Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father - repost

Some days my heart just hurts. I'm not sure it is a bad hurt. It can be a good hurt.

But it hurts.

I took my father to a birthday celebration last spring. The party was in honor of a man I’d interviewed. He was 100 years old.

It was at the Armenian church my father's sister attends and the one his mother once belonged to. Whenever my father goes to this church, which is not often, he sees people from his past, the old neighborhood, someone who knew his brother, someone who takes him back in time.

I'd wanted my father to meet this man since I met him three years ago. This little man, this centenarian, one of the few living survivors of the Armenian Genocide during World War I. He could be my grandfather. He could be my father's father.

I never knew my father's father. He died before I was born. My father does not talk much about him but I’ve seen him choke up at his memories.

I remember one time he was sitting at the kitchen table reading a letter his father wrote to him when he was in medical school. He told my father how proud he was of him. My father began to cry. He cried for his father, this immigrant who lost his entire family to the genocide when he was just a teen, who came to America, who built a successful business, who raised his family and who died too young from a heart attack after collapsing on the floor of his shoe repair business.

My father never assimilated into the Armenian culture, the Orthodox religion, the way his parents and two siblings did. As so many from the old neighborhood did. He did not marry an Armenian. The church has never been a favorite place.

And yet, my father enjoyed himself at this little centenarian’s party. I could tell. Even though — maybe because — being here brings back memories.

His best man at his wedding was one table over in the vast banquet hall. They only see each other at times like this. So rare. But my father lit up as they spoke, however briefly. And he enjoyed chatting with people at our table — people we did not know, but people who share similar family pasts.

We spoke of food, of cooking ethnic dishes like kibbie, pilaf, dolma. My father wanted to know where to find this bread his mother used to buy.

"No, it's hard," he'd tell them when they said it was the soft style lawash in most stores. "That's not the same thing," he kept insisting until they remembered the hard bread, too.

I watched my father as he told the woman to my right how he got his name. How, as a little child, he always wanted to be called by his father's name, which was Onnig, though he went by the American version, John. So when my father, whose given name was Nourhan, enrolled in kindergarten and the teacher asked his name, his mother said: “His name is John.”

I watched as my father’s eyes welled up as told this woman the story. And my heart hurt a little.

After dinner, one after another, people got up to honor this little centenarian, this representative and reminder of so much persecution but also of survival and hope. His daughter. His grandson. Close family friends. Three priests. They called him a patriarch, a role model.

Many spoke in the native language. I watched as my father listened.

I watched as he crossed himself and participated in reciting the Lord's Prayer in this language, a language I never learned and one he rarely speaks.

But here the language is breathed. It's celebrated, this beautiful and sometimes lyrical language that can sound short and staccato and then romantic with soft consonants and rolling r’s.

It's the language of his parents. It reminds him of his childhood, I am sure. Of his mother. Of his father.

I think as a child he was embarrassed at times by the language, as children of immigrants often were.

"Did you understand that?" I'd ask more than once.

"Most of it," he'd say.

I've seen my father cry more times than I've seen my mother cry. Outside, my father is rational, stoic.

But I know better.

I watched my father smile when the choir director sang and again when the centenarian spoke to the crowd. This old man, who lives on his own, slowly ambled up to the podium only taking someone's hand as he stepped up to the platform. He choked up as he recalled his life, his family's struggles, and then he called his daughter, now in her 70s, the one who watches out for him, "my guardian angel." We all choked up. I wondered if my father thought of me.

I'm close to my father but we do not verbalize much tenderness. We've been through a lot in recent years with my mother getting sick, and then getting better. Now my father is struggling with his own health problems. I know he thinks about this.

At one point in the evening, I saw him catch his reflection in a long mirror on the wall. He held the gaze for a moment as he raised his hand to stroke his jaw. And I wondered what he was thinking. My father is not vain. But I know he sees his age.

"Don't look," I wanted to tell him, as if to shield him from reality.

I imagine, in this place, some of his past was washing over him and in an instant maybe he was contemplating his life, his age, how he feels, how he looks, no longer how he sees himself inside.

"Don't look," I wanted to say.

My heart hurt a little.

(I wrote this more than two years ago. Things have changed a bit but it's still how I think of my dad. I love old photos and love this one of my dad. Happy Father's Day.)