Saturday, April 18, 2015


An excerpt of this essay appeared in The New York Times in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

My grandmother’s name was Pailadzou, but the inspector at Ellis Island translated her name as Mercury—the winged messenger of the ancient Roman gods. Sometimes I like to imagine the inspector. (He looks like Kafka, but with glasses.) Who was this gatekeeper between worlds? Such an important figure in my grandmother’s future, and for future generations, shouldn’t be anonymous. Was he was a poetic existentialist trapped in a stifling, bureaucratic job? Did he fall instantly in love with my beautiful grandmother, sympathize with her plight, and decide then and there to give her an auspicious name? Or was he just bored and cynical?

          Pailadzou Tutunjian was born in Ada Bazaar, Turkey, in 1894. She grew up on a farm and had to quit school to work. Eventually a wealthy Turkish family in Constantinople employed her before she secured passage on a ship called The King Alexander in 1921.

          My mother, Roxanne (Araxie), was born here and grew up in the Bronx, surrounded by extended family who trickled into the neighborhood. Armenian was her first language. Her father, Haroutoun Sanossian, lost most of his family in the massacre. She told me she hated hearing him talk about it. He would get so angry.

          My mother and grandmother raised me, but I’m only half-Armenian. I understand Armenian but I can barely speak the language. Still, I clarify my own butter to make pilaf, the way my grandmother taught me, and I’ve been told I have an Ada Bazaartzi accent.

          My grandmother’s sister, Aghavny, buried a daughter on the death march. I learned that only recently from a cousin of mine over email. I don’t know for sure if my grandmother was on the march because she never talked about it. Armenian families were driven from their homes with whatever they could carry and forced into the Syrian desert. Many died along the way, or were killed. 
My grandmother, Pailadzou, second from right, with her siblings.
Her sister Aghavny, seated center, holds her daughter's hand.
          My grandmother’s silence troubles me. You mustn’t confuse it with the silence of the Turks—a denial that serves as a continuing violence to every Armenian and anyone who values human rights. Denial means we allow it to happen again and again today, to the Palestinians in Israel, to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, to everyone everywhere who is targeted because of race or ethnicity.

          My grandmother had kind, sparkling eyes. Even well into her 80s, she prepared dolma, tended our garden, and I can’t remember a day when she wasn’t cheerful, energetic, and loving. I understand my grandmother’s silence as a way of ensuring a sense of stability and normalcy. Keeping her mouth shut came at a price I can only guess at. Some mornings she would wake up with her mouth covered in blisters. My mother and I always knew this meant she had dreamt of the massacre, but still she wouldn’t speak of it. It’s easier for me to imagine the inspector’s face than my grandmother’s suffering. Only once do I recall her describing an atrocity: how the Turks, laughing, stabbed the bellies of pregnant Armenian women as they were giving birth. I assumed that this was something she had heard about. There is so much I will never know about the woman who raised me. I wish now that I could raise my voice and speak for her.

This year (this month, in fact) marks the centennial of the Armenian genocide, and the AG Campaign for Genocide Awareness website has gathered hundreds of personal accounts and family stories. I'm honored that my grandmother's story has been included here (in slightly different form) with so many other important stories.