level. The railroad station was a bedlam of Turks, Arabs, Kurds, goats, boxes, sacks and bundles. Mother got off the car and carried me down. My legs were cramped from sitting in one position so long. It felt good to stretch my legs and walk around.
Mother asked some people if they knew any Armenians in town. Finally a man directed us to a family he knew. We found that there were twelve Tokatsis in Aleppo. We rented a room in a house with the rest of the Tokatsis. We had no bedding or blankets. We had no extra clothing. We just slept on the floor lying end to end packed like sardines. We lived here for four years. Mother did odd jobs to keep us in bread and rent money.
In Aleppo there was a large two story armory. We lived there for about five months. While living there fellow refugees asked my mother why she didn’t place me in an orphanage. Mother didn’t want to be separated from me again. Mother sued to break rocks at the rear of the armory. I used to take a hammer and tried to help her. They gave us a piece of dry bread in payment. Later a woman acquaintance asked my mother if she and I would like to come and live with her. It was crowded in the armory. There was no privacy so we decided to move in with the woman. She was from Tokat. She had three small sons and lived in the basement of a wrecked house. It wasn’t much of a home but it offered more privacy and we liked that. We lived there among the debris for several months.
One day Mother came home and said that a nun had said that if I came and acted as a doorman they would give me something to eat and teach me to read and write. I became real excited. I couldn’t wait to start my lessons. Lying on the straw on the floor I was happier than I had been for a long time.
In the morning we had our breakfast of olives, a slice of bread and tea. I put on my best dress (my only dress). Mother combed my hair then she took me to school. I was to open the door each time someone knocked. It was a huge “dutch door” to a building built for safety from vandals and intruders. They kept me so busy opening the door that I didn’t have time to study. I didn’t learn a thing there.
There were black British soldiers in Aleppo. They were very courteous and helpful. Later the British were transferred and French soldiers came and occupied the city.
There was a Tokatsi man in Aleppo who had emigrated from Tokat 50 years earlier. He had a factory which manufactured yazmas (bandana like kerchiefs). I worked for him at his plant for a while.
After a year Mother decided to leave Aleppo. We moved to Beirut. Up to that time I didn’t know the months of the year or what year it was.
An Armenian woman asked me if I knew what year it was. I said, “No.” She said, “It is 1919.” She didn’t say the month. It was sometime in the spring.
Mother wanted very much for me to go to school. There were no Armenian schools. The church schools had all been wrecked. A few years later the Armenian population began to grow. They built a church on the site of the rubble of the old church. They also built classrooms for an Armenian school.
In the fall they announced that everyone who had children or grandchildren is invited to enroll them in school. Mother sent me to register. The registrar asked me if I had the toshag (stipend). I asked, “What is toshag?” She said, “Money. We need one red gold piece for you to register.” I said, “My mother doesn’t have any money.” She said, “Go home to your mother and tell her what I have said.” I returned home and told Mother what the registrar had told me. Mother said, “I don’t have any money.” My poor mother barely eked out a living working in a laundry. She worked for a woman who hired other women to wash sheets, pillowcases and towels from ships coming into port. She received ten cents a day for her labor. Mother paid rent for her room but the landlord felt sorry for me, a young girl, and did not charge room rent for me.
The next day the women we lived with went to talk to the school officials to get permission for me to enter school. The women were told to contact fellow Tokatsis or other compatriotic organizations for assistance. The women said they were newly arrived refugees and had no group or organization. There were only a dozen or so Tokatsis in Beirut. The women asked, “How come you don’t help her in this case?” The officials said, “Get help from the Armenian Red Cross, the Armenian General Benevolent Union or other such organizations.” No one offered to help. I was unable to attend school.
Mother left the laundry job and got work as a maid cleaning house for a Jewish family. She went each morning and returned in the evening. They had a daughter who was a school teacher. Mother related our situation to her employer. They said, “We’ll see what we can do.” The next day their daughter took me to school. It was a non-Armenian school. They gave two lessons. Arabic in the morning and French in the afternoon. The Jewish girl taught French. There were only a few months left in the school term so I really didn’t learn very much. The next term I was to go to school but the Jewish girl had been transferred to Paris. So I was left without schooling again.
Mother’s acquaintances suggested that she take me to an orphanage, perhaps I could learn something there. Mother took me and signed me in and left. The place was a very unwholesome place, filth and disease everywhere. I cried for two weeks, day and night. I wanted to get out of the orphanage. One day Mother came to visit me. She saw my tears and asked, “What is it you want, my daughter?” I replied, “I don’t want to stay here any longer. Do whatever you want but I won’t stay here.” Mother looked around and understood. We went home.
The years were going by. My future husband’s (Garabed Charlie Tavookjian’s) sister, Mary and sister-in-law Iskoohi survived the massacres and had been in an orphanage. Mary was asked if she had any relatives in the United States. She said, “I have a brother in California.” A letter was written to Charlie in Fresno in care of the local Armenian newspaper, Asbarez or Mushag. It was published with the hope that someone who knew Charlie would read it and tell him about his sister. Sure enough, someone read the letter and asked Charlie if he had a sister. “Yes,” he said, “but I don’t know where she is.” The reader told Charlie, “A Mary Tavjookjian wrote to the newspaper here. Says she has a brother Charlie here.” Charlie couldn’t believe what he heard. He wrote to Beirut and asked for a picture of Mary. Weeks went by. Finally, a letter came to Charlie with a photograph of Mary. It was his sister Mary, just as he remembered her. Charlie and Mary looked alike.
Mary and her sister-in-law Iskoohi wanted to go to the United States. Mary was able to go but Iskoohi was not permitted to enter because she couldn’t read or write. Mary had gone to school and could read and write. Charlie sent money and arranged to bring Mary to California. Here she married Asadoor Boghosian and settled in Fresno.
The months went by. Charlie wrote to Tokatsis in Beirut for a Tokatsi girl in marriage. The Tokatsi women suggested to Mother that I should go. Mother did not want to be separated from me again so she refused. The women then sent a picture of another girl. The girl whose picture was sent to Charlie had been taken by the Arabs. She had tattoo marks on her face and arms. Charlie didn’t approve of the girl saying the tattoo marks didn’t look good in this country.
Mother was eventually induced to send a picture of me. They took me to a photographer. I didn’t know what was going on. My picture was sent to Charlie in California. Months went by. Finally word came back. “I’ll take the girl,” wrote Charlie. His approval was accepted by Mother. They relayed this information to Charlie. Charlie immediately sent $300 and wrote, “Buy something as an engagement present for the girl.”
They had odd customs in those days. Without my knowledge or consent the michnort (matchmaker) bought a cross and gold gloves for me. She said, “I have brought you some things.” Then I understood what all the pictures and letters were about.
Mother was resigned to my leaving. I was apprehensive of the developments and what I was getting into. It finally dawned on me that I was not dreaming. This was the real thing. I was to go to California without my mother. I didn’t want to be separated from Mother to marry a stranger in a strange land. However I resigned myself to my fate. I had been taught to obey my elders, I knew no other way.
I left Beirut in October of 1924, just 60 years from this writing. Mother tearfully kissed me goodbye. I said, “Mama, I don’t want to leave you.” She said, “Everything will be alright. Some day we will be together again.” I waved to her from the deck as the ship pulled slowly away from the wharf.
The ship began to shudder as the throbbing engines began to turn the propellers faster and faster. The water turned white and left an ever widening wake as the ship steamed further and further from the port. Finally I lost sight of the city.
The ship stopped at several ports along the way. It didn’t seem to be in a hurry. The Mediterranean Sea was calm and had a soothing effect on me. I liked the peaceful waters. The ship reached Marseilles in early November. I remained in Marseilles for a week to get my visa to go to Cuba. I couldn’t get one in Beirut. Then I took the train for Paris. The French railway was very nice. The passenger cars were clean. The mohair seats were soft and comfortable. One thing that impressed me was the warm air coming through the vents to heat the car. This was my first experience with this kind of heating.
I marvelled at the beautiful mountains covered with thick forests, the orderly farms in a variety of geometric patterns, yellow grain fields, green pastures and orchards of apples, pears and other fruit.
For a while I forgot my fears and enjoyed this beautiful country that differed so much from the dry and dirty places I had lived in. As the sun set and darkness settled over the countryside, I pulled down the shade by my seat and shut my eyes to get some sleep. Soon the steady clicking of the wheels on the rails and the gentle swaying of the cars lulled me to sleep. When I awoke the train was pulling into Paris. After a short stopover I took another train and rode on into the port city of Le Havre.
I had to remain in Le Havre a week waiting for the ship to arrive on which I was to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Cuba. When the ship arrived workers swarmed all over it loading and unloading cargo, mail and provisions for the passengers. I was shown to my cabin. It was below deck and near the water line. One blessing for me during the trip was that there were four of us Armenian girls from Beirut assigned to the same cabin. At last I had someone to talk to in Armenian.
All of us girls were seasick during the entire crossing of the Atlantic. For two weeks we were unable to eat a decent meal. One of the girls had brought some bread, lemons and garlic aboard and that’s all we were able to eat.
In Le Havre we had met a married Armenian man. We didn’t see him at all on board ship.
When we arrived at Havana, Cuba some of the passengers got off. The ship remained there for two days unloading and loading cargo. While we were resting on board the ship the Armenian man we had met in Le Havre encountered us. He was going to Vera Cruz, Mexico just as I was. He asked me, “Where are you going?” I replied, “Vera Cruz. I’m to meet someone there and marry him in Vera Cruz then go on to Fresno, California.” He asked, “Do you have a picture of the man you are going to marry?” I said, “Yes, here it is.” He took the picture, looked at it, and exclaimed, “my goodness! This is Charlie, Charlie Tavjookjian. I know him. I met him when I was in Fresno.” This man’s name was Charlie also, Charlie Nalbandian, a Kharpertsi. He had lived in Fresno and knew Tavookjian. He had returned to Beirut to find someone to marry. He was returning to Fresno with his wife. She was a sweet woman with whom I got along very well. I felt better now that I had such good traveling companions.
The ship steamed out of Havana and headed for Vera Cruz. As it was nearing the port, Mr. Nalbandian and his wife dressed to disembark. I didn’t have anything to dress up with.
We were on deck by the rail. Charlie Nalbandian asked, “Have you seen Charlie yet?” “No,” I replied, “I haven’t seen anyone who looks like the picture.” Mr. Nalbandian was a comical man. He saw Charlie standing on the wharf and recognized him. “Charlie,” he shouted, “Here is your bride.” Charlie Tavjookjian was an exuberant fellow. He shouted back, “Verch a bes” (at last). We walked down the gangplank. I was in a sweat. My knees felt like they were going to buckle. All kinds of thoughts raced through my mind. “Where am I? What am I doing here? Am I making a mistake? I wish Mother were here!” Mrs. Nalbandian sensed my anxiety and slipped her hand into my perspiring hand and said, “Amen pan lav gula Siranoosh,” (everything will be all right).
We reached the end of the gangplank. The two Charlies greeted one another with exuberant Armenian bear hugs. Then Charlie Tavjookjian looked at me lovingly and said, “Paree yegar, Siranoosh.” I looked at him shyly then lowered my eyes and said, “Parev.”
We stood awkwardly for a moment. Then Nalbandian said, “I’m hungry. Let’s find a good place to eat then check in at the hotel.” We found a cheery little Mexican restaurant near the waterfront. The two Charlies couldn’t stop talking. Nalbandian asked Charlie, “Why didn’t you do as I did? I went back and chose my own bride.” Charlie replied, “I didn’t have that kind of money. I don’t have a high paying job.” Nalbandian said, “Let’s check in at the hotel for a restful night. Tomorrow will be a big day for you two.”
We checked in at the hotel. A marashtsi family lived there. The man was an employee and also helped Armenians passing through with their travel and lodging problems. The two men stayed in one room while Mrs. Nalbandian and I stayed in another.
The next morning we went to the justice of the peace to get married. The justice noticed that my age was given as sixteen on the passport. He said, “I can’t perform the marriage ceremony. Mexican law requires you to be eighteen years of age to marry.”
Charlie was speechless. I didn’t know the exact year in which I was born. My mother was not certain either. All she knew was I was born in May and that’s all she remembered. The records in Tokat were probably destroyed.
Charlie finally gathered his wits together and explained the circumstances of my birth, my being uprooted from my home and my experiences since then. The justice was finally convinced. We were married on the 27 of November 1924. After the ceremony we returned to the hotel to prepare to go to Juarez and the United States.
Our troubles were not over yet. On reaching Juarez we went to the immigration office to get the paper work in order so we could enter the United States. The immigration officers told Charlie that he could enter but I could not. Charlie was exasperated. “What do you mean? I’m an American citizen. She can come with me.” The officer said, “When you marry in Mexico, even though one of the spouses is an American citizen, the other spouse must remain in Mexico for two years to meet immigration quotas.”
Charlie fumed. He was an American citizen, a veteran of World War I. Born in Tokat in 1890 he had come to the United States earlier and lived in Fresno for several years. He hoped to earn money and bring his parents and family in Tokat to California. He knew the problem in his native land. He wanted to rescue his loved ones from the fate that befell all those who remained there. His parents wrote back that they were too old to make a move to a foreign land. They perished like the others who did not leave soon enough.
In Fresno Charlie had been advised that as an American citizen he could marry in Mexico and bring his bride to the United States with him. That was the wrong advice or the laws had been changed. It didn’t work. One alternative was to go to Cuba and enter the United States from there as there were no quotas or waiting periods there.
There was much correspondence between El Paso and Washington D.C. trying to get the necessary papers processed to go to Cuba and enter from there. Charlie was running out of money. He had brought only enough money to get married and return immediately to Fresno. This long delay had cost him more than he had planned for. Since our marriage in November we spent the entire winter of 1924-1925 in Juarez. I was a prisoner all that time. We had rented a small apartment in Juarez. Charlie was nearly broke so he would go to El Paso looking for work. He found a job unloading sacks of grain but that didn’t help. Meanwhile I was cooped up in the apartment day and night. Charlie wouldn’t permit me to go out when he was not there so I spent my honeymoon in that small apartment in Juarez.
In March we were granted permission to go to Cuba. In desperation Charlie wrote his sister Mary in Fresno for $500 to cover our expenses for our trip to Cuba and back to Fresno. Upon receiving the money we went to Cuba. We remained there a few days then took a steamer for New Orleans. From there we took the train for Fresno.
The vast expanses of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona reminded me of the Syrian desert. When we crossed the mountains into California the scenery changed. It was springtime in the San Joaquin Valley. The orchards, vineyards and fields were fresh and green.
We arrived in Fresno on Easter Sunday, April 1925. After ten years of wandering and suffering I finally found a peaceful home. It was a fitting tribute to Mother’s Armenian Christian faith. The arrival on Easter Sunday was a new beginning, a new life, a resurrection.
We were greeted at the Southern Pacific Railway Station on Tulare Street by Charlie’s sister Mary, her husband and family. There were tears, embraces, laughter and much talking all at one time. We then rode to Mary’s house in their car. We stayed there several days catching up on all the news and happenings.
Charlie’s arrival with his picture post card bride drew much attention in Fresno. The local daily ran several long articles of the trials and tribulations of the couple in their quest to get married, their delays in entering the United States and the tragic background that brought them together. The articles were accompanied by photographs of the newlyweds.
Charlie was a go-getter. He worked as a janitor at Gottschalk’s, Fresno’s leading department store at Kern and “J” streets, later Fulton Street. He was a familiar figure cranking the awnings on the sides of the store, up and down. The hot Fresno sun, on the large plate glass windows, played havoc on mannequins and merchandise in the show windows. He was a hard worker and had a keen sense of humor. He was well liked by fellow employees and bosses alike.
With his small earnings he had purchased a house at 233 “N” Street before he was married. While he was in Juarez his sister Mary offered to buy the house for $5000 cash. It was a real windfall for him. With the money he paid off the $500 he owed his sister, paid off the existing mortgage and with the remainder he bought a house in the 3300 block of Lyell Avenue. The place had a small apartment in the rear which he rented out for $10 a month.
Most of the Armenians in Fresno lived within walking distance of downtown. They were centered around the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church (The Red Brick Church) built in 1914 at Ventura and M Street. Father Vartan Kasparian was the parish priest there for many years. The greatest concentration of Armenians lived in an area bounded by Broadway, Fresno, P and Los Angeles Streets. Many lived south to California Avenue and beyond, others lived north of Divisadero Street.
They were warm friendly people who had suffered in common in the old country. They were trying to be good American citizens, to establish new homes far from their homeland. It was a strange land with an unfamiliar language.
The Emerson Grammar School at Van Ness and Santa Streets was filled to the brim with Armenian boys and girls whose strange names baffled the teachers. Snar Saghatelian, Krekor Ohanian, Koorken Derderian, Anahid Mugerdichian, Zaroohi Amirkhanian and other tongue twisters.
Many were craftsmen and shop keepers in the old country. Soon small shops and stores were opened along the commercial streets. Barbers, tailors, shoe repair, grocers, bicycle shops, tire, and radiator repair, service station and sheet metal shops. Several coffee houses, where the men went to drink coffee, play cards and talk were located downtown.
One of the popular places was the bakery at M and Santa Clara Street which baked lavosh and peda bread. The delicious aroma of freshly baked bread filled the air with the odor of the poorhs (bakery) of the old country.
The large raisin, fig and peach packing plants; Rosenberg’s, Guggenheim, Sun Maid and smaller Armenian packers hired hundreds of the unskilled but hard working people. Many could not speak English so they couldn’t hold jobs requiring speaking competency.
The Civic Auditorium located at L and Kern Streets was the site of many concerts by local artists as well as touring artists such as Arming Shah-Mouradian. There were fund raisers for refugees and orphans in the Near East, speeches and programs by various organizations to entertain or to promote their aims. One of the biggest events held there was the annual bazaar of the Armenian General Benevolent Union. It continued over an entire weekend, drawing large, enthusiastic crowds. Booths were set up along the perimeter of the auditorium by each community in the valley selling goods made or produced by members or friends of the individual chapters. They competed against one another to see which community would raise the most funds.
The Armenians felt secure when they were together. The picnics were a favorite place to get together after a long, hard work week. The big Fourth of July picnics of the Armenian General Benevolent Union were held at Head Gate, or the Kings River near Sanger. Armenians liked to be near the water. The older boys would dive into the river from the tall cottonwood trees leaning over the water.
Many picnics were held at Oak Wood Park on the Kings River south of Kingsburg. It was a long drive there in the not-so dependable old Chevrolets and Model T Fords. The people liked to gather and visit under the shady poplar trees. The small band would play Armenian music. The men would dance and the people watching would place money on their foreheads which was then gathered and placed in a hat or box as part of the fund raising activities of the patriotic or compatriotic organizations which sponsored the picnic. A soft drink stand supplied cold drinks and beer to the people. Families brought their own lunch: cold chicken, dolma, sarma, lavosh, cheese, gootah, tomatoes and watermelon.
Armenian farmers and vegetable growers formed a large percentage of the vendors who sold their home grown produce at the Free Market, located on the north side of the Courthouse Park along Fresno Street, between Van Ness and M Street. Model T Fords were much in evidence at the time.
The older boys and girls went to Longfellow Junior High School across the Santa Fe Railway tracks on Hazelwood Boulevard south of Ventura Ave. The curved street, lined with stately Elm trees, was a popular street in Fresno.
The street cars which provided public transportation ran from downtown to Roeding Park and the cemeteries to the west. To the east they went down beautiful, tree lined Huntington Boulevard with its stately mansions and attractive homes continuing on to Sunnyside.
The Armenian community was given a tract of land on West Belmont Ave. for a cemetery which they called Ararat. The headstones with Armenian names carved in English and Armenian hold the secrets to the hopes and suffering of those who fled the persecution in the old country.
By the time I arrived in Fresno the Armenian community was well established. The small towns around Fresno such as Fowler, Selma, Sanger, Kingsburg and others had churches, organizations and their unique community activities. Many Armenians were settled on farms. Those who had endured the farm depression of the post World War I years still struggled on. Others through foreclosure had left the farms and gone to Los Angeles to start a new life there. “Yes foreclose, toon foreclose, eager yer-takn Los Angeloz.” (I’m foreclosed, you’re foreclosed, let’s go to Los Angeles), was a common saying of the time.
This was the Fresno Charlie brought me to. He wasn’t satisfied with the small house on Lyell Avenue. One day he came home and said that he had bought a larger house for $2,000 cash. The ouse was at 3742 E. Mono Avenue where I still live.
Charlie was a very kind-hearted man and treated me well personally. However he had a strong will and mind of his own. He never consulted me on his business deals. I was the subservient old country wife to him. My job was to have meals ready when he wanted, do housework and care for the children. He never permitted me to go to work on the farms cutting apricots or peaches, or pick grapes or work in the local packing houses as other Armenian women were compelled to do because of economic necessity.
Although I didn’t work outside, I worked side by side with Charlie cleaning, painting and repairing houses he bought for rentals or investment.
Charlie rode a bicycle to work. He didn’t have time to drink coffee or play cards in the “cafes.” He would stop off at Chituni’s Market on Ventura Avenue and buy last minute groceries. On Saturdays we would go to the Free Market and Black’s Package (a large grocery store in Van Ness and Inyo Streets) and buy quantities of vegetables and other items.
For years he didn’t permit me to leave the house without him. As the years went by our family became larger, after the first born arrived. Eleanor, Yeranoohi was born in the Sample Hospital on October 18, 1925. After that I gave birth to the remaining four children in the rear bedroom of our house.
Norma, Pepron, was born on March 26, 1928; Barbara, Berjoohi, born September 29, 1931; Mary, Maritza, born on July 1, 1933 and Charlie Jr., Garabed, born on March 16, 1939.
After having had four daughters before and during the Great Depression, Charlie didn’t look forward to the prospect of having another one. When a son came along, however, six years later, Charlie jumped for joy.
We gave Armenian names to our children. Charlie’s fellow employees gave them their American names by which they are now known.
Our first car was a Chevrolet which was a real lemon. We had much trouble with it. Charlie wasn’t a very good driver. On one occasion when we were going along the 99 Highway to Tulare we ran into a problem. He drove very slowly because he hadn’t mastered steering well. He said, “Look to the rear for cars and trucks overtaking us. Let me know when one comes.” I sat in the back seat holding my baby real close, looking back for cars. Soon one overtook us. I said, “One is coming.” He got nervous, turned the wheel to get out of the way, but turned too much and went off the road. We landed in a ditch. Fortunately no one was hurt. A motorist came and helped push the car on the road.
One day he decided that I should learn to drive a car. He thought perhaps he would be sick or in an emergency I would have to drive. He decided to give me lessons. He wasn’t the best teacher nor was he very patient. He would shout, “Turn left. Turn right. Stop.” He even stepped on my foot as I pressed the pedal. I wasn’t one to complain. I eventually learned to drive.
One night we had a late start out of Tulare to come to Fresno. The typical valley fog was so thick on the highway we couldn’t see the road. He stopped the car and said, “You drive.” I got behind the wheel and he sat on the fender waving a white handkerchief to guide me along. We had some trying and sometimes comical times.
For several years Charlie had a long, black, seven passenger Pierce Arrow sedan, with two folding seats behind the front seat. It was very difficult to maneuver. He finally gave the car to his nephews, Mary Boghosian’s sons in Tulare. We spent many fun filled summers at Charlie’s sister’s home on Pratt Avenue in Tulare. They in turn would come to our house. Our children practically grew up as brothers and sisters. We had no other relatives therefore we were quite close to one another.
Since my departure from Beirut in 1924 my mother had a strong desire to be reunited with me. She had no relatives there. She had an uneventful life working as a maid.
We were finally able to bring her to the United States in 1933. She reached Fresno on August 22nd. Mother lived with us for twelve years. Finally the friction between an independent man and his strong willed mother-in-law became too much to bear. Mother decided to marry and have her own home. She was introduced to Haji Ekizian, a widower from Dinuba, California. They were married in 1945. She lived a peaceful life on the farm (vineyard) and enjoyed twenty years with her husband. After his death she lived with her stepdaughter until her health began to fail, then she came and lived with me. Charlie had passed away on November 2, 1952 at the age of 62 years, of a heart attack, at home, after several years of retirement.
I was alone so I didn’t mind having Mother with me. When her health deteriorated to the point where I could no longer take care of her I took her to the California Home for the Aged. (The rest home run by Armenians on Kings Canyon Road). She enjoyed the lawn, trees and open spaces. Her mind was keen and sharp. She liked to have her grandchildren visit her. When she felt her time to go had come, she was looking forward to it and died as serenely and courageously as she had lived. She breathed her last breath on May 4, 1979 at the age of 97 years. After funeral services, at her beloved Armenian Apostolic Church, her body was laid to rest at the Ararat Cemetery in the family plot.
Since my children married and left home I have occupied myself with baking Armenian bread and pastries. My children and grandchildren bring me great joy when they come during the holidays to a real feast that I prepare for them.
My wonderful neighbors and friends have made my life more full and meaningful. For many years I have been on the “mass” committee at the St. Paul Armenian Apostolic Church. I also help the ladies cook meals for bazaars and other functions. I belong to the Armenian General Benevolent Union and help cook meals at banquets and support their activities.
In the quieter moments I crochet and make quilts. Pruning, watering and spraying my trees, shrubs and flowers give me relaxation and exercise during the warmer days. It’s still my pleasure to drive my car especially without a “back seat driver.”
As the sole surviving member of our Tokatsi clan, I am very fortunate to have seen these later pleasant days. I’m glad I came to the United States of America. It is truly the most wonderful land in the world. It has given me the freedom to worship as I please. It has been a haven of safety and peace unlike the land I came from. It has provided me with the facilities and comforts that the old country did not have. It has made me happy that my children and their children will not have to face the tribulations my generation endured.
I thank the many blessing this country has bestowed upon me. My survival would not have been possible without my mother’s faith, courage, patience and perseverance. She never for a moment forgot or denied the faith of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
As Barouyr Sevag the noted Armenian poet so aptly put it:
They say of us we are Armenians. And, why should we not be proud?…
We are. We will be. And will yet increase.
Yeranoohi Karnagelian Lazian Tokat May 15, 1882 - May 4, 1979 Siranoosh Lazian Tavookjian - Charles Garabed Tavookjian May 15, 1906 Aug. 15, 1890 - Nov. 2, 1952 Eleanor - Aram Garabedian Son - Aram Jr. wife Sherra - children, Nathan, Rebecca Son - Peter Norma - Bob Der Mugrdechian Daughter - Zaroohi Son - Van - wife, Nancy Sons - Bob II, Barlow Barbara - Martin Bohigian Sons - Marty, Mark, and twins, Jon and Jerry Mary - Jim Ekizian Son, Danny - wife Becky, daughter Jennifer Son, Gary - wife Pam, children Jared, Stephanie Charles Jr. and Carol Daughters, Dena and Jennifer Wife Nelda - children Christy and Jason
Ah these hands, a mother’s hands,
Ancient and yet always new hands.
What can you say that these hands haven’t done?
During her wedding, how they did dance, these hands,
With such gracefulness and dreams.
What can you say that these hands haven’t done?
They never let the light die out, these hands,
When the first child was born,
He was nurtured on her sunny milk.
What can you say that these hands haven’t done?
They’ve borne deprivations and great worries, these hands,
Always with a sea of silence and patience.
What can you say that these hands haven’t done?
They’ve turned into a column from heaven, these hands,
So the pillar of the house doesn’t collapse,
And her son returns home from the war.
What can you say that these hands haven’t done?
Until they become grandma hands, these hands,
These old hands, their strength diminished.
But with a new grandchild, their strength replenished.
They’ve pushed over rocks and moved mountains, these hands,
How much, how much we need these hands,
Powerful hands, holy hands.
Come today, let us sons kiss these hands,
That brought us into the world and fed us,
That defended us and took care of us,
That never get tired of us,
Always cleaning, always creating,
Endlessly judging, endlessly working,
Be they cracked and rough,
But for us, hands smooth as silk.
(Translated by James Der Garabedian)
From A.G.B.U ARARAT Magazine
We are few, but they say of us we are Armenians.
We do not think ourselves superior to anyone.
Clearly we shall have to accept
That we, and only we, have an Ararat,
And that if here rises a Lake Sevan
The sky mirrors its true image.
Clearly David has fought here.
Clearly Narek has been written here.
Clearly we know how to sculpt an abbey from a rock,
To fashion a fish from stone, and birds from clay,
To teach and be pupils of
We are few, but they say of us we are Armenians.
We do not think ourselves superior to anyone.
Clearly our fate has been a different one,
Clearly much blood has flowed from us,
Clearly throughout our life of ages
When we have been many
And stood up straight,
We did not in turn destroy another race,
Not a soul has suffered from the blow of our arm.
If any have been enslaved
It is only from our books,
If any have been ruled
It is only by our endowments…
Clearly we were beloved of death,
Though we did not willingly give ourselves to it.
And when disheartened we abandoned our soil,
Wherever we reached, wherever we were,
We tried our best for the sake of all…
Plowed lands everywhere,
Gave to all thought, sayings, songs,
Protected them from spiritual cold,
Left everywhere the gleam of our eyes,
Relics from our souls,
And from our hearts a wafer…
We are few, yes, but we are called Armenians.
We know how to cry out over wounds not yet healed,
But also how to rejoice with a new gaiety and take delight,
We know how to thrust into the enemy’s side
And how to become an ally to a friend,
To shed the burden of a kindness
By returning it tenfold…
For the sake of sun and justice
We know also how to cast out lives…
But should they want to burn us by force
We know how to smother and put out fires,
And if the darkness is to be dispelled
We know how to burn down like a bright candle,
And we know also how to love passionately,
But always ever respecting others…
We do not think ourselves superior to anyone,
But also we know
They say of us we are Armenians.
And, why should we not be proud?…
We are. We will be. And will yet increase.
(Translated by Aram Tolegian)
From A.G.B.U ARARAT Magazine
© 1984 by Bob Der Mugrdechian
eBook © 2019 Nathan Garabedian
All rights reserved.
This eBook may be distributed freely, in its complete form, provided that no modifications of any kind are made.