Letter to My Grandmother

I can’t help wondering if I inherited my love for straw hats from you. There was one of yours in particular that must have required an acre of straw to build, a real sombrero with a soft piece of material to tie beneath your chin, more for style than for wind. As you walked from your house to ours between two long vineyard rows, the brim was tickled by the tips of emerald growth longing to meet in the center. While you proceeded regally in the shade, your shoes squeaked on a succulent carpet of purslane, the ground-hugging weed you called parpar and that the Armenians cook and use in salad.

You were all comedy, you know — a five-foot, 170-pound woman heading our way on stumpy legs, eating figs. You were glorious and proud, tragic, dramatic, and overblown, assertive as they come. You were going somewhere. Your holy mission was to arrive, and to make your presence known. When our telephones still shared a party line, you picked up and dialed without listening. “Ma,” my father said. “I’m on the phone.” And when you called us directly, I could hear your voice from the other room. It sounded as if you were shouting from the other end of the vineyard — or from farther still, from the old place two miles away on Road 66 where you gave birth to your four children — or farther still, from Moush, thousands of miles away, where you were born.

Do you remember the big wooden barrel you used to fill with batz hatz back when your kids were small? Do you remember the aroma of those thin, round sheets of bread? We still have the barrel. It’s in my mother’s little shed, full of old hoes, pitch forks, and manure shovels. All my life, the barrel has been used that way. It was in our barn back home, and in the equipment shed that replaced the barn when I was four, always holding the same worn-out tools. And you know who wore them out: your husband and my father, working side by side, doing everything the hard way. Those tools bear testimony to their sweat, their tired, aching backs. They recall the wagon loads of loose hay rolling down the road, the mountains of chicken and dairy manure scooped and spread one shovel at a time, and stubborn weeds scraped from ditch banks beneath the blazing sun. How fitting that those smooth, petrified handles and steel blades would be kept in your bread barrel. How sad to know those days are gone.

The day my wife and I were married, we gathered at the house after dinner to open gifts. We were already surrounded by coffee makers, casserole dishes, and tea kettles when we came to the one from you and Gramp, tucked inside an envelope. It was a check. When I failed to disclose the amount to those assembled, you announced in a classic stage whisper, “It’s two hundred dollars.” Later, when the time came for us newlyweds to leave, you and Gramp rose to your feet. Standing side by side, the two of you sang the Lord’s Prayer in Classical Armenian: Hayr Mer, vor hergins yes, soorp yeghitsi anoon ko . . . and thus sent us on our way. I will never forget your expressions, so solemn you were, so proud, defiant, and strong, so beautiful. How lucky we were to begin married life that way.

Ahkh, my poor, dear grandmother. It would be dishonest of me not to say that I also know how frustrated you were, how angry, how unhappy. A number of times, my father told me he wished I could have known you when you were young and he was a kid, before you lost a son to war. He said he used to throw clods at the outhouse when you were inside, and that you would come out roaring and chase him through the yard. He remembered how hard you worked to help bring in the raisin crop. He remembered the mountains of food you prepared and the jam and cheese you always had on hand. He remembered the flowers you planted, and the colorful mounds of coleus that greeted visitors at your door.

I know what happened when that sacred part of you was uprooted and cast into the fire by the lunacy of man. When you were given a flag in your son’s name and expected to act like any reasonable adult, you proudly dried your tears and carried on. Then a shell began to form around your heart. Day by day, it grew and hardened like the walnuts on the tree beside the barn. But it never turned completely into wood. There were passages through which sunlight traveled and bright flashes of humor escaped. To be appreciated, you had to be understood. To be understood, it was necessary to draw near and be burned.

Like Gramp, you spoke Armenian, Turkish, and English with equal fluency and grace. You knew the old songs, and the Divine Liturgy by heart, sung in Armenian from end to end. You were an insane survivor orphaned by history, a cultural messenger from another land. But you didn’t know how well I knew you.

Now, I know you are listening, because just moments ago a violent thunderstorm began. The street is white with hail, and lightning is flashing at the windows. You always were angry at the truth. I don’t blame you. I never did, and I never will.

May 19, 2005

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Also by William Michaelian

Winter Poems

ISBN: 978-0-9796599-0-4
52 pages. Paper.
Another Song I Know
ISBN: 978-0-9796599-1-1
80 pages. Paper.
Cosmopsis Books
San Francisco

Signed copies available

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