The old man sits in the corner watching the activity all around him. People walk up and say hello in a voice loud enough to penetrate his growing deafness. He greets all of them with the same enthusiasm but doesn’t get up from his seat. It’s a privilege he’s earned. His tanned weathered face with its smooth scalp does not give away his true age which is a couple of decades more than one would assume – an impression reinforced by the firm grip of his handshake.
He’s affectionately called “Babo” by his family which includes children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He is a few months shy of his 100th birthday but his gaze is sharp and misses none of the action going on around him: the cluster of husbands and fathers chatting near his him, his son with his own grandchildren around the barbecue, older children climbing into the fig tree to pick the ripened fruit and the young parents with their friends at the far end of the garden sipping their wine and watching him in return.
“He has to stop using the chainsaw,” Jeff says, a family friend, during a lull in an unrelated conversation. He shakes his head and laughs along as the absurdity of the statement dawns on his audience and each in turn start to chuckle at the image it evokes. Everyone turns to look at Babo sitting across the grassy expanse of the backyard. It seems Babo has a propensity to use a chainsaw to trim the fruit trees in his backyard while precariously perched on a homemade ladder.
“Our mail lady gives us the news,” Ani, his granddaughter explains. “Her parents live next door to him and they’ve been friends for a long time.”
Since his wife’s death a number of years ago, Babo has lived on his own. Fiercely independent, he refuses to have a caretaker, visiting housekeeper or an occasional gardener near his home, choosing to do all those tasks for himself. “He says he doesn’t want to worry about whether his zipper is down or not,” jokes his son Haig who lives across town but makes sure that his father is included in all their family plans and functions including visits to the gym to exercise with a private trainer.
Babo is spry and active, much more than most people many years younger than him. Last year he participated in the Senior Olympics and won a medal for his division. “Any one over 95 years old automatically wins,” clarifies Haig. Still, to be strong enough to participate in any way at Babo’s age deserve a medal.
Born in Kessab , Syria in 1910, Babo, along with his mother and four siblings, was deported during the Genocide of 1915. They narrowly escaped a doomed fate and ended up in Jordan. His father, a high ranking officer in the Turkish army – where Kessab was located at the time – was senselessly killed by fellow officers. “They [the Turks] were loosing the war and they were encouraged and rewarded for killing gavoors [non Muslims] as retaliation,” Babo says as his voice cracks with emotion. After a while, the remaining family members slowly made their way back to their home village in the mountains. “My mother sustained all five children on grass and wild berries,” he explains, pride in his mother’s accomplishment evident in his voice even as he uses a few choice, unflattering epithets to describe those who caused his family so much distress. Almost nine decades later, his memories of that time are still vivid, his hatred for the Turks still fresh, and the loss of his father still poignant.
At eighteen, Babo left Kessab for good and became a mechanic, a specialist working for the British army. When the British retreated from the territory a few years later, he decided to emigrate and finally settled in Los Angeles . He arrived with his young mail-order-bride from Kessab and set up shop in the City of Angels where he raised his young and rapidly growing family.
The soon to be centenarian acknowledges his advancing years by refusing to celebrate his 99th birthday. He claims it would be bad luck, attracting the dreaded “evil eye” and thus preventing him from reaching the 100 year mark. He also admits that his hearing has gone and his eyesight has begun to fail. This last claim is definitively rejected by Haig who is surprised when he hears of it. “He reads every newspaper from cover to cover everyday,” he says to counteract his fathers statement. Babo likes to stay informed and up to date of current events. In fact, later in the day, he is found in the adjoining room deeply engrossed in his reading, with a stack of Armenian newspapers by his armrest, both in English and Armenian.
Although everyone would like to believe that Babo no longer climbs the fruit trees he’s planted and nurtured for many years in his backyard, the mail lady’s update and Jeff’s reference to the chainsaw shatters that illusion.
“I hope he wasn’t cutting down the apple tree,” exclaims Ani when she hears of the chainsaw incident. “He doesn’t like apples and he’s been hacking away at that tree for a while,” she explains. Despite her grandfather’s disdain for apples, his love of the land and the tradition of farming – in evidence in anyone born in the mountainous village of orchards and vines, is still unmistakably present in Babo, even eight decades after leaving it behind. He grows lemons, loquats, tomatoes, figs, grapefruit and many others both in his yard and his son’s.
The family’s pride and admiration of their patriarch is clear. They speak to him with affection, include him in their activities at every opportunity, respect his thoughts and opinions and openly display their fierce love for him – even if they occasionally feel compelled to shake their head in disbelief at some of his antics.
Perhaps it’s the active lifestyle, the healthy living, the astute mind or the love and affection of his family and friends that has caused Babo’s longevity. Or perhaps it’s a combination of all those factors, each necessary and vital in their own way to a person’s overall well being. We can only hope to live a long, full and as a rich a life as Babo.