The Lost World
For as long as I can remember, my mother has been talking to her dead parents. Growing up, I would find her in the kitchen, locked in conversation with Mama and Baba. At the sink, her hands scrubbing a dish, her voice a murmur. So it was no surprise when, in the summer of 2006, I stumbled on her again like this. It had been just a few weeks since I had moved back into my childhood home, and there I was in the doorway trying to eavesdrop, just like I had back in grade school. Only now I was thirty-five. I couldn’t quite make out her words, drowned as they were by running water and the clank of Corelle plates. Oblivious to me standing there, my mother continued to shake her cropped brown bob back and forth, moving her lips furtively.
“Inch ge medadzes,” she said, shaking her head, the Armenian words sounding like gibberish to me.
“Are you talking to them again?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, her mood perennially upbeat. “I ask them for advice, and they always give it to me. They are my spirit guides, Dawn. They should be yours too!”
I rolled my eyes and we both laughed, not taking ourselves too seriously. In the weeks since I’d left my bustling life in New York and returned to the Los Angeles house where I had been raised, my mother’s otherworldly talks had become part of my universe again. I’d forgotten the never-ending surprises of life with my small but plucky mother, Anahid. Spontaneous and excitable, she could transform a drab doctor’s office or a corner diner into a party, just by raising her arms and breaking into dance.
My father, Jim, and I would remark that she was the last person you’d expect to be a probation officer. She was unflinchingly positive about the human capacity for goodness, allowing the petty criminals she supervised to get away with nearly anything on her watch. She’d devoted her life to helping people. Not only her clients, but also Armenian immigrants unfamiliar with the customs of the United States.
Our phone was constantly ringing. She’d taught my American father and me just enough of the language for us to say “One moment” in Armenian— Meg vayrgean — when people called and started prattling away about needing a ride to the doctor, the lawyer, or the green-card office.
Despite the comfort of being back in my roomy, Spanish-style home, the initial excitement had worn off. Huddled under my flower-print bedspread, surrounded by high-school soccer trophies and my homecoming-princess tiara, I felt like a character in a dark comedy about an aging prom queen who returns to her childhood home after flaming out in the big city. By the hour, my life in New York felt farther away — my morning runs through snowy Central Park before work; my deadline hustle to file yet another health-care story at my magazine job; my race to meet friends after work for a wine-fueled late dinner somewhere dark and candlelit. For years, my life in New York had felt like a sprint in a marathon that I never wanted to stop. It was what I craved; it was what I thought I needed; it was why I’d left my home and moved across the country in the first place.
But shortly after my birthday the previous February, something had changed. I’d never paid much attention to my mother’s calls to come home, but suddenly I couldn’t ignore her anymore. Perhaps it was her advanced age (she was then seventy-eight). Or maybe it was my own realization that, as a reporter, I was spending my life telling other people’s stories and ignoring my own family’s incredible one.
Because my grandfather had died when I was a toddler, what I knew about him was mostly family legend. Countless times, I had heard the dramatic tales from my mother of how her father, Stepan Miskjian, had wandered in the desert of what is now Syria, how he had staggered across it for a week on nothing but two cups of water. How he had led a group of Armenians to safety, away from the Turks who wanted to kill them.
She’d repeat this tale on loop. As she saw it, any occasion — during a morning bowl of Cheerios or after a piece of birthday cake — was the right time to recount her father’s near-death experience.
His story had truly haunted her childhood too, when days would begin and end with Baba in tears as he retold what he’d witnessed. He made a new home for his family in Spanish Harlem, but they were so poor she slept in a hammock. Perhaps looking into his daughter’s innocent face reminded him of the thousands of children in their orphan uniforms who had paraded past him in the camps on their way to be slaughtered. He had lost almost everything in the ethnic cleansing; all he had was his story. This was our family’s heirloom, our most precious bequest, and it was inherited by every subsequent generation — along with the burden of telling it again.
Still, as a kid, I retained nothing from the much-repeated saga but the single detail that he’d drunk his own urine to survive in the desert. Repulsed, I’d always ask, “Why would anyone do that?”
“It’s because he was Armenian and faced very difficult times,” my mother would explain. “It’s all here.”
And then she’d pull out two small booklets published by an Armenian press in the 1960s: her dad’s firsthand account of his survival, focused on the period when he was fleeing the Turks in Mesopotamia.
I would stare at the hundreds of pages of Indo-European script, unable to cross the language barrier and uncover the secrets of his memoir, a narrative he’d begun writing in the 1930s and continued working on for the rest of his life.
My mother had spent many years attempting to translate these booklets into English. This wasn’t just her personal desire to share our family’s trials but part of an attempt to educate the world and ensure that ethnic cleansing never happened again. Her father’s story was the story of the forgotten genocide. The trains stuffed with people, the death marches, the internment camps. All were familiar horrors to me, to my generation, but the images I’d seen were from the Holocaust of World War II. As the Jews would be, the Armenian minority had been demonized as a threat to society. The Ottoman Empire used the global tumult of World War I as a cover. The majority of the two million Ottoman Armenians had been forced from their homes and deported to barren regions they had seen only on maps, if at all.
From 1915 to 1918, an estimated 1,200,000 Armenians perished. Those who managed to stay alive were scattered across the globe. My mother’s surviving aunts and uncles lived in Turkey, France, and the
United States—something I had previously thought was a little glamorous. After learning more about my family history, I found it heartbreaking. Entire families had been lost or severed from one another. Stateless, some of them drifting like embers after a fire, the rest just ashes. Adolf Hitler, before his invasion of Poland in September 1939, said: “Kill without pity or mercy. Who still talks nowadays of the ...