My current project began with a plan to write a history of the Armenian Church where I spent much of my childhood and teen years. It’s evolved since its original conception and likely will evolve further as I continue my research. Some of the things I’ve learned have not surprised me—although I hadn’t considered them when starting out. Others have both surprised and dismayed me. But the biggest surprise has been the increasing connection I’ve felt with my Armenian ancestry. The result of this last finding has been to nudge my book focus more toward that ancestry, with the church history playing a supporting role rather than being the sole focus.
What I’ve learned:
• Armenians—men and women—are a strong, resilient, adaptive, and intelligent nationality. Over centuries, their home country’s borders have changed, and their faith (they were among the first Christians) made them the target of the predominantly Moslem Turks, most notably during the massacres spanning 1895-1922, the most well-known period being the genocide of 1914-1917. The latter included death marches, rapes of young women (and boys), and targeted annihilation of men, women and children.
• Hundreds of thousands of Armenians who survived and/or were able to escape to safer neighboring countries eventually immigrated legally to America. Most of those immigrants and virtually all of their children assimilated into the American culture and became American citizens.
• The early Armenians, before and after immigration, most likely didn’t choose their spouse. Their marriages were arranged—sometimes through agreements when they were still children.
• First generation Armenians’ lives revolved around family and church.
• Men worked and managed the money. Women lived with their parents until married and rarely worked outside the home. Once married, they took care of children and the home, and supported the husband. Since multiple generations lived together, the women often were called upon to care for parents and grandparents. (Wedding Photo)
• As a young child in our church, the adults were addressed as Mr., Mrs., or Miss. We rarely saw church members away from church activities, so children and teens didn’t get to know “the adults,” both men and women, in any depth. My strongest recollections of the church ladies was a pinch of my cheek accompanied by “inchbes es” (how are you?) – and sometimes a kiss on a nose or forehead or cheek that left a bright red lip imprint. The church men rarely spoke to the children, at least not to girls. As a result, I never really knew those elders, even those of my parents’ generation. Since I started my research and have had conversations with many of these women (most in their late eighties and up to almost 100), I have been delighted by the warm, friendly women I’m getting to know. The real people, not the limited cardboard cutout of my childhood experience. Many of these women have begun sharing stories of their younger years and what they remember of their parents’ experiences.
Since I didn’t know the men at all, I’ve chosen to meet with the women first. In later posts I will describe my interviews with the men – no first generation church members still alive, but I hope their offspring will have stories to share.
And finally . . .
• Strong people have strong ideas and opinions—in relationships, in work settings, in countries, even in a church that once played a central role in people’s lives. Unwillingness to be open to someone else’s ideas or try new approaches with an evolving congregation can, and in this case did, bring about the church’s demise.
A new friend who has been making documentary films about the Armenians for decades advised me: “Do your interviews and research first. The direction of your story will flow naturally from what you learn along the way.”
My journey continues.