Language Lessons

Our house in Watertown was built on a double lot, with the front door on Walnut Street and the back door on Lincoln. We lived oriented toward Lincoln Street, where in our large backyard, my father tended a vegetable garden, and my grandmother managed the annual beds and the perennials—lilacs, forsythia, viburnum, two types of hydrangeas, and three kinds of roses. There were two pear trees, a peach tree, and a grape vine that climbed up the house and grew over one side of the second story porch.

This porch was where my grandmother stored her large pickle crock under an enamel-topped table. In spring, summer, and autumn, she sat on a vinyl-covered couch watching over the yard and the neighbors. In addition to the wood-framed clothesline in the back yard, my grandmother also strung a rope above her porch railing where she hung dishtowels and clothes out to dry. She stored the wooden clothespins in a bag she had fashioned from a dress that I had worn as a toddler. She had sewn closed the hem of the dress and suspended it from the line on a wire hanger.

Many of the families on Lincoln Street were Armenian—Masoyan, Moushigian, Kazanjian, Kasparian, Kricorian, Mekjian, and Gayzagian—and the ones who weren’t my grandmother referred to not by name, but by nationality: the Greek, the Irish, the Italian, and the Portuguese. Many of the surrounding houses were built as single-family dwellings, but ours was a three-story, two-family house. My father and his three siblings had grown up in the top two floors. When I was growing up, my grandmother and my father’s youngest brother lived there. My parents, my sister and I inhabited the ground floor.

A photograph from 1938

We were officially two separate households, with two independent apartments, and in the basement, there were even two washing machines, one for my grandmother and one for my mother. But we were one family. My sister and I were often upstairs with my grandmother—watching old Shirley Temple movies in her living room or sitting on her back porch eating watermelon or pelting butternuts at a brazen squirrel that was feasting in the pear tree. There was another second story porch on the front of the house, and sometimes I took a nap or read a book on a day bed there because it was quiet and shaded by an enormous spruce tree that grew in the front yard.

My grandmother would pound with a broom handle on the floor of her apartment by the utility closet, calling for my father, “Eddie!” He would open the closet in our apartment and shout, “What is it Ma?” She replied, “I’m sending the bucket.” Either my sister or I would be dispatched to our back porch as a plastic bucket tied to a length of clothesline rope descended. Inside we might find a pot of fresh-made yogurt, a basket of fresh cheoreg sweet rolls, or a plastic bag filled with manta, tiny meat dumplings shaped like boats.

Our family attended the United Armenian Brethren Church on Arlington Street in Watertown. It had been founded and built in 1938 by Armenians from Cilicia, most of them Genocide survivors, and was led the Reverend Vartan Bilezikian until his retirement in the early 1950s. My grandfather Levon (Leo) Kricorian, who had been one of the founders of Watertown’s Saint James Armenian Apostolic Church in the early 30’s, had converted to Protestantism and was also among the founders of the Brethren Church.

United Armenian Brethren Church

During my grandfather’s days, our family pew was the second one from the front on the right-hand side, but after his death and with the arrival of my squirmy sister, we moved to the left-hand side, second from the back. In this second location, the Amiralians sat behind us, the Haroutunians were in front of us, and the Bilezekians were across the aisle.

By the time I was seven, the church had been renamed the Watertown Evangelical Church and Reverend Proctor Davis, a Southern Baptist who resembled evangelist Billy Graham, held sway from the pulpit. When we sang from the hymnal, the Armenian widows in the front row with their black hats and white buns chorused in a minor key.

In elementary school, many of my close friends were Armenian. I watched with envy on Monday and Wednesday afternoons at the end of the school day as they marched off together for Armenian language lessons at the cultural center attached to the Saint James Church. My grandmother had offered to pay my Armenian school tuition, but my mother, who was French-Canadian, made clear without words that she preferred I decline the offer. This was another silent skirmish by proxy in the power struggle between my mother and my grandmother.

My mother never learned Armenian, despite living in the same house with her Armenian mother-in-law. My grandmother and father often spoke the language together, or rather my grandmother spoke to him in Armenian and he replied in English. The fact that my mother knew hardly one word of Armenian when the language flowed around her in our house, in the neighborhood, and at church was remarkable. Recently I asked her why she had never learned it, and she said, “They didn’t accept me because I wasn’t Armenian, and I didn’t want to know what they were saying about me.”

My father’s first language was Armenian, but when he went to kindergarten, he spoke more Turkish than English because his paternal grandmother who spoke only Turkish lived with his family. My mother’s first language was French, but she was shamed out of speaking it when she went to elementary school, and she lost almost all of it after she was sent to an orphanage at age eight.

I knew a little Armenian—or rather I knew several dozen phrases in Armenian and some random words. My grandmother taught me how to count to ten in Armenian, but beyond that I learned through hearing certain phrases over and again. I understood my grandmother’s commands—give me a spoon of sugar, shut the door, open the light, take this, come here, sit there, stay there, walk, run, hurry up, go slowly—without knowing the language. I understood what she was saying when she called my uncle a squash head. It was clear that the word amot meant shame and when she said amot kezi I knew that I was or had done something shameful. This generally involved my vardik (underwear) or my vorik (bottom), and often specifically referred to my ballet and tapdancing outfits. She also said, often, in English, “Cover your shame.”

Her English was heavily accented and full of grammatical errors and mispronunciations, and I cringed at the thought that anyone outside our family would hear her mistakes, particularly her misuse of the personal pronouns he and she. One time she said to me, “Your mother, he is not a lazy woman.” It never occurred to me that I should wonder why these gendered pronouns gave her so much trouble. She also called window wipers vipers, and instead of throw she said trow, as in trow dees een dee ash barrel.

I loved my Armenian grandmother, but I wanted to be as American as possible and to speak perfect English. When I was about ten years old I started wishing that I were a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with a simple, muscular last name that didn’t broadcast my family’s immigrant origins. This was probably as much at the heart of my not going to Armenian school as my mother’s disapproval. I kept my distance from the recently arrived Armenian kids from Beirut with their accents and their mismatched clothes. Some of the other kids—particularly the Irish and Italians, whose whiteness was relatively recently established—picked on the Armenians, calling them insulting names such as F.O.B., which I thought was an acronym involving a swear word, but eventually learned meant fresh off the boat. One day in the parking lot after school I saw a tough girl named Dana surrounded by a scrum of kids as she slapped around a dowdily dressed immigrant girl with the unfortunate name of Pearlene.

In fifth grade, our teacher asked us each to bring in a homemade food that represented our ethnic backgrounds. My grandmother, who was an excellent cook, baked a batch of gurabia, Armenian butter cookies dusted with confectioner’s sugar. She carefully packed them in a tin lined with waxed paper. As I walked to school carrying the cookie tin, I felt a growing sense of dread. I was sure my Armenian classmates would find the cookies to be ordinary and the non-Armenian kids would think they were bland and disgusting, so unlike the Oreos and Chips Ahoy that they brought in their lunchboxes. I left the gurabia in my locker. I knew that I couldn’t bring them home with me. A few days later I dumped them in a trashcan.

I remember being shocked when an Irish boy named Howie, who lived in the projects, called me an “Armo camel driver” and an “Armo rugbeater.” Howie had somehow seen beyond my impeccable English and the clothes I had carefully chosen at the Jordan Marsh department store. He had magically surmised that my grandmother spoke fractured English and that my father came home from his meat cutter job with dried blood on his cuffs and bits of hamburger and sawdust in the seams of his shoes.

In Junior High School, I signed up for French class. My grandmother told me that after the Deportations she had learned French in the orphanage. “Comment allez-vous?” she said to me. This was also my mother’s first language, although the only vestiges of it that I witnessed was on our monthly visits to the tarpaper shack in New Hampshire where her bedridden father growled in a language I couldn’t understand and my maternal cousins referred to my mother as “Ma tount.”

But my mother’s French and the French at school were two very different things. At the time French was the language that all the serious students studied, and it was considered very classy. Classier still was our French class’s field trip to Du Barry Restaurant on Newberry Street in Boston, where incidentally I was horrified to discover that people ate snails, frog legs, and rabbits.

At Watertown High School, Mrs. Yacoubian offered Armenian classes, but no one I knew in the college track signed up for them. I developed a rapport with my French teacher, Monsieur Craig, who wore a beard and a beret, and made allusions to some mysterious suffering he had endured during World War II. He loaned me books by Jean Paul Sartre, and I sometimes stayed after class to discuss French existentialism with him. He said to me, “You and I are intellectuals,” dismissing the football cheerleaders as anti-intellectual riffraff.

I wanted to escape Watertown High School and those cheerleaders who carried red and white pompons to homeroom on the days we were forced to the auditorium for football pep rallies. I was tired of the old Armenian ladies at church who looked out of the sides of their eyes at the scandalous length of my skirt. I hoped to find other people who had read The Brothers Karamazov.

When I left for college three hours from home, I kitted myself out in wide-wale corduroys, button down shirts, and Fair Isle sweaters, naively believing this was an effective disguise. Maybe it was growing up, maybe it was my wealthy American boyfriend telling me I wasn’t fooling anyone, or maybe it was living for a term with a pied noir family in Toulouse during a foreign study program, but by my second year in college I felt more Armenian than ever.

I interviewed my grandmother for an oral history project that was assigned in a class on Mothers and Daughters in literature. Sitting on the second story back porch, shaded by the grapevine, she told me the story of what had happened to her family when they were driven from Mersin during the Deportations and Massacres. It was the first time she had told anyone in the family the details of her parents’ deaths and how she had managed to survive. The history of this familial and communal trauma had suffused the air that I breathed growing up in Watertown’s Armenian community, while never having been articulated. Now my grandmother’s voice was in my head telling the story. It was both a burden and a legacy.

My grandmother died at the end of my first year at a graduate writing program in New York City. That summer I went to talk with her oldest friend, Alice Kharibian, who had been with my grandmother at the concentration camp in the Syrian desert outside Ras al-Ain when they were girls. Alice said, “Your grandmother was so wishy-washy. I was jarbig (clever, resourceful) for all of us. She and her brother would have been dead in the desert without me.” Now I had Alice’s voice sounding in my head along with my grandmother’s.

Back at the university the following autumn I enrolled in my first Armenian language class. I realized then that my grandmother’s confusion about he and she was due to the fact that in Armenian the third person singular pronoun is gender neutral. I was again surrounded by Armenians and the Armenian language, this time by choice. I began writing about my grandmother, and I wrote poems in her voice and in the voices of other women from our church. I remember reading out loud in Sharon Olds’s workshop a prose poem I drafted a few months after my grandmother died. Entitled “The Angel,” it started, “My grandmother is in heaven. This heaven has no Turks, no women in skimpy bathing suits, no squirrels in the pear trees.”

Later I switched genres to fiction and began drafting the interlocking stories that would become my first novel Zabelle, which was a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life as a Genocide survivor and immigrant bride. When the novel was published, many Armenians came to my book tour events around the country. Zabelle Chahasbanian was a stand in for many people’s beloved mother or grandmother so the book was popular in the community.

During the question and answer sessions after these readings, I was repeatedly asked about my credentials: “Are you ALL Armenian? Do you speak Armenian? Is your husband Armenian? Do you know how to make cheoreg?” It was the first time that I was made to feel that I wasn’t Armenian enough. At one event, a man in the audience stood up to denounce me, saying, “You’re not Armenian. You’re an American writer exploiting your grandmother’s story to make money.” I replied, “If you calculated the number of hours that I spent writing this book and divided it into the advance I received, I made less than minimum wage. If I wanted to make money, I’d write porn.” The absurdity of what he said was apparent, but it stung because I was ashamed about having failed my grandmother. I was not a good Armenian girl, I hadn’t produced Armenian children, and I was in fact some kind of mongrel. If I spoke fluent Armenian, I might have been forgiven the rest.

Over the years I continued studying the Armenian language at the Armenian Diocese, at the Prelacy, and then with three excellent private tutors, one after the other. I learned the alphabet, I was able to read at a first-grade level, and I could write simple paragraphs in the present tense. But I still couldn’t carry on a more than basic conversation. I should have studied harder. I should have gone to one of those language immersion programs in Venice or Jerusalem or Beirut. But I was living my American life, raising my American children, writing my Armenian-themed American novels, and working first as an adjunct writing instructor, then as a literary scout for European publishers, and later as an organizer for a women’s peace group.
Here I am decades later still studying Armenian. It’s a language rooted in my childhood, forever echoing with the sound of my grandmother’s voice. I have loved discovering the ways that the expressions and words I learned from her are part of the vast and intricate network of Western Armenian, a language that has the sturdiness and delicacy of a needle lace tablecloth, but one that is categorized by UNESCO as “definitely endangered.”

For the past four years I’ve been taking private lessons over Skype with Sosy, a teacher who fled Aleppo for Yerevan because of the Syrian Civil War. I have finally learned the simple past and the imperfect tenses. I have been writing micro stories in Armenian, which Sosy proofreads and corrects. Recently she said to me, “Now you have the grammar, you understand the workings of the language, you just need more vocabulary. You need to listen, and to talk, talk, talk.”

I keep walking this long road back to my grandmother. Talking to myself as I walk, I eventually end up climbing the steps to the back porch of her house in heaven, where together she and I will roll stuffed grape leaves at the enamel-topped table as we talk and talk in her native tongue.

Nancy Kricorian
New York
August 2020

Photographs: Kricorian family archive

This essay was published on Yesayan Salonu in Turkey, in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal Number 30 (2021) , and in the anthology We are All Armenian (University of Texas Press, 2023) edited by Aram Mrjoian.

July 8, 2024