BY ARMEN BACON
“What was your grandmother like,” she queried me one night after her three younger siblings had fallen fast asleep. Priding herself as the night owl of the foursome, I acknowledged her prowess as we took turns reading passages from Dr. Seuss, Fancy Nancy, and Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree, the latest favorite in her collection. Snuggled beneath a hand-made quilt made by my mother, her great-grandmother, I whispered in her ear: Snug as a bug in a rug. Here we were, just the two of us – comfy, cozy, enveloped in layers of love. One of those magical moments you want to bottle, remember, save for a rainy day. My own children had enjoyed this same ritual (with my mother) during their growing up years, more than a quarter century ago – memories that suddenly unfurled in front of me. Smiling in a moment of sheer contentment, I knew that generation to generation, babysitting remained high on the list of treasured and sacred grandmotherly duties.
At the ripe age of six, this now-graduate of kindergarten, already a voracious reader, delighted in extra bedtime privileges, although in the lateness of the hour, I noticed her twirling the ends of her hair, forming miniature sausage ringlets, a pair of tiny milk chocolate eyes fluttering until finally, they dropped shut. She had positioned herself just so – a wishful gesture knowing full well I would rub her back, tickle the backsides of her arms, cradle her in my arms, which of course I did without hesitation. These were our special times together, a series of unsung melodies between grandmother and grandchild. I rocked her gently, causing her to stir ever so slightly, eyes peering out from blanketed lids. In a hushed, muted whisper, she asked her question again, what was your grandmother like, but drifted off, leaving me alone with my faded, ancient memories.
What was my grandmother like? Closing my eyes, I tumbled back through time. There she appeared. Tall, stern, statuesque. Face made of porcelain. A perfect straight line wearing thick cotton hose, bagging at the knees. An old woman adorned in a house coat scattered with miniature flowers congregating at the waist. Aging loose skin sagging over a distant skeleton, one she often told me resided in her homeland – Armenia. My name was derived from this place that held her heart.
Too naive to know better, I thought the blue veins of highway permanently etched onto her hands could easily transport her back in time, to another life, the other world she rarely spoke of. We begged for her stories, but she refrained, eyes transfixed in some faraway land. I hunted for clues, remnants from her past, only to find enchantment from old world wall hangings and chipped demitasse coffee cups, arranged in perfect order and resting on a shelf in the dining room curio cabinet. My favorite artifact – a framed alphabet under glass, was crowded with indecipherable letters embossed onto yellowing parchment, gilded with gold curved exotic letters, written in her native language. While she worked in her kitchen, I loved tracing them with my fingers. Fingers eager to gather dust, history, memory – in search of her story.
One afternoon, she taught us an old world string game using a ball of twine she kept tucked beneath the sink. Like Houdini, she knotted the thread into a perfect circle, then, without hesitation, using frail wrists that crisscrossed the threads, she twisted and contorted her fingers. First over then under, eliciting giggles and laughter from curious eyes watching shapes come and go. She mesmerized and delighted. The string appeared then disappeared. Thread carefully wrapped around fingers, hearts, families, generations – us.
We made fun of her thick Middle Eastern accent but loved brushing the cascading white hair that fell below her waist. She smelled like a grandmother marinated in mothballs, and kissed us even when we made fun of the way she pronounced her consonants. A set of pursed lips, trying to speak English, saying “San Frans-co,” for the city she loved; greeting guests with her signature, “How you are,” a mismatched set of salutatory words. Our youthful, disrespectful laughter easily rattled her – forcing her to revert back to a dialect of silence, shame, broken parts, a voice trapped beneath her tongue.
We called her “Nanny,” no matter how the words spilled from her mouth.
She belonged to all of us – my two sisters, our three cousins, sons and daughters of her boys Souren and Edward. Edward was my father. I learned later that there had been another child – my father’s twin brother, who perished shortly after birth. She never mentioned him, but there were times when she would walk us to the neighborhood grocery store and a mother and infant would pass us by in the produce aisle. It caused her posture to change – shoulders slouching, drooping, withering, as if she were suddenly carrying bags of invisible groceries. Her stance shifted, she would hurry our excursion, pick up one or two essentials, and then abandon the shopping cart and swiftly walk us home without saying a word. Gripping her purse handles as if to be holding on for dear life, she would exhale the moment she landed on her front porch. Once inside, she would drop to her rocking chair, reach inside the purse, and with a strange combination of regret, sorrow and apology, hand us each a piece of coffee candy from the stash she kept in one of the side pockets. Grabbing a hankie for herself, she would place it near her eyes, then hold it near the base of her nose momentarily, and finally rise to resume grandmother duties.
I would get to know her better years later, after her death, at family gatherings, reunions, in photographs carrying stories outside the margins of fading black and whites. Her scent would linger for years. A fragrance of lilacs from her garden, and soap she made from scratch.
She died a few weeks after I married, in 1976. Her belly began to swell, filled with the cancer that accompanied her to her grave. My father told us she had died long before – a natural reaction to watching one’s siblings and relatives massacred, he explained. We buried her in the mauve satin dress she wore at my wedding – the one she proudly announced made her feel like royalty. None of us ready to say goodbye, we recounted stories and memories and bickered over keepsakes: hand crocheted lace that covered the arms of her rocking chair, the family bible, a brass coffee maker, hankies with embroidered pansies, roses. A framed family portrait.
Mostly I remember the softness of her organza dress rubbing along my cheek as I lay on her lap in the back seat of our 1961 station wagon; her wrinkled hand guarding my shoulder while she spoke a foreign language I would not understand until five decades later.
The back door swung open and in walked my daughter and her husband. My granddaughter, deep in slumber, remained perfectly still. With visions still stirring in my head, I myself hesitated moving – not wanting to disturb the memories of this perfect evening – one that delivered the past, present and future into my arms.