I can still smell the scent that would hit my nose the moment I walked into my grandfather’s carpet shop in Glendale, California. It was a thoroughly exotic scent, a smell that was utterly foreign in the America that was outside the front door of his shop. The scent was the cumulative bouquet of hundreds of thousands of wool threads that had been hand-dyed and woven by young girls into carpets that must have come from at least 10 different countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. My grandfather had survived the Armenian Genocide. He lived to come to California, and once there, he opened a very small rug shop that probably only other Armenians knew about.
That shop was my grandfather’s home. He had fled Armenia, literally walking and running southeast for a couple of weeks, and he was the only person from his district, from his village, from his street, and from his family that, as far as he knew, made it out of Armenia alive. To my knowledge, my Armenian grandfather never received a card, a letter, or a phone call from any friend or relative outside of Glendale. As far as we know, no one else survived.
It is quite common in the Middle East and in Turkey for the younger boys of a home to be charged with getting up early to see to it that the family’s goats get out for their morning grazing. Often the older brother will mentor the younger on these things, but on that fateful morning, for some reason, my grandfather’s older brother did not go with him. On that day, he took his goats up into the hills alone.
He moved his goats up the trails and out over the slopes, and he had been grazing for a while before he heard the first sudden, reverberating, heavy popping sound. My grandfather told me this by acting it out with his fist, going, “Pa!” He also told me that when he turned into the direction of the sound he immediately saw the smoke. I was very young when he told me these things, and what is indelibly chiseled into my memory was the way in which he told me. It was his sense of time and how he recalled it. My grandfather told me about what happened back in Armenia when I was about the same age as he was when it happened to him. However, he told me these things as if it were something that had happened to him just the day before. Yet it wasn’t yesterday. It all had happened 50 years before the moment he decided that he needed to tell me. My grandfather had a very heavy accent, and you had to really listen. I remember the moment when I realized that my mom was suddenly not there, so they must have come to some kind of an agreement over his telling me about the massacre of our family.
When he heard the shot and saw the smoke he started to run back to his house hoping somehow his goats might follow him. Once down from the hills, he entered the road that ran by the left side of his home. He told me that when he arrived alongside his house, it took time for him to understand what it was that he was looking at in front of him on the road.
He saw his oldest sister first. He could not tell if her clothing had been torn off or burnt off. It looked to him as if after the Turkish soldiers were finished they poured fuel on her and set her on fire. Later, he realized that she had probably been alive when they did it.
At that time when he saw her, he told me that he remembered his mind struggling to comprehend what he was looking at. He fought to find the right words to explain to me that after he saw his oldest sister, he turned to look up and he saw that farther out into the middle of the street that crossed the one he was on and that ran in front of his home, he saw his other older sister. There was no clothing on her or anywhere around her on the ground. Both were charred black.
After walking a little bit farther forward, he could look down the road to his right where just at the edge of his village to the southeast, he could see a dust cloud rising from where the Turkish soldiers were leaving. He later realized that the Turkish soldiers probably could not see him because of the smoke from the burning houses and burning bodies.
Then he told me that he turned to the right more still to look at the front of his home, but the next things that he told me that he saw were two round objects placed side by side on the doorstep of his house that again he couldn’t put together in his mind what he was seeing. After looking for some time, he understood that what he was looking at were his brother’s and father’s heads placed side by side on the entryway step. My grandfather, as well as he could, told me that once his mind pieced together what it was that he was seeing, he then suddenly realized that for him to go inside to look for his mother, he would have to step over his big brother’s and his father’s heads. He told me that he wasn’t sure how long it took him before he was able to do that.
Once inside, he saw the blood all over the floor, and his mother, with her apron and dress still on but slashed open, was spread out on the floor and over in a corner. They didn’t set her on fire or behead her. My grandfather’s English was all self-taught, and so the ability to understand his accent and his own idiomatic usage of English was an acquired skill. Through his broken English and heavy accent, my grandfather told me that they did not tear off her apron and clothing because after they slashed her several times with their Turkish swords, her intestines fell out. Then, rather than behead her, they used them to strangle her. My grandfather said that was how he found my great grandmother, and although it took his mind a while to comprehend what he was looking at, he told me that it appeared that she had been struck with several sword slashes that ultimately caused her own bowels to fall out and onto the floor. They used her own intestines to strangle her, or for fun, as perhaps she was already dead when they wrapped them around her neck. My grandfather told me that after he saw her like that, nothing after made him cry, although he did cry once after he finished telling me this.
Once back outside he found the remains of his big brother’s and father’s bodies on the other side of their house. Maybe there were other people around, but he didn’t remember seeing or hearing anyone. All he could remember was what he saw done to his sisters, his brother and father, his mother, the smoke, and the smell of burning skin.
When my grandfather, an Armenian Christian boy, was about 14, perhaps 15 years old, he dug separate holes in the ground at night for his two sisters, then for his brother and his father, and then one final hole for his mother. He covered them with things from his house and buried them as well as he could. Then, on the first night after all that, he began walking and running southeast towards Eastern Syria, and eventually down into Iran. My grandfather walked by night from what is now Eastern Turkey all the way to Tehran, Iran.
When I think of my grandfather’s voice telling me all this, his heavy and ever so wonderful thick Armenian accent, it all calls to mind the scents of his carpet shop. I can still remember that smell.
As he finished telling me what happened to him back in Armenia, I saw a tear. Where that tear came from was this. He finished by telling me in a whispered somber confession that he had no pictures to show me who my grandaunts, granduncle, and who my great grandparents were. He was deeply ashamed of that. The only thing I know about my Christian family in Armenia is that my grandaunts were raped and burned alive, my granduncle and my great grandfather were beheaded, my great grandmother was cut open with swords, and in that horrific pain was assuredly strangled with her own intestines. All I know about their lives is how they were savagely massacred.
The Truth Must be Told
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