MIRACLES ABOUND!

INSPIRATION FOR MIRACLES

Two and a half years ago, when I unknowingly began my journey back to my childhood Armenian church before it closed forever, I began experiencing a series of little miracles.

The first miracle was the call that started it all. My elderly cousin interacted periodically with my older sister but had never, that I can recall, contacted me. He called me with a purpose. He was helping another cousin with an ancestry search of our Armenian family, and he had run across a name from our shared grandfather’s generation that he had never heard. Would I see if I could find anything in county records, perhaps in church records, he asked. And so the journey began.

The next miracle was locating the church records. The Armenian church which we attended through my childhood and early adulthood was closed – had not held a service since 2011. And finding them required a couple of mini-miracles. I hadn’t had contact with anyone from the church in decades, so I had no idea who to contact. There was one minister, back in the ‘90s, whom I knew from my years in the Armenian Protestant Youth Fellowship. I had no idea where she was, but I thought if she still was an active minister, I probably could find her online. So mini-miracle number one was finding an email address for her and successfully making contact. She had indeed maintained contact with some of the church members, and let me know who, if anyone, could help me. The church building was for sale, and two brothers had taken on the responsibility for keeping it intact while it was awaiting a buyer. I called one of the brothers, who had no idea where the records were – another member had tried to find them for an ancestry search and had not been successful. But he graciously let me into the church. My first visit (of many, it turned out) to my childhood church was shocking and depressing. It was dirty and smelly and was in total disarray. Something told me to look in the office first—although it seemed likely that the other member had done that. Mini-miracle number two was finding the three volumes of church records almost immediately! I obtained permission to borrow the volumes for a week or two, since I didn’t want to hold up the man who so generously came to the church to let me in. And mini-miracle number three was the effect studying the records had on me—a revival of my positive memories of the church and the people I knew. I felt compelled to write the story of the church, and to give the church and congregation a well-deserved closure.

The next miracle was the surprising ease with which I convinced the “guardians” of the church building to support my desire to hold a closure service before the building was sold. They doubted I could do what was needed. But they gave me support for work I couldn’t do (like getting the lights working and the organ functioning). As word spread, others offered assistance with cleaning and logistics. And the closure service (described in a previous post last fall) was welcomed and well attended even as the COVID pandemic required special care.

I posted previously about the miraculous finding of the church photo of my grandfather.

The latest miracle was a while in coming….

As I pored over the church record books, I was grateful that all of the actual records (births, deaths, etc) were in English. But the priceless narratives that could give me so much insight into the early workings of the church were in what I assumed was Armenian. I searched and searched for someone who could translate—but the writing wasn’t really in Armenian. Armenian letters were used, for the most part, but the words were not Armenian. Nor could Turkish sources translate it. We sent samples to a woman and her father in Armenia, and they couldn’t read it. And finally samples were sent to a linguistics expert who concurred that it was a combination of languages and alphabets, and might even have some Arabic in there. I gave up. The contents of the writing of the narrative entries of the church records would remain a mystery. Until this past week, that is! A woman contacted me about a photo I had, and coincidentally mentioned another woman who translated Armenian, Turkish, and a few other languages. I wasn’t hopeful, but I sent this woman some sample pages.

So, the latest miracle, and possibly one of the most exciting: she was able and willing to do the translating! At last, I may learn the inner workings of the church in its early years.

Writing this story was meant to happen. I’m convinced of that by the sheer number of miracles that have stripped away one obstacle after another.

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WHO ARE WE?

Stories about my Armenian ancestors in Turkey—and even their early years in America—were rare. Many family members who never made it to America (or France, or Argentina) simply vanished.

There were tragedies and mysteries. In many cases, families never learned what happened to their missing members; they disappeared and were never heard of again. I tried to use modern search methods for some history of my grandfather’s parents, siblings, and other family members. Very little was revealed.

My family wasn’t unusual. The focus was on thriving in the here and now. And on appreciating the opportunity to be in America–not just to survive, but to thrive and contribute to a community.

I learned more from my elderly cousin than from searchable records. His stories touched on family lore—possibly accurate as far as they went, but with no hard evidence. And yet I hung on those stories, and built some of them into my historical fiction, Armenian  Dances.

Knowing about our family’s past generations—who they were and where they came from—anchors us. Knowing people who knew them opens doors to greater understanding of who we are. It humbles us—could we have survived and accomplished what they did, against such odds?

What’s your family’s story?

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ARMENIAN GENOCIDE: LONG AGO BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

The following article was published by TheCommonerNews.com – an interview with me about President Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and a little about my historical fiction in progress–about the community of Armenians refugees who settled in Troy NY, and the church they built.

Armenian Genocide: Long Ago, But Not Forgotten | The Commoner (thecommonernews.com)

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THE MIRACLE PHOTO

For the last three years I’ve been involved with the process of closing and selling the church where I grew up. It was a sad time, but also a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with old friends, form new friendships, and learn more than I ever knew about the history of the church—and my family’s involvement in it.

The other Armenian churches in the city called ours “the Ninth St Church.” They were Apostolic churches. We were Protestant – Congregational, to be exact. I think they called us that because the reality was our real name was so-o-o-o long: The United Armenian Calvary Congregational Church.

My first read of the earliest history of the church, covering 1906-1946, alerted me to my ancestors’ intimate connection with the formation of “the Ninth Street Church” and its growth over the early decades. In that history there were many photos, along with lists of the earliest members. The original member list for what was then the Armenian Presbyterian Church in 1906 included 3 Essegians out of the total 46 members. They were Hadji Essegian, Boghos Essegian and Margrit Essegian. What surprised me about the list was that it did not contain my grandfather, Mardiros. I knew my grandmother didn’t arrive until 1907 or 1908, depending on which document I looked at. But my grandfather arrived in 1895 and settle in Troy with other Essegians. So why was he not on that list? And he appeared in a photo of the church elders when they built “the Ninth St Church” beginning in 1914.

I’ve learned a lot about Armenians’ Christianity in the past few years that I didn’t know at that first read of the history. A common practice among Armenian men in the old country was to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And those who did so, were called Hadji. My grandfather was the Hadji in that original list.

I never met my grandfather. He and my grandmother both died long before I was born. But just as many others do ancestry searches to learn about their past and celebrate the ancestors they come to know, so I felt an increasing connection with my grandfather as I learned more about him from the church history and from a cousin who recalled him surprisingly clearly. I loved the picture in the church history booklet and tried to make a copy suitable for framing. But it was too old—faded and frayed. I finally gave up.

Then a few weeks ago one of the men I’ve been working with through the church sale process and for organizing the closure service called me about a photo that was found in the church. It was tucked away somewhere, and the new owner contacted him to see if we wanted it saved. He in turn contacted me, because the only name he recognized on the list of those in the photo was my grandfather. Turned out it was a preserved, framed version of the photo in the church history! The question became should it go to the Armenian Missionary Association (because it’s apparently quite valuable) or to me. I had a chat with the Executive Director of the AMAA and said if I could have it for my lifetime, I’d ensure that it went to the AMAA after that. He agreed!

So now I have a “bookends” set of photos about the church: the photo taken at the closure service, and this precious miracle that appeared after I’d given up on having a set of photos of the beginning and ending of the United Armenian Calvary Congregational Church.

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THE ROAD BACK

It was brought to my attention recently that three of my four books are no longer available on Amazon. My first book, Autumn Colors, was published by Author House, and is still available for purchase. However, In Her Mother’s Shoes, Star Catching and The Eyes Have It were published by Dog Ear Publishing, and the company apparently went out of business without reaching out to the hundreds of authors to provide alternatives to their print-on-demand and e-book services. If you go on my author page on Amazon, all four books still show. But the Kindle option was removed from all the Dog Ear Publishing books, and the paperbacks are listed as out of stock.

This wasn’t a detour I wanted to take while trying to make progress on my new book, Armenian Dances. But I couldn’t afford to have no books on Amazon when I begin my search for a traditional publisher for the new one. I had only one choice to get them back up for sale quickly – KDP, or Kindle Direct Publishing. I put it off long enough out of fear of it being way to complicated. But a friend who had completed the process recently offered guidance and encouragement.

Authors can do either e-book publishing or paperback publishing directly on Amazon. I opted to start with Kindle, since that format isn’t shown for any of my last three books. While I did hit a couple of hurdles (my cover art wasn’t in a format that Amazon would accept, and my manuscripts needed layout work and formatting), I sought and found solutions for two covers and am in the process of reformatting the manuscripts. I’m happy to say that the process was WAY easier than I anticipated. I’ve submitted two of my three Dog Ear Publishing books. The Eyes Have It went live today. The application for In Her Mother’s Shoes was accepted and will go live sometime in the next 72 hours. I’m almost done with Star Catching, grateful to the very artistic woman who did the cover for The Eyes Have It (and reformatted it for me to get it up and running) for being able and willing to reformat the cover for Star Catching even though she wasn’t the original artist. Next I’ll contemplate what will be necessary to self-publish each book in paperback format – and hopefully it will be as easy, relatively speaking, as the e-book versions—and won’t cost a ton of money.

THEN I can get back to Armenian Dances!

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ARMENIAN DANCES: THE MAKING OF A HISTORICAL NOVEL

Two years ago, I posted about a plan to write a history of the Armenian church where I spent much of my childhood through young adulthood. I wrote about my earliest research and its impact on me in my 2/4/19 blog post. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the sources I would need for an accurate history were not available to me. There was no consistent paper trail, and the early founders (the church was founded in 1906) were long gone. But all the research I had done up to that point convinced me that I could write it as a historical novel instead. I actually was a little relieved. I had written five previous novels and published four of them. How hard could it be to add a bit of historical perspective to a story?

Then I started reading published historical novels. It became clear to me after the first one (I’ve now read several) that writing a historical novel wasn’t like writing any of my contemporary novels or even the futuristic one, where I could just go into “the zone” and make up a story as I went along. Historical novels have to connect factually to real history. A good one flows and holds you like any other novel, but those details of person, place, things, current events, clothes, geography, living standards, and on and on—those bring the story to life for you, taking you back to the setting time and place like you’re really there.

An old high school English teacher used the phrase “glittering generalities” to describe writing that sounds pretty but says nothing, I realized, painfully, that I needed a lot more research for a substantive story about Armenian refugees escaping the horrors of persecution and annihilation in late 19th century through the early 20th century Ottoman Turkey, and starting new lives– including establishing a church, in Troy, NY. No glittering generalities allowed if you want to hold your readers. You have to lock in their hearts AND their minds.

Since that reality check, I’ve spent another two years on interviews, watching newsreels and videos of interviews with survivors of the genocide, and reading, reading reading: history books, autobibliographies, a book of postcards depicting life in the Armenian villages, doctoral dissertations, religious sources, and on and on. I photographed every page of the official church records and studied them to learn about church life in the early years. I spent six months preparing the church (which had been closed for 9 years) for a final closure service, and arranged all the details of the service. After two and a half years, I’ve finally started writing. And as I’ve shared chapters with people who know Armenian history and personal stories from family members, and the origins of the Armenian Evangelical movement, I’ve done a lot of rewriting – correcting language and facts as I proceed.

I’ve been invested in every novel I’ve written. But that investment is elevated to a new level with this one. It’s much more challenging and invigorating. I’ve formed many new friendships. And I continue to learn with each page and each interaction. I hope to complete a first draft before summer and spend the rest of the year readying for submission to agents and publishers.

(This post was prepared for a new website: https://www.wewhocreate.com. The site owner, Darrell Laurant, has a long and storied writing history. He’s responsible for the site, “Snowflakes In A Blizzard,” featuring amazing books that have not had the circulation they deserve. You should check him out!).

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THE PRODIGAL WRITER

Mea Culpa for my absence – but with an excuse.

My last post was in October 2020 – almost 4 months ago. Wow, has a lot happened since then or what?

While the world was watching the American election mess, I was quietly following in the footsteps of my paternal ancestors – having a heart attack and benefitting from modern medical science with the insertion of two stents. It sort of slowed me down for a while, and then along came the holidays and cardiac rehab, and next think I knew it was 2021.

Although I went through an unproductive period, I started the new year with getting back to business. I completed the first chapter of my Armenian story, working title Armenian Dances. I’ll share a couple of pages of that with you here.

CHAPTER ONE

Marderos

1889

Kharpert, Ottoman Empire

Marderos spotted the Kurd on horseback cresting the hill in the distance when he and his sister, Araxie, returned from school. His village was one of the few with a school for girls, at least to sixth grade. Then girls joined the other women in the family for homemaking chores. Araxie was the first girl in their family who could read and write. Their grandmother, mother and aunt were born before there was a girls’ school. Marderos thought that was sad. But it was the way it was.

The Kurds hated the Armenians. Turkish government alternately encouraged the Kurds in their hatred and cracked down on their violence. Their village and others nearby were going through one of the encouragement phases. There had been several reports of girls violated in nearby villages just in the past few weeks. Fourteen year old Marderos immediately devised a plan to keep his family safe from this Kurd. With his father, brothers and uncle away at the market in the next village, it was his responsibility.

As he secured his knife, he told the women to go to the tunnel and stay until he or the other men in the family returned. His ma’eer, Auntie and Araxie didn’t question him. This wasn’t the first time. Medz ma’eer—his grandmother—huffed her refusal and waved him away.

“They won’t bother with an old woman,” she said, with a characteristic shrug. “And if they come in, I’ll draw attention away from the others.” There was no arguing with his grandmother.

He left his family’s home, making a show of tying the money sack around his waist and headed toward the village square. He knew he would entice the Kurd to pass by the home where his grandmother, mother, aunt and sister were, and come after him and his money sack. That was the plan. He just needed to survive it.

He set off at a trot, not wanting to appear to be running from the Kurd. He heard the horse hooves by then, but still at a safe distance. He increased to a sprint.

The clack of the hooves grew louder. He chanced a glance behind him. At this pace, he was perhaps a minute or two from a near certain bloody and painful death. He had no riches to lose—the sack contained only marbles, not the gold the Kurd likely presumed. He was closing in. Of course. Marderos was fast, but no person could outrun a horse.

Unless…. Unless he could make it to the community well in the square.

The filthy Kurd, one hand on the reins and the other holding his sword high, wouldn’t follow him in the plunge. Of that, Marderos was confident. He wouldn’t risk leaving his horse that likely would run off. And he wouldn’t risk the fall to the water that may or may not be deep enough to avoid death or serious injury. And he probably couldn’t swim.

And he didn’t know the well’s secrets.

Marderos spun right abruptly and turned into a narrow alley between two houses. Maybe too narrow for the horse. At least he hoped it would slow him down or make him go around to the path to the square.

He emerged at the end of the alley and chanced another look back. The Kurd was nearly on him, not at all slowed by the alley. The well was feet away. With a burst of speed, Marderos bolted toward the well and catapulted over the rim, dropping to the water with a loud splash. The water, thankfully, was high. He had anticipated that, after the rains of the last few weeks. It was high enough for him to swim beneath the surface to the drainage pipe, but not so high that the pipe was fully immersed. When he reached the pipe he looked up. Where was the Kurd? He hauled himself up and into the pipe, grateful for once that, at fourteen, he was not fully grown yet. He could slide feet first into the pipe and see to the top of the well.

The Kurd would be furious that a boy, one carrying a sack that he believed contained coins or gold, could outrun and outsmart him. He wasn’t likely to leave without trying to get to Marderos and his sack of precious cargo.

Plunk. Pop. Splash.

The Kurd was dropping rocks into the well. Was he trying to determine how deep the water was? Maybe he thought Marderos was holding his breath under the water and would be hit by the rocks or forced to surface.

Marderos was amazed at how long the Kurd continued this. The sun, nearly overhead when he entered the well, was too low to see now. Now and again the Kurd disappeared from the top of the well and returned minutes later with a new supply of rocks—including a huge one that could have killed Marderos if he had been hit. Finally, the Kurd cursed and shouted something Marderos didn’t understand, tossed a final rock and moved away from the well opening.  Marderos began to breathe normally at last.

He listened for horse hooves taking the Kurd away, but heard nothing. Was he up there hoping to draw the Armenian boy out? He waited what felt like a very long while, what felt like hours, wary that if the Kurd had left, he might return with another plan. The sun was setting, and Marderos was beginning to feel cold. It was time to take a chance.

So then, how to get out of the well?

The light was fading. He had to move fast. He scanned the wall of the well stone by stone. Gradually, the pattern he knew was there emerged. He shimmied out of the drain and reached overhead for a stone that protruded from the others in the pattern that wouldn’t be obvious unless you knew the secret. Anchoring one foot on the top of the drain, he pushed with his feet, pulled with his hands. Feet, hands, push, search for the next stone. Pull, search again, climbing the wall that to most eyes looked fairly smooth, unless you knew about the stepping stones. Push, pull, search again, until at last, breathless, Marderos reached over the top of the well.

He stayed low, scanning the village square around him, making sure the Kurd and his horse were gone. Then he hauled himself up and out, dropping to the ground to recover from the effort before returning to his family. It was late, so possibly his father and brothers would be home by then.

He hated this. Living in fear of the Kurds and the Turks was no way to spend a life. When he was older and carried more weight in the family, he planned to convince his father and uncle that they should start a new life somewhere. His schooling taught him about other countries, places where there were more opportunities, where they could worship in their churches without fear—and most of all, no Turks and barbaric tribes threatening his family and their future. Lebanon, maybe. Or Syria. Or France. He smiled at his final thought, America. Where people were free. Where the penniless could become rich and land was plentiful, as long as you were willing to work hard. Marderos knew about working hard. He grew up watching his family working hard. But between taxes and special leins and theft and —. He stopped walking. The late day air was cool, and his wet clothes didn’t help, but that didn’t matter in the moment.

**********************************************************

The chapter continues, laying the groundwork for the trajectory of the historical novel.

Let me know what you think!

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FAREWELL TO “THE NINTH STREET CHURCH”

Saturday morning, September 26, 2020, dawned cool but promising sunshine, a very positive start for celebrating the 114 year history of the United Armenian Calvary Congregational Church (UACCC) in Troy, NY. It was bittersweet, since it also marked the final service of the church. Sixty-seven members turned out both to celebrate the church and say goodbye.

The service was officiated by Rev. Dr. Avedis Boynerian, pastor of the Armenian Memorial Church in Watertown, MA and member of the AMAA Board of Directors. Special messages on the occasion from the AEWC and the AMAA were read. Rev. Boynerian’s message, Got Is Not Done Yet, recognized the church’s long and active history and the church founders, who fled the massacres in Turkey and arrived in America intent on making new lives and building a new church community.

Participants in the service also received a recorded message from Rev. Joanne Gulezian-Hartunian, who served the church during much of the 1990’s. Her message was You Are The Church. She shared memories of church dinners and Sunday School activities and a growth of the congregation during her time there, and urged members to gather together in the future.

David Vredenberg, member of the American Guild of Organists, was guest Organist.

A very moving and symbolic point in the service was a baptism. The first baby baptized in the UACCC community was Haiganoosh H. Abajian, on September 16, 1906, as recorded in the church records. The baptism of Raffi Allan George Chalian provided a joyous and hopeful note to this final service. Together, the two baptisms became bookends for the spiritual life of the church.

At the closure of the service, attendees gathered at the altar for a group photo, followed by a COVID-friendly reception.

A history table dating back to the earliest days and photos reminded all of the experiences and spiritual strength the church provided its members for 114 years.

And so this chapter of my journey to understand the history and people who founded and grew my childhood church has ended. I’ve emerged with a stronger and more intimate understanding of the spiritual and everyday lives my ancestors and neighbors created after they escaped the hatred and massacres of the Turks and Kurds in the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth century.

The next chapter begins with recreating their stories. Let the writing begin.

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HUMAN STRENGTH

I’ve written very little of my historical fiction about Armenians so far. I’ve spent the past 18 months immersed in research. Since I’ve not written historical fiction before, part of my research has included reading several historical fictions that have done well and had at least some similarity to my topic. A number of those included books about the Jewish holocaust. And, of course, I’ve read stories by and about survivors of the Armenian massacres from 1895 through the early 1920’s.

All of the books struck me as having one stand-out similarity: the strength of the survivors–when the worst was on the horizon, when they were immersed in the horrors, and then, perhaps most amazingly, as they built new lives in new lands.

My most recent novel reading (in between non-fiction sources) included a novel and a novella written by Antonia Arslan. Skylark Farm felt disjointed to me, although it was highly praised – key storyline components seemed to disappear or shift inexplicably. However, the basic story could be discerned behind my confusion. What came through clearly was the rock-hard fortitude of the characters facing unimaginable horrors and cruelty, watching their loved ones brutally murdered, children handed off to strangers in the scant hope of giving them a chance at life.

I read Skylark Farm on Kindle. If there was any up front information, I skipped over it to get to the story.

Silent Angel was a soft cover book, and right on the title page it read “Translated by Siobhan Nash-Marshall.” Aha – that may have explained my issues with Skylark Farm. Reading Silent Angel was a joy – smooth and clear, and a beautifully touching (if tragic) story. Perhaps different translators. Perhaps a less complex (and shorter) story to translate.

Silent Angel

What struck me in both of these, as well as the stories I’d read previously, was the strength with which the Armenians dealt with abject cruelties and tragic losses–unimaginable decisions in unimaginable circumstances. Determination to accept death when there’s no alternative, and equal determination to create a new life–strengthened by the Christian Armenians’ unfaltering connection with God.

 

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BIRTH OF AN ARMENIAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY

Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing into the first three decades of the twentieth century, a community of Protestant Armenians left the horrific persecutions of Armenian Christians in Turkey and arrived and thrived in the city of Troy, NY.  According to the church history, “This land of the free and the brave was then offering refuge to those who were persecuted, massacred, and treated with injustice. Those who had lost their freedom and liberty of worship, of press, and of speech; those who were oppressed and ill treated and whose lives were in constant danger by cruel governments, sought and found refuge in this part of the world…. Troy was not an exception in offering haven to the newcomers, so that after the massacre of 1895 in Turkey, a stream of Armenians overflowed this city.” Many of the Protestants initially settled in a 6-7 block square surrounding the Protestant Armenian church.

The church history, completed in 1946, went on to describe the city’s new arrivals: “The first immigrants were poor and bewildered. They naturally did not know the language of the country and were treated as foreigners. All these deprivations could not discourage these freedom-loving and progressive people. Especially nothing could hinder them from rebuilding their churches which they revered so much in their own country. In order to be able to quench the spiritual thirst and hunger…they gathered together and wanted to start some kind of a religious organization.”

Three of my ancestors were among the first forty-six chartered members of the Armenian Presbyterian Church they founded in 1906: Hadji S. Essegian, Boghos Essegian, and Margrit Essegian.

As happens in churches to this day, there were challenges and disagreements within the congregation, which led to a split between the Presbyterians and those of the congregation who were originally Congregationalists. The Congregationalists split off in 1910, shortly after the original church was completed.

The Congregationalists eventually built a new church, begun in 1916 while reports of slaughter, terrible massacres and deportations of Armenians in Turkey were beginning to arrive. As a result, the new church was named the Armenian Calvary Congregational Church of Troy, in commemoration of a martyred nation, holding fast to their faith, following her master to Calvary.

9th St Church in 1916

The two protestant Armenian churches reunited in 1919, choosing the new church–renamed the United Armenian Calvary Congregational Church of Troy, NY–as the place of worship, and the original Presbyterian church became the parsonage. Another of my ancestors, Paul Essegian, was elected to the first joint Board of Church Committee. As the history reads, “With a strong Church Committee and a United congregation, the Church could not fail.” Under the leadership of the first pastor, Rev. Samuel Rejebian, the church flourished.

Early Sunday School (2)

As did the Armenian community in Troy, into the 21st Century.

 

 

 

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