Writings from the Writing Workshop The Armenians of Cape Cod
Location, Location, Location: Or - How I lost My Armenian Language Competence.
I was born in 1940 and lived during World War II in a heavily Armenian community in Watertown, MA.Most of my friends and all of my relatives were of Armenian descent.Besides my parents, my grandmother and three uncles lived nearby.I went to Sunday School at St. James Armenian Apostolic Church.In short, I was saturated with things Armenian.
One of the results of this was that for a five-year-old I had a rather decent command of the Armenian language.So I am told, because, though I remember well those childhood days in Watertown, I don't recall the language I spoke to my Armenian interlocutors.However, an older cousin tells the story of how I once corrected her use of the word "shabig".
In late 1945, things changed dramatically, when my immediate family plus a one and a half year old sister moved to Rosemead, California (in LA County).We joined two of my uncles who lived in Southern California, while my grandmother and step-grand father resided farther north near Fresno.In Rosemead, things were drastically different from Watertown.There was only one Armenian family in town, and all I remember about them is that they had a goat.Of course, there were Armenians elsewhere in LA County, some of them old friends from Watertown days.But we didn’t have a family car and the large distances meant that we only saw these folks a couple of times a year.
In other words, my immersion in Armenian culture went from heavy to next-to-zero.
This had serious consequences for my retention of Armenian language competence.At home, my parents probably spoke mostly English, since my younger sister virtually had no Armenian. The two and a half years or so in Rosemead clearly had an adverse impact on my Armenian.
Returning to Massachusetts in 1948 did not really reverse this trend.Instead of going back to Watertown, where doubtless my Armenian language (and other cultural aspects) would be rekindled, we settled in Boston and then Somerville, MA.While I had a substantial number of relatives in the Boston area, only those who were born in the "old country" spoke much Armenian.Also, I had no association whatever with the Armenian Church from 1945 to the late 1960's.
By that time all the language I retained was the occasional ability to sense the general drift of Armenian Conversation.Mercifully, there were other aspects of Armenianism.Food, music, and the extended family come to mind.Later association with the Armenian Church reinforced these things.
And yet, the language is mostly gone.Maybe since I have some interest in languages, I will take Armenian up again as a kind of hobby.But, at present my situation validates the old real estate motto - location, location, location!
Mark Nishan Hagopian
135 Hay Rd.
Eastham, MA 02642
Submitted to the writing project of The Armenian Church of Cape Cod, May, 2010.
Memories in my Armenian Life
Growing up, my mother always told us the Armenians were the first Christians.She always waited for January 6 every year and we would celebrate Little Christmas.She would not take down our Christmas tree until after January 6.My father Edward John Topalian came over to America from Armenia, through France, then Greece, to the United States by boat.He came with his mother and father when he was two years old, about 1915.Daddy was born in Constantinople and he became a US citizen in Boston when he was age 27.He told us the story about how he almost fell over the side of the boat through the rails when his mother caught and held him back from falling.My grandfather John Bedros Topalian had to pay for passage on a freighter and they only journeyed at night.My grandfather sent his wife’s three sisters and their mother over to the United States first, a year before and they were waiting for my grandparents and my father.All of them had heard of the deportations and massacres of the Armenians in Turkey.They simply fled.I was told my name translates to “the man who fixes the lame leg,” which probably means a doctor of some kind.They settled in Wakefield and Medford.My father had two younger sisters, one who died when she was 26 months old.My grandfather worked in a shoe factory and spoke Armenian, Turkish, and Greek, but did not speak English.He made many shoes, too many for the other workers who did not like his fast work.They told my grandfather to call the supervisor boss a son of a “b” . . . when he saw him.The boss liked my grandfather and he found out how it happened.The boss fired the men.My grandparents went to the boss’ house to plead their return for their jobsbecause they had families.The boss let them back to work.They did not bother my grandfather at work anymore.My grandfather became a US citizen in Boston when he was age 40.My parents were introduced through their respective Aunts who were friends and they married four months later in February 1941.They clung to their Armenian heritage, cultures and spoke Armenian all their lives.My mother’s parents Philip and Virginia came over from Armenia.My mother Isabel Minasian was born in 1915 in Lawrence, Massachusetts had two younger sisters.One sister died when she was seven years old from a knee infection.They remember the massacres too; my mother heard all the stories.They sent me to Armenian School, which I attended for a year on Saturday mornings.Not so much now, but I learned to write and read Armenian language and still have my language book.Every night before bedtime, we would always say the Lord’s Prayer in Armenian.I always thought the story of Noah’s Ark was profoundly magical and the Ark belonged to the Armenians since it was lost on Mt. Ararat.I am proud to be an Armenian.I found a wonderful man and we got married in July 2004.Before our wedding, I requested St. James Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown for my baptism records.I found out my middle name is Zabel, named after my mother, Isabel.Thank you for reading my story, Linda Zabel Topalian Pegnato, Bourne, Massachusetts.June 2010.
An Essay on Armenian Heritage
Fred P. Pegnato, Jr.
March 17, 2010
For a moment, I thought that I was back in school. The topic I was asked to write an essay about was something “Armenian” for the Armenian Church of Cape Cod’s observance of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Linda, my wife, is of full blooded Armenian heritage, so for her, it would be a piece of cake.I am of full blooded Italian heritage, so I wondered and wondered what I would write. In fact, I pondered for weeks on what I would write. Linda and I have been married a little over five years and have known each other about six years. So, I do not have as much firsthand knowledge of Armenian stories and customs as I would have had, had we known each other longer. Then all of a sudden an idea popped into my mind.
My introduction to the Armenian heritage came at an early age. When I was growing up and started to learn to read, my mother brought me to the library. The library we went to was the Nonantum branch of the Newton Free Library. The Librarian was Armenian, and her name was Virginia Tashjian. Mrs. Tashjian would suggest books for me to read.She eventually became the head Librarian of the Newton Free Library with its eleven branches. In elementary school, there was one boy of Armenian heritage in my class, and in junior high school, where four other elementary schools fed in to our junior high, a second boy of Armenian heritage joined us. I wondered where all the Armenian girls were! At that young age I knew they lived one town over in Watertown. From listening to conversations at that early age, I thought Watertown was 100% Armenian, and the proof was found in driving down Mt. Auburn Street and passing by all the Armenian stores and Armenian churches. That was my earliest introduction to Armenians.
Let’s fast forward from the 1960s to 2003. I met a lovely woman on-line. We exchanged emails for a while and then phone numbers. We discovered that we had much in common. Both of us were born the same year, we both worked for the federal government, and neither of us was ever married before. One day, on the phone, Linda mentioned to me that her girl friends took her out to dinner for her birthday. I asked her why she did not mention her birthday to me so that I could take her out for dinner. So we made plans for a dinner date. Meanwhile, Linda had mentioned to me that on Sundays she would spend some time sitting in her chair by the banks of the Cape Cod Canal reading the Sunday paper. One Sunday I took a chance that she would be there near the railroad bridge, a bridge that I have crossed many times as a railroad conductor. There she was! I knew what she looked like as she had her photo posted on-line, but I did not have my photo posted, so she did not know what I looked like. I saw a barge approaching from the Sandwich end.I was a tad nervous about our first face-to-face meeting.Luckily for me I had my camera in the car; what a great unintentional prop to have. I went back to my car to get the camera to photograph the barge and passed by Linda once more to take the photo, still a tad nervous. All this time, from the first time I saw her sitting there, I kept saying to myself “go ahead and say hello, do it!”
Up until that moment, I have always wondered how a person knows how one knows that he/she is the person to marry. Well, when I saw Linda face to face the first time, I knew she was “the one.” I turned to her and said, “Hi Linda, I’m Fred” and she was all flustered because she was not wearing any make-up.We talked a while, and then I mentioned to Linda that my mother was in the car. Linda came to the car to meet my mother. My mother thought that Linda was someone I knew from work.
Linda wanted to go to the Dan’l Webster Inn for dinner, so that is where we went for our first date. On the way there, we discovered that both her parents and mine were married in February in the early 1940s, one year and two weeks apart. We discovered that our parents were so similar in their persona; hers with Armenian flavoring, and mine with Italian flavoring. We also discovered that both of our paternal grandfathers worked in the shoe factories, and both of our maternal grandfathers had machinist jobs.
How does this story tie in to the 1915 Armenian Genocide? Linda’s grandparents, and many others, did what they had to do in order to escape the genocide: leave their home and their country to find a safe life in a new land, and they did.They made their way to the United States in order to live a life of freedom.In the process, they brought the customs and courtesies of Armenia to the United States with them to pass down to their children and grandchildren. My grandparents came to America in the hope of attaining better lives for themselves, and they did.They also brought with them their customs and courtesies.
We are so fortunate that many Armenians were able to evade the genocide, and we offer our prayers to those who gave their lives.