BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
My earliest memory of my dad goes back to when I was two or three years old in Tehran. That specific moment is engraved in my mind. I see him and I, walking together on the sidewalk by the Turkish Embassy, which still stands at the same corner, where avenue Istanbul meets Ferdowsi.
The embassy building was in the middle of a yard which was enclosed by an iron fence—topped on balustrades. As I recall, my father lifted me up and put me on that short wall, which probably was higher than my head. He said, “Don’t be afraid, I will hold your hand and you can walk on the edge.”
In many other similar instances, and sometimes even in unspoken words, he taught me to be bold and courageous.
On every Father’s Day when he was still alive, I wanted to write him a letter and to tell him how he had shaped my character.
Finally, last year on Father’s Day after ten fatherless years, I managed to sit down, compose my thoughts, and put them on paper.
To write this letter, I went to Glendale’s Downtown Central Library because he loved to spend time there. Reading was a constant in his life.
He came to America — to Glendale, California —when he was 65, an age that most people retire from work. However, he was able to find an appropriate job and continued to work until he was in his 80s.
When he retired, almost every day after having breakfast, he would walk about 10 blocks from the apartment he shared with my mom, to the library. He was an avid reader, and the library was like a sanctuary to him. I can imagine how much he would have enjoyed the recent $15-million renovation of the library.
When he became frail and could no longer walk the distance, he asked me to get him a subscription to the Reader’s Digest. And I did. I got one for him and a subscription for myself.
As far back as I can remember, when I was still a child, my father had a subscription to the Reader’s Digest. His best friend from Paris had given him a lifetime subscription to its French language edition. When my father died at age 91, to honor his memory, for a few years after his death, I kept the magazine coming to my door.
When he was 10 or 11 years old, his family had moved from Tehran to Paris, and French became his primary language with which to communicate. When his family moved back to Tehran, he used his knowledge of several languages to become a translator.
His main job was at the Iranian National Railroad, where he had met my mom who worked there also. He moonlighted as an agent for merchants who imported all sorts of products — goods as varied as medicine and cosmetics to appliances and more — from Europe or the United States.
When he died, one of those merchants who had worked with him for more than fifty years came to see my mom to express his condolences. With teary eyes, he told us stories about how my dad had helped them in growing their business and the virtues that made him an indispensable associate.
He recalled an episode that had happened many years ago in Tehran. “It was late at night, when I came to your door,” he said. “I woke you up and asked Mr. Sarkissian (my dad) to drive with me to the main telephone and telegraph office in downtown Tehran to make an urgent telegram regarding a business matter.” He continued, “He was a selfless man, always ready to help.”
Integrity and honesty were virtues that his clients valued most. He would NEVER reveal any business matter from one client to another. His clients were mostly Jewish or Bahai and when they fled the persecution of the Islamic regime and came to America, my father continued to work for them here in Los Angeles.
Spending his teenage years in France had made him a progressive dad. Or maybe he had acquired that mindset through his passion for reading. Or maybe because he grew up in a household where the rules were very relaxed. My mom, however, did not appreciate his avant-garde ways.
I saw Mom and Dad as the odd couple. He was very tall, and Mom was short. Although they were both Armenian, they came from different backgrounds. Mom came from a family with strict rules. Conversely, he was brought up in a relaxed household. Mom was relentless in keeping the house neat and clean. He was the opposite. Mom was more materialistic and she had more status anxiety. and Dad was more worldly.
He was adventurous in trying new food and wellness trends. He introduced us to many exotic dishes that were virtually unknown at the time.
Mom was raised to be a pampered, fussy eater and she didn’t share his passion for culinary adventures. She didn’t approve of him to follow the latest health fads that he had read about them in magazines or books. She believed everything in moderation is the the key to healthy living.
Close to our apartment in Tehran, on Shah-Reza avenue, there was a delicatessen store, called “Bon Ami,” which had a good selection of imported foreign foods. Dad would buy all sorts of imported cheeses, sauces and cold-cuts from there. My friend Anna says that the first time she tried “A1 steak sauce” was at our home. And that was maybe 60 years ago before they had immigrated to the United States.
At a time when the word “vegetarian” was unheard of, for a short few years, for health reasons, Dad tried to follow a vegetarian diet, which created a lot of friction between him and Mom. During his vegetarian years, he refused to eat our regular food or enjoy the delight to eat an ice cream or a cake—and my mom didn’t like it at all.
The complaints of Mom towards Dad were many and varied. She criticized him for working long hours, reading a lot, or not eating the regular food that was prepared at home.
Here’s another complaint, which sums up their friction and also illustrates Dad’s prescient knowledge.
When I was one or two, according to Mom, Dad would put me on his lap, and with a bowl of mushy-rice in front me on the table, he would encourage me to eat with my fingers. To my mom that was like committing a sin, because the interaction was incongruent with refined manners Mom was brought up with.
Interestingly, during the last few decades, a lot of new behavioral discoveries in child development tell us that kids in early childhood should be encouraged to eat with their fingers, because it’s good for character building…
I regret so much that when Dad was telling stories, particularly about their stay in Paris, I didn’t pay more attention.
After his death, I found out that he had kept journals almost all his life. The first volume is a red hardcover notebook, from when he was 21 in 1936 until I was born, in 1948. That one is in French.
There are more volumes, in English, from the time he moved to America in 1980. How I wish I had read those journals while he was still alive and had discussed them with him.
I wish I had sat next to him and held his hands and told him how much I had learned from him and how he had instilled in me courage and how he had made me into a free-spirited woman. But I didn’t. And I regret the unspoken thoughts that stayed inside me.
Sorry, Dad. It took me so long to write this letter. I want to tell you that you will always live inside me. and very close to my heart and I miss you…