BY MARY NAJARIAN
Sixty years ago on a cold, windy evening in September, I arrived at the Nurse’s Dormitory on 222 East Delaware St. in Chicago. I was 22 years old, a newly graduated nurse from American University of Beirut. I had secured a job to work as a cardiac surgical nurse at Wesley Memorial Hospital in Chicago. My housing accommodations were made by the hospital at the dormitory that was only a few blocks away from the hospital. I walked to the desk and introduced myself to the clerk. They were expecting me, and the hospital had reserved a room for me on the second floor. However, the clerk could not give me the key to the room unless I paid the first month’s rent of $30.00, which I did not have.
Three days prior, on September 11, 1957, I had landed in New York from Beirut, with $100.00 in my purse. I stayed with Sonia Bogosian, a classmate of mine from nursing school. The second day I was in New York, Sonia took me to Macy’s to purchase a white nurse’s uniform, and a pair of white shoes in preparation for my first day of orientation at Wesley Memorial Hospital. With the rest of the money, I purchased an airline ticket from New York to Chicago. All that was left from my $100.00 was a few dollars and some change.
I tried to explain to the clerk that I did not have $30.00, and I would pay her once I started work. She was firm, “I can’t give you the key unless you pay first month’s rent in advance. It is the rule.” Nonetheless, she was kind enough to let me stay in the lobby for the night. So the first night I curled up on the sofa in the lobby and slept. The next morning, the clerk called the hospital administrator, who guaranteed my rent payment, and only then was I given the key to my room.
I did not know anyone in Chicago. There were a few familiar faces from American University of Beirut; interns and residents who were training at Wesley Memorial Hospital, but they hardly acknowledged my presence. Other than those few doctors, I was a total stranger in the big city.
But I was hopeful that eventually things would get better. I was counting on this very special letter given to me by Hovsep Amoo (Uncle Hovsep) from Aleppo, a distant relative of my maternal grandmother. Hovsep Amoo gave me the letter and requested that I deliver it to his cousin, Mr. Artur Hagopian, who was living in Chicago for the last thirty years. Hovsep Amoo assured me, “When my cousin Artur reads the letter and finds out who you are, he will take care of you. You will have a second family in Chicago.” I was hopeful that once I delivered the letter to Mr. Hagopian my problems would be solved.
I was carrying the sealed letter in my purse with Mr. Hagopian’s telephone number written on the envelope. I knew this precious letter would open doors for me in this strange big city, and make me feel at home. I was anxiously looking forward to meeting my distant Armenian relatives and becoming part of their family.
A few days after I arrived to Chicago, I called Mr. Hagopian to let him know I had a letter for him from his cousin Hovsep Amoo. He seemed polite, and asked me, “How is my cousin Hovsep? And where are you staying?” He took my telephone number, and said he would be in touch with me and pick up his letter.
Weeks went by and I did not hear from Mr. Hagopian. One Saturday morning on my weekend off, I called again to remind him about the letter from his cousin. I hoped he would come and perhaps take me to his house to meet his family. I thought they might even invite me to stay the weekend with them. My conversation with Mr. Hagopian was short. “I have been very busy. When I get a chance, I will come and pick up the letter,” he said.
Weeks passed and It was the middle of December. I had been in Chicago for three months now. The whole city was celebrating Christmas. I had never seen so much joy and excitement, the Christmas trees, the music, the caroling, especially at night with the colorful lights all over town, it was overwhelming. While the entire city celebrated the holiday season, I would go to my little room alone, and cry myself to sleep. Somehow the holidays make a lonely person lonelier. I missed my family and my friends, but I was still holding on to the letter with hopes that perhaps Mr. Hagopian would show up and invite me to celebrate Christmas with his family. When I did not hear from Mr. Artur Hagopian, I was sure he must have lost my telephone number.
A few days before Christmas, I called him one more time and reminded him that I was holding a letter for him from his cousin. This time he was curt and said, “Why don’t you open the letter and read it to me, and let me know what he says. I bet he wants money. You Armenians from the Old Country think, here in America the dollar grows on trees.” I was shocked. I was hurt. I was angry. I was disappointed. Holding back my tears, I opened the envelope. My voice trembling, I read the letter from Hovsep Amoo to his cousin, Mr. Artur Hagopian.
My Dear Cousin,
I hope you and the family are well and in good health. This letter bearer Mary Kevorkian, is a very special person to us. She is the granddaughter of our God Mother, Gnkamayr Oghaper. Remember, thirty years back when we arrived Aleppo from Turkey, we stayed at Mary’s grandmother’s house. Gnkamayr took care of us. Mary is a nurse and she has a job in a hospital in Chicago. In addition to working in the hospital, she is planning to go to school at night. She has no one in Chicago. I wish you welcome her and make her feel part of your family.
As for my family, Azniv and I are fine. The boys, Alec and Aram are grown up and they are a big help to me in the shop. Our auto repair business is doing fairly well. We bought a bigger house in the Armenian section of Aleppo. God willing, we will have Alec’s wedding in May. I will mail you the invitation. We hope you can join us. What a great celebration that should be!
God Bless you and Your Family,
Your Cousin, Hovsep
I don’t remember if Mr. Artur Hagopian ever said thank you to me for reading Hovsep Amoo’s letter.
Due to the shortage of nurses at the hospital, I was working overtime, sometimes 10 -12 hours a day, and in the evenings, going to school at Northwestern University. I was too busy to feel lonely and feel sorry for myself. It took me a while, but eventually I met some acquaintances, made new friends, and adjusted to my new environment.
Sixty Christmas’s have come and gone. I still remember my first Christmas on 222 East Delaware street, in Chicago, lonely, scared, not knowing what the future was holding for me. But I always thank God for opening the doors and guiding me to come to this great country. No other place in the world would have given me the unparalleled opportunities I have had here in America.
And of course, I’ll never forget Hovsep Amoo’s letter to his cousin Mr. Artur Hagopian, whom I never had a chance to meet.