Editor’s Note: La Verne Magarian is a longtime Smithsonian Folklife Festival visitor. She sent us this reflection after attending in 2018.
When I was a little girl, I was confused as to whether I was Armenian or American. Both words sounded alike and looked very similar to me: eight-letter words that that started with an A and ended with an n. It took me a few years to realize that I was third-generation American of Armenian heritage.
Ten years ago, I had my genes tested through National Geographic, and the results traced me back to current-day Turkey. When they said I was from “old stock,” I got goosebumps. My Armenian-ness runs deep, and it comes out in subtle ways: in my tastes, values, and habits. Knowingly or unknowingly, my Armenian culture is embedded within me.
So imagine my delight when, this past summer, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured a program on Armenian traditions. For two weeks on the National Mall, Armenian women and men were baking lavash and making fresh cheese, carving stone and weaving carpets. The program displayed the richness of artisanal traditions that create an Armenian home. I initially planned to go just for a day but was so captivated that I ended up playing hooky to attend the full two weeks! I immediately knew that that this was my culture.
The hospitality of the Armenians at the festival brought back many powerful memories, both joyful and painful, particularly of my grandmother and her home.
The Old Country to the New Country
My grandmother Apisag was the youngest child born into a wealthy family in Bitlis, now a city in eastern Turkey. Her father was a rug merchant who traveled frequently to America. When tragedy hit the Armenians in the late 1890s, the family fell on hard times. Her mother was forced to put Apisag, age six, in an orphanage. Many of our relatives died in the waves of massacres that preceded the 1915 genocide. Although Apisag never spoke directly about these traumatic times to me as a child, I distinctly remember the intensity and tone of her voice when the subject arose.
At the turn of the century, Apisag left the Ottoman Empire or, as she called it, “the old country,” for America, “the new country.” Her transatlantic voyage to America was difficult, and she was taken ill throughout. She told me that passengers were tightly packed into the ship and treated like cattle. Upon arrival, her marriage was arranged to my grandfather, Mampre Donabedian, who was also from Bitlis. They eventually settled in Fresno, California, and had three children: my uncle Chester, my auntie Rita, and my mom.
My grandfather’s sudden passing in 1929 left Apisag a single parent without an income in the midst of the Great Depression. Since she spoke no English, Chester and my mom stepped in to help her run the household and raise eleven-year-old Rita. Both of them sacrificed their individual aspirations in service of the family. Uncle Chester, twenty, was studying art at the time but dropped out of college to find a paying job. My mom too, at eighteen, went out to look for work. The four of them remained devoted to one another their entire lives.
Our Armenian Home in America
Through their hard work and my uncle’s keen eye, they found, purchased, and fixed up a spacious home close to Fresno’s downtown. The house had two floors, a wraparound porch, a cellar, a garden building, a garage, and a large backyard. Adjacent to the property was a little park, which my uncle eventually bought from the city. The family property filled an entire city block.
I loved everything about Apisag’s home—from the aromas of freshly baked bread to the melodious songs of blue jays. The windows and doors were always open to the dry Fresno air, which had a special scent. When Apisag would hang her wash outside to dry, all our bedding and clothes would smell so fresh and good.
Apisag’s garden bore an array of fruits and vegetables: cucumbers, parsley, okra, eggplant, tomatoes. Grapevines tangled all around. She planted a small orchard as well: two orange trees, a grapefruit tree, and a most beloved apricot tree. She filled the cellar with crocks of pickles and olives and jars of jams and fruit preserves. Although I grew up in Vallejo, I spent as much time as we could in Fresno. This was my Armenian home.
A Homemade Taste of Armenia
Apisag brought her old country ways into her Fresno kitchen. Her hands were always busy chopping vegetables, baking bread, or making cheese. Though her fingers worked quickly, her expression was calm, her eyes soft. Many of her dishes featured vegetables from her garden. She always kept a pot of vegetable soup on the stove and freshly made yogurt called matzoon on the table. She made many different kinds of breads for the holidays: lavash, pita, and katah. She would often make böreks (savory stuffed pastries), dolmas and sarmas (stuffed grape leaves), kuftas (meatballs), and shish kabobs. For dessert, she would make paklave (baklava), lokoom (Turkish delight), and halvah (sesame paste candy)—all of which feature a marvelous assortment of nuts and dry fruits.
As a child, I would sit on a footstool near the stove in her big kitchen, watching Apisag, my mom, and Auntie Rita work and listening to them chat in rhythmic Armenian. These three women shared beautiful Armenian traits: generosity, discipline, grace, wisdom, internal strength, resourcefulness, and an abundance of love. They were unfailingly there for me throughout their lives.
We ate most of our meals in the sunny breakfast room on freshly ironed tablecloths with a vase of garden flowers at the center of the table. At holidays and on special occasions, we ate in the dining room. Sometimes, we would make Armenian coffee. My grandmother would grind freshly roasted beans very finely, add cinnamon, clove, and sugar, and whip it all up. She would then serve the frothy coffee in little demitasse cups. Afterward, they would turn the cups over and have someone else “read” our fortune in the coffee grinds. We would all laugh.
In that house, our family worked, ate, and laughed together. Apisag’s home nurtured those she loved—family, friends and guests.
House & Home
Apisag passed away shortly after I graduated high school. When she departed, my aunt, uncle, mom, and dad did their best to maintain the home, but they struggled with their unrelenting workloads. Apisag was sorely missed, and the house was not the same without her. When the area began to decline, longtime neighbors decided to demolish their houses and sell their lots.
At around the same time, my mom fell ill and died. Soon after, Auntie Rita passed away. Uncle Chester’s health slowly declined and he passed away, followed by my father. All my loved ones are now deceased, but I will always carry their spirit within myself.
When they were gone, the family dynamics changed. After many attempts to try to upkeep the property, the decision was made to demolish Apisag’s turn-of-the century home. To this day, it is still heart-wrenching for me to think of it. I spent six weeks dismantling our family home and reliving my earliest and most cherished Armenian memories.
People die, homes get destroyed. But a home is not simply four walls and a roof. A home is created by our loved ones, for our loved ones. Apisag’s devotion, labor, and creativity transformed a Fresno house into a beautiful, loving Armenian home. Though I never learned Armenian and I have never been to Armenia, Apisag’s home taught me much about love and what it means to be Armenian.
In loving memory of Apisag Khancherian Donabedian (1886–1962)