Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Auntie Arsha

Arsha in her garden

When I was growing up, my parents didn't send or get too many Christmas cards. Christmas was celebrated personally, people took time to visit each other and exchange their jolly greetings face to face, sip chocolate or mint liqueur and have some Jordan almonds perhaps. I loved to steal a sip of that chocolate liqueur when no one was looking, but that's another story.  There used to be a few cards from my parents' relatives and friends overseas, though. One of them stood out for me every year. It always was a postcard with the photo of a family on it, mom, dad and three children at first, then the next year a baby was added to the group. It was from the R----- family of Detroit Michigan. I didn't know these people, but liked to see the children, who were close to my age, grow up from card to card, year to year. I knew the lady was a second cousin once or twice removed, or something like that, of my mom's, also a good friend of hers. Her husband was a minister and my brother's godfather. That's all I knew.

One of those Christmas postcards

Fast forward 11 years. My husband and I spent a year in Houston, then moved to Detroit for him to do a fellowship in his subspecialty. We were young, fearless, and alone. Our families and childhood friends were far away, communication with them very difficult because of a crazy war. We left the new friends we had made in Houston behind, put our belongings in an old Pontiac Lemans and headed out east. We had no plans, spent a night in a roadside motel somewhere in Tennessee or Mississippi, something we later warned our sons never to do. When we arrived in Michigan it was getting dark and pouring rain, we kept driving till we decided we were tired enough and exited at 12 mile road, which turned out to be the very nice city of Royal Oak, just a few miles away from where we live now 37 years later.  We found a restaurant and took shelter there to eat and look for a hotel. In those days, they had the old fashioned telephone booths with a phone book secured with a chain. 

Once we had reserved a room in a nearby motel, I relaxed and sat down to enjoy my dinner and suddenly had a flashback. I clearly saw a Christmas postcard with a family photo on it and the words Detroit, Michigan on the back. Sure enough the name was in that phonebook on 12 mile road. I called. A young girl answered and I told her I wasn't sure I was calling the right number.... She didn't give me a chance to continue: Mom! Someone speaking in Armenian! A second later, a sweet voice, I told her who I was and was startled by her scream of joy! RP! Come! It's Marie's daughter.  Oh my darling, my sweet girl, you must come right over....  That's how I found my auntie Arsha, and the very next day, we were having cinnamon spiced tea and Armenian cookies in her lovely house. A Christmas postcard from years ago had brought us together.

How can I describe her? She lived all over the globe, the fate of many Armenians in diaspora. Arsha was born in 1926 In Bitias, but she grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia until something about "that damn Mussolini came over and we had to leave". Her family came to Lebanon next, where she got married and later moved to Detroit with her husband and children. She was in her twenties and she had lived so much life already. She raised a family and worked as a minister's wife / secretary /  social coordinator / organist / cook / dishwasher. For free.  

In her early forties, she decided to follow her passion and become an art teacher. She drove one hour each day to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to get her teaching degree and started working in Detroit public schools. Those high school kids found out very quickly that this little lady could not be ignored, could not be fooled and suddenly everyone was interested in art. She taught them not just art, but life. There's a big difference between looking and seeing, she would say to them. Everyone just looks at an object, but if you're going to draw it, you have to see its essence, its depth, its relationship with space.... 
She was loved and respected. She was also outspoken. She felt the schools wasted a lot of money on unnecessary things and frugal Arsha spoke her mind.

I was 21 when I first found her. There was an aura about her that was very peaceful, yet energetic at the same time. I didn't understand what it was till much later. 

Auntie Arsha was an artist, her beautiful drawings and paintings were all over their house and she gifted them to people she loved.  I have one hanging in my foyer, a simple drawing of a couple of doves in nature. I never saw my husband and me as couple of doves, but apparently she did.  She made flower arrangements for her dining rooms that deserved to be in the top home magazines. She sewed most of her clothes, and once she even made a pair of shoes to match an outfit. She knitted all her sweaters and long coats, and she had matching hats for everything. She didn't just buy a hat and put it on her head, she found a way to embellish it to fit her. Auntie Arsha once watched Oliver Twist for a few minutes, and then took some measurements of her young grandson who had the role of Fagin in the school play. In three days she had the exact replica of Fagin's costume ready for her grandson.

Then there was her cooking and baking. I'm not going to elaborate on this but if one needed to know how to cook anything, all they had to do is ask her. She had a huge pantry in that mansion, with floor to ceiling shelves and they were lined up with jars and jars of her canned "stuff". Pickled everything, from turnips to swiss chard.  Grape jelly, grape juice, grape jam. Tins of cookies she baked for the  grandchildren and a freezer full of choreg  (Armenian braided bread)... because you never know when you'd need some. 

There were the animals. She loved all animals. She had a dog and three cats had moved in. She adored them, but all animals outside were comfortable with her. They bought a farmhouse in western Michigan and she would drive all the way out there because she missed the neighbor's horses. She was a horse whisperer.

Auntie Arsha used her art to create her award winning garden.  It looked like she had thrown some seeds around and things had grown, but everything made sense, the colors flowed in the most pleasing way, the heights and shapes of the plants were perfect with each other.  She allowed what some would call weeds to grow freely, calling them beautiful wildflowers. She beamed with pride and joy as she took guests through the garden. She touched the plants lovingly while smiling as if she knew a secret. I understood, I had the same secret with the plants too. They talked back!  Sometimes, they initiated the conversation. Auntie Arsha and I nodded knowingly. 

In those days when my sons were growing up, I used to have monthly lunches for my friends at my home. Auntie Arsha would arrive first, in a beautiful floral skirt, with a sunhat, and a basket full of offerings from her garden, a mixed bunch of everything, flowers, herbs, beans and wild grape leaves. And then there were the ever-giving gifts, the dahlia and iris bulbs, the yarrow roots. These still grow in my garden every year, a living memory of her.  She'd ring the doorbell and start singing, it's your morkoorig (small auntie, my nickname for her), open the door. 

Siberian Iris in my front yard, from Auntie Arsha

She was the life of a party too, always kind, always engaging, cheerful, funny and uplifting. 

I had the opportunity to be with her and RP at many gatherings at their home. A group of 10-15 people, young and old, sitting around having a discussion after dinner.  I was in awe the first time I attended one of these. Without any prompting, the person who wanted the floor would stand up, and everyone else would yield till she had her say and sat down. An amazing exchange of opinions, often differing, in the most pleasant atmosphere of acceptance and laughter.

When the company was just family and close friends, they were a very entertaining couple. They would burst into song and RP would start a folk dance of some sorts which Arsha would join, and after a few minutes of giggling like children, they would sit back down.

Once my parents were here to visit, and we were all gathered at my home with some mutual friends and I don't know what caused this, but suddenly, my parents, Arsha and RP stood up and started singing La Marseillaise, all four of them demonstrating the marching: 

Aux armes, citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons!
Marchons! Marchons!
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons! 

I didn't stop laughing for days over that, and I still do with the image still clear in my head. To this day I don't know what that was about, but it might have had something to do with the French ships rescuing their people from Musa Dagh, but that's another story. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musa_Dagh_Resistance. )

After my father's death, when my mother spent the month of November with me, auntie Arsha used to come over, and the two of them would sit next to each other on the sofa in the family room, knitting and talking for hours like schoolgirls, sometimes giggling, sometimes serious. It was such a pleasure to see my mama with her girlfriend. I treasure those memories. 

Then one day, RP got sick. It started with one cancer and then spread everywhere. When it reached his bones, he was in excruciating pain. Arsha took care of him in every way, fed, him, bathed him, drove him to the doctors and at the end brought him home to die. She literally carried him where she needed to have him until he died. Along with her grief, there was deep faith and an understanding that his time on Earth was over.  

We still met often, at my home or our friend Sonya's. We had brunches and lunches, but I noticed several years ago that auntie Arsha was not the first to arrive anymore. She was always last and sometimes more than an hour late.  She would explain it away with, oh I stopped at several places on my way, but it got worse and one day Sonya got a call from a gas station attendant who informed her that there was a little lady there who was lost and had this phone number with her. The gas station was two hours away.  Auntie Arsha had forgotten where she was going and stubbornly looked for Sonya's house for two hours getting further and further away. Gradually she was not allowed to drive anymore. 

Then came the phase where she would forget a lot more. We had a period of time when I would call her in the morning and this would joggle her memory about me and for a week afterwards, she would call me several times a day saying the same thing:  Sweetheart, darling girl, why don't you ever call? Gradually she forgot things like who my children were, that my mother had died several years before, and then the day came when she didn't recognize her own house and she wondered into the streets looking for her room. Her children had no choice but to put her in a nursing home, they had tried to keep her in her own beloved home as long as possible.  It was one of the saddest days, she wouldn't go without her cat, until the nursing home finally allowed visits by the cat. It was difficult thinking about her there, lost and confused, but the hardest day was when I called and she didn't know who I was.  She asked me in polite, formal Armenian, but madam, how do you know me? I had thought I would just call and chat with her for an hour even if she didn't remember who I was just to give her an hour of light conversation, but it had progressed to the point where she was getting agitated when she didn't know the callers. So I stopped. I have not spoken to her for the last five years. 

Today we had auntie Arsha's funeral service.  Sonya, 87 years old like her friend, and fragile, clung to me as I led her in. We sat together and smiled, laughed and cried together listening to the different stories people told about her.  It was a very simple ceremony, with just a few words from a minister and a prayer, but for two hours we all sat there and remembered her. Her grandsons told stories about their childhood memories about their nana, grandmama to the British ones.  Her sons remembered her with laughter and tears and read what her daughter in England and 4 grandchildren had written to be read at the service. We had a slide show and watched some home movies, then people just got up and talked about her. Her neighbor who didn't understand why Arsha would be picking the weeds growing up their garage wall until she tasted the delicious sarma, stuffed grape leaves, and was finally convinced those were not weeds. Her colleagues from the art school, members from her church, the neighbor lady who has the horses in the country, friends, and even I found myself up there telling them all about my morkoorig.

I did not know many of the stories told today but every sentiment about her rang true. The story I delighted in most was from her daughter, Saron. When she was young her mother would take her to the Michigan State fair to participate in the longest ponytail competition. Every year she would come second, beaten by the same set of twins, and her mother would say, oh well, there's always next year.  
Then one day, Saron  was shocked when auntie Arsha announced, who cares about a stupid ponytail competition anyway, let's go watch Tom Jones instead, who happened to be playing at the fair. To Saron's delight, her mother screamed and shouted, danced, and sang along to Delilah,  What's New Pussycat, and She's a Lady! (There was no panty throwing on stage, however) This made me extremely happy, it was like the last piece of the puzzle to the mystery of auntie Arsha. 

The feeling I had that first day I found her only grew stronger and I came to understand what it was as I grew older. She was always present in the moment, no matter what else she had going on in her life and she had plenty of difficulties.  She knew who she was, just a human being like all the rest of us, sharing her time on Earth with the people she came in contact with, always seeing them as part of the whole she belonged to.  This allowed her to be exactly who she was, semi eccentric, creative, colorful, joyful, energetic Arsha while maintaining an incredible calm and peacefulness about her, approaching life from a loving, compassionate kindness. 

I love you my morkoorig.  You will always be with me. 

1 comment:

  1. First of all, let me just express my love for your writing. You make words come alive. It is as if I have just watched a stunning, colorful movie about your auntie Arsha with her wonderful qualities.

    Second, thank you for sharing her (and your) stories. It reminds me of the good things in this world, the small things about a person people often overlook.

    Now if you'll excuse me, let me go to a corner where I'll think about/grief over my inarticulateness, lol.