This Memorial Day Weekend, the World War II War memorial was dedicated in Washington DC. Sixteen million Americans served in the Armed Forces during the war. Many of the remaining Veterans are over seventy years of age and are estimated to be passing on at the rate of 1,100 per day. In watching the dedication ceremony and peripheral events on C-Span and being Memorial Day weekend, my thoughts drifted to my Great Uncle Rouben, the closest World War II Veteran I have known.
My paternal grandfather’s family, the Kharagavoorian’s, were from a small village of Keserig in Kharpert or the Ottoman Vilayet of Mamuret El-Aziz. Kharpert means stone citadel in Armenian. The Turks called it Harput and Keserig has become Kesrik or Kesrig. The city of Kharpert in the state by the same name has been replaced by the city of Elaziğ, basically the El-Aziz part of the Turkish name for the state Mamuret El-Aziz. I have never seen the place though a few cousins have made a pilgrimage there.
I do not know much about life in Keserig one hundred years ago when Armenians still lived there. I have read memoirs and personal histories of the nearby villages of Parchanj and Husenig. Life was agrarian and difficult in terms of scraping out a living as subjects of the Ottoman Empire. I know that Keserig was known for the size and quality of their Lahana cabbages. They were so big, you could actually sit on them! The people of Keserig, the Kesergsis, had the habit of chewing on the cores of these cabbages and were known as Kok grdzogh Kesergsis (Core chewers of Keserig). As I said, those were simpler and more agrarian times.
My grandfather, Aram, passed away in 1959 when I was six. I felt horrible to have lost a doting grandfather at such a young age. With time, I felt cheated in not having gotten to know him better as I grew from child to teen to adult. The sense of having missed out was intensified when others would relate memories of my grandfather. Still to this day, though with less and less frequency, someone will approach me after I have given a speech or performed musically and tell me they knew my grandfather. They would tell me of the appliance store he owned or what a great orator he was.
But I was lucky; I had a surrogate grandfather, my great Uncle Rouben. He was the youngest of six Kharagavoorian children. There were three brothers: Aram, my Grandfather, Sisag, and Rouben. There were three sisters, Markarid, Arshaluis and Yeghsapert. I was fortunate enough to know all but Markarid. They were all different and all very special to me. But in truth the one I knew the best was Uncle Rouben. Uncle Rouben and Aunt Rose Marie were never blessed with children. His nephews and nieces were like his children, his great nieces and nephews were like his grandchildren.
Uncle Rouben served in World War II. He was in his thirties and was actually drafted. He was proud to serve his adopted and beloved United States. He began in the field artillery but hurt his back, I believe lifting the shells and powder bags. He was befriended by an officer who got him a job as a translator and journalist. Uncle Rouben never served in combat.
Uncle Rouben being among the youngest of the generation the experienced and survived the Massacre of the Armenians that began in 1915 found himself in the United States in the 1920s at an early enough age to attend high school here. He graduated from Medford High School in Massachusetts. The summer of his graduation, Uncle Rouben and a close Armenian classmate, Markar, took a late model jalopy outfitted with a one wheel trailer for their luggage and went on a tour of the western United States. We still have souvenirs of that trip, landscapes painted oval cross-sections of redwood. He loved to talk about that trip with Markar. Uncle Rouben reconnected with our relatives that moved to Fresno, California after the Turkish atrocities. I am thinking that this trip was so wonderful for him because it happened in this great country just a few years after experiencing the loss of his parents, his homeland and struggling to escape Turkey. Next thing, he is in the United States, attending and graduating from High School, and then touring the expanses of this great country with his chum. What a contrast in a span of less than ten years.
Thereafter, he moved to New York. He attended New York University, working his way through school as a soda jerk at what he always told us was the finest fountain shop in Manhattan. He loved to tell the story of how, when they had the opening of the George Washington Bridge, he was the first to cross the span on foot. He graduated with a degree in economics and then went on to get a master’s in Journalism also from NYU.
After World War II, he and Aunt Rose Marie moved to Washington DC and began a career in the Foreign Service. In his time with the State Department, he worked in US embassies in Yugoslavia, Nepal and the Sudan. He worked the budget and accounting department. Uncle Rouben and Aunt Rose Marie made countless friends, many Armenian, in their years of living abroad.
Until my teens, I only knew of Uncle Rouben and Aunt Rose Marie from the letters they would send from these remote and exotic locations. I never even talked to him until I was fourteen. He was in Washington on home leave and called. I only spoke to him for a few minutes as “long distance” calls were both rare and expensive in those days. But, we corresponded. I loved getting letters from him. He always would ask all of his grand nieces and nephews if we “kept up with our correspondence.” No one talks that way these days.
When he retired from government service in 1970, he settled in Rye, New Hampshire, a quaint New England town on New Hampshire’s short and scenic coastline. He chose Rye because his sister Yeghsa had settled there. He got to know and love it from visiting his sister and her family. Once he moved back to the states, we really got to know each other. He and Aunt Rose Marie visited us in Detroit, we visited him in New Hampshire. On any trip to Boston, I would stop and visit him and in the 1980’s I was there quite often on business.
On of the most special times with Uncle Rouben was 1983. My son Aram, who he loved to call Aram Pasha, was two. We had spent the day at the beach. Aram amused us by running back and forth on the beach in utter glee with a three foot long seaweed frond in tow. We went back to Uncle Rouben’s house on Pine Street, cleaned up and had an early supper. After the meal, Uncle Rouben, Uncle Charlie who is married to Yegsha’s daughter Mary, and I went and sat on the front porch. Uncles Rouben and Charlie took out their pipes and began filling them with tobacco. I cannot remember if I had a pipe with me, which would have been rare, or Uncle Rouben offered me one his, which is more likely. But, I found myself sitting on the front porch on a beautiful sunny, blue skied, lightly breezy August afternoon with two generation of elders, all of us puffing on pipes. We talked a bit, punctuated by drawing on our pipes, tamping, lighting and relighting the tobacco. It was nothing special but memorable and glorious nonetheless to the point that I bought some pipe tobacco last week, dug up and old pipe and smoking as I type these thoughts into my laptop.
Uncle Rouben used to like to tell a story when he was living with his brother Sisak and his wife Rose. Their daughter Joan was talking clarinet or violin lessons from a member of the Boston Symphony. Uncle Rouben was listening to the famous Hüzzam Taksim of the famous Turkish Gypsy Şukru Tunar and how amazed and mesmerized the classically trained musician was with Tunar’s virtuosity. Both Uncle Rouben and I loved this piece very much.
Uncle Rouben did indeed keep up with his correspondence. He sent cards and letters, the old fashioned way before the internet and e-mail, which I think he would have both loved and hated. If any of us grand nieces or nephews did not respond in kind over time, he would write again with the words we still share with each other: “I love you despite your callousness.” Upon hearing or reading these words once, we were motivated to keep up our correspondence with him!
Because he kept up with his correspondence, Uncle Rouben provided a great service to us when we moved to Connecticut in 1990. He called and gave the names of two Armenians in our area that he had met while in Africa. One was Mathew Tokatlian and his wife Salpi. He had met Mathew in the Sudan. The other was Jane Babayan Nahabedian, whom he met in Rhodesia, and her husband Bedros. I assumed that the Tokatlians and Nahabedians were septuagenarians like my Great Uncle. I should have known never to assume with Uncle Rouben. Mathew and Jane were children of people he had met in his travels. They were essentially my age and both have become great and valued friends. I moved from Detroit to Connecticut and Uncle Rouben and Aunt Rose Marie were instrumental in introducing us to our first Armenian friends here.
Uncle Rouben loved to tell us his birthday was the Ides of March. He enjoyed Corned Beef and Cabbage on his birthday, probably because it was close to St. Patrick’s Day. I remember, also, enjoying Chik Kheyma, raw lamb and bulgur wheat, with him, a Saturday specialty in our family. He always enjoyed it with raki (ouzo). I never eat it without thinking of him.
I wrote a poem for when Uncle Rouben turned seventy-five in 1982. I wrote it after a wintery stormy walk on the beach with my Great Uncle. I miss him and think of him this Memorial Day weekend.
For Rouben Gavoor
(upon his 75th birthday)
Atlantic August grey day
Thunder roar of foamy
Frothing steel waves of
An aging ocean
Dying for unknown needs,
The void that makes him write.
Khaki dressed book
Back cover picture,
No Irish Setter,
New England mist in
Moist sand steps.
His grandfather's brother
Of great life forces
Tidal ovulations and
The vast mother being.