Growing up in an affluent New Jersey suburb, prize-winning poet Peter Balakian lived a quintessential American baby-boom childhood dominated by rock 'n' roll and the New York Yankees. His large, extended family, all Armenian descendants, was a close-knit group of matriarchs and merchants, physicians, a bishop, and his aunts, who were well-known figures in the world of literature. But the strongest presence among them was Peter's grandmother, who, while playing the stock market and keeping track of the baseball stats of her beloved Yankees, cooked up Armenian delicacies for Peter and told him strange, often disturbing stories of her youth in Armenia--all cloaked in metaphor and symbolism.
I carry an image with me, like a Kodak snapshot from 1960 when the colors still looked gooey under the gloss. It's a picture of my maternal grandmother, Nafina (an Armenian version of Athena) Aroosian, and her daughters, Aunt Gladys and Aunt Lucille, walking up our flagstone path. Behind them, out of focus, a Chevy Biscayne, ice-cream white, with thick chrome tapering to the back fender. The tops of the turquoise-colored seats glare in the noon sun. It's Sunday, after church, and everyone is out. There's a hardball game going on in the cul-de-sac at the end of the block. Kids run through the spray of a sprinkler, darting between hedges of newly planted hemlocks.
My grandmother walks ahead of my aunts, with her aluminum cane, the one she brought home from the hospital after she broke her hip. She is dressed in navy or beige. A brooch or a jewel pinned near her collar. Pearls around her neck. A flowered scarf. She never grayed, so her hair is chestnut brown, braided in a bun studded with colored stones. My aunts follow behind. Their hair is coifed like Jackie Kennedy's. Every Saturday morning my aunts and my mother have their hair done. Every Sunday at dinner, conversation inevitably turns to the merits and flaws of Cilo, Rudy, Luigi, Alan. One hairdresser cut better. One styled better. One was more avanti or European. On Sunday their hair smelled of perfume. My aunts are dressed in white or pale-blue linen suits. Silk blouses, silk scarves. They wear pearls, gold earrings, and gold bracelets; the sun glints off them as they walk toward the house. Neighbors in tee shirts push power mowers, and everywhere machines are buzzing. Along the flagstone walk is a black Schwinn, a red Huffy, a go-cart made out of a milk crate, some bats and balls, scattered.
When my brother, sister, and I would see the white Biscayne pull into the driveway we knew our playing was over. We weren't happy about it, but we would walk dutifully to the house.
Every Sunday it's the same. Our extended Armenian family sitting around the dining room table in winter or out on the patio in summer for a full afternoon and more, and my grandmother quietly watching. Perhaps the crisscross of voices, the endless high-pitched exchange, and the chaos of conversation is too much for her. She seems detached, and because of her dentures, eats slowly. If we have corn on the cob, my mother slices the kernels off for her; if, God forbid, the kebab is not tender, my mother cuts her portion in small pieces. Through her thick lenses she looks serious. And sometimes I stare at the dark, wrinkled half-moons beneath her eyes.
After dinner she is always affectionate with me, often brushing my hair with her hand, which makes me slightly uncomfortable--especially if my friends are there--and then I try to ward her off with mental telepathy. But she hovers around me, forever asking how I am and what I want. She keeps repeating an Armenian word, eench. It means how or what, and is fraught with solicitousness, concern, anxiousness; and if you add all these things up in Armenian, it means love. Eench. Eench. Eench-eh: What's the matter, what is it, are you OK? Eench gooz-es: What do you want? Eench gooz-es oud-es: What do you want to eat? Eench, eench, eench. Eench is always followed up with yavrey, her vernacular for the Turkish word yavros, which means my little one or beloved, or hokeet seerem, which means let me love your soul. As she runs her hands along my shoulders, she tells me I'm as skinny as an unfed bird. Because I feel a bond of affection I can't explain, I let her continue, but if anyone else in the family begins eench-ing me I lip back sullenly, "Get outta here."
My grandmother's big brown eyes keep watching me intensely. I am Peter, Bedros in Armenian, named after her second husband, who went into a coma from a cerebral hemorrhage about the week I was conceived and who died without regaining consciousness about three months before I was born. I am the eldest grandchild east of Fresno, California, the first male of the next generation, a filial position that in our Near Eastern culture comes with patriarchal status. Although I did not understand then what the presence of a new generation meant for a culture that had been nearly expunged from the planet only forty-five years earlier, I felt the strange doting power of the word eench. It often unnerved me, making me feel as if something were wrong, or would be wrong. Was I sick? Was I dying of some secret disease my elders knew about and were keeping from me? Invariably, after I was eench-ed to death, my grandmother would lean over and kiss the fallen ski-jump of my crew cut where it spilled onto my forehead, say something even more elaborate in Armenian, compelling me to beat a track out of that stuffy room of oriental objects for the TV room and the Yankees on channel 11.
My sisters, Pam and Jan, my brother, Jim, and I never learned Armenian. In Tenafly, New Jersey, in 1960, who would want to know Armenian, a language spoken by an ancient Near Eastern people who lived half a globe away and were now part of the Soviet Union? My parents spoke Armenian when they wanted to communicate privately or when they were in public places and needed to discuss the price of veal or the amount to tip; confident that the waiter wouldn't know their language, once in a while they were wrong. Alarmed, my mother would turn to my father: "I think the waiter speaks Armenian." The little Armenian I knew was from church and from my grandmother, words and phrases mingled with English around the house: ahno-tee-es? shad lav, khent, gatig, dok-ess? Khegj-uh, moog, paubig: Are you hungry? very well, crazy, a little milk, are you hot? poor guy, mouse, barefoot.
I visited my grandmother in East Orange once a month. On Friday afternoons, my mother drove me south from Teaneck. The green signs on the new Garden State Parkway bright with white numbers, and the names--Irvington, Nutley, Bloomfield--exhilarating. East Orange in 1958 was another country to me. Wide boulevards divided by islands of maples and beeches, lined by old-fashioned street lamps and large Victorian houses that looked haunted with their turrets and gables and mansard roofs of gray and maroon slate.
My grandmother lived in an old brick garden apartment with Aunt Gladys and Aunt Lucille. The apartments were situated around a large courtyard of well-kept lawn and hedges of rhododendrons. The windows had leaded panes; the window boxes, red and white geraniums. It was mysterious and exotic after the suburban houses of Teaneck. When my mother closed the door at the bottom of the stairs of my grandmother's apartment, I felt free of my brother Jim and my sister Pam, who were back in the cluttered playroom in Teaneck. I sat at the big mahogany table in the dining room in front of a plate of hot dolma, a big dish of yogurt, some lemon wedges, a basket of Arnold dinner rolls, and a green bottle of 7-Up that stood by itself without a tumbler, because my grandmother knew I liked to drink from the bottle. Now we had the day to ourselves until my aunts came home from their jobs in the city.
On those Friday afternoons I would help my grandmother bake. Leaning over the counter in my Oxford button-down, white chinos, and scuffed bucks, it always flashed through my mind that if they saw me in the kitchen with my grandmother, let alone baking some Armenian thing called choereg, my Little League friends would think me a hopeless sissy--so I kept my maroon baseball cap on as a way of safeguarding my masculinity. Attentive to my baseball cap ritual, my grandmother would say, "Let's see your stance," and immediately I would go into a severe, Hector Lopez-like crouch, taking a couple of swings with my invisible bat until she nodded with approval, as if to say, See, you're OK; now let's bake.
It was a 1940s kitchen with long white cabinets, a white enameled sink, red speckled linoleum cracking at the seams, and a coiled, buzzing fluorescent light on the ceiling. The dingy light and bright sun streaming through the small rectangular window over the sink gave the room a strange hue. The cabinet I always opened by climbing the second step of the footstool released an earthy, sweet fragrance. Stacks of McCormick tins, brown bags tied off with rubber bands, squat jars. On the bottom shelf were bunches of dried herbs, clumps of twigs, tiny shrubs of gray-green leaves, flaking yellow flowers; some plants had dirt-covered roots. Things growing out of the shelf beckoned my fingers.
Allspice, coriander (powdered and whole), cayenne pepper, cumin in a square jar, fennel seed, cardamom, cinnamon (powdered and in sticks), sumac, black nigella seeds, zatar, saffron, paprika, oregano, basil. And mahleb, which my grandmother kept in a jar. The color of sand and fine as talcum, it was the pulverized pit of wild cherry, and its earthy sweetness seemed to carry the other fragrances with it like an invisible thread tying up a bouquet.
"The essence of a cherry pit," my grandmother said in her discernible accent, and then "A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed. Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphor, with spikenard. Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices: A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon. Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. That's Song of Solomon."
My grandmother knew large pieces of the Bible by heart. At the missionary school she attended in Diarbekir, an ancient Armenian city in southeastern Turkey where she grew up, they drilled it into her. "If we failed our recitations," she said, "the missionaries made us clean the school that week." Then she flicked some flour on the bread board and rubbed it in.
She told me she recited verses of the Bible when things weren't going well. "Words are friends. In bad times they keep you company."
"I hate memorizing for school," I mumbled as I unrolled some wax paper.
"Just do it, you'll be thankful someday." Then she ordered me to get the mahleb, which meant we were going to make a sweet bread called choereg.
To make choereg, we mixed milk and melted butter into a ceramic bowl. I poured yeast into a glass measuring cup with red lines and watched it fizz. Eggs, sugar, salt, baking powder, and my grandmother poured in the mahleb. She sifted flour and we mixed it all with a large wooden spoon till it was dough. Then she scooped the dough out and put it on the flour-grazed bread board. We squeezed and pressed it with our hands. I liked how the wet dough stuck between my fingers. I liked how she took it to another bowl and turned it all over its oiled surface, then covered the bowl with a towel and put it in the unlit oven. It was warm there and free from drafts, and when we opened the oven two hours later the dough was an airy, saffron-colored mound.
I loved punching the dough down so that its porous insides collapsed. We pulled it into pieces and made ropes, braids, and rings while we listened to WMGM on the radio. "Rock 'n roll picks me up," my grandmother would say; Elvis, Fats Domino, Bill Haley and the Comets--"good stuff." And when the Shirelles came out in the early sixties with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" "Tonight's the Night," and "Mama Said There'll Be Days Like This," she said "They do good harmony," and followed them like a fan because they were girls from nearby Passaic. As we filled the silver baking trays with braids and rings and ropes and brushed them with a beaten egg yolk so that they would shine when they came out, we sang along with the radio, "Blueberry Hill" or "Jailhouse Rock."
While the choereg baked, my grandmother told me stories. They weren't like the ones my friends heard from their grandparents, about fishing trips on the Great Lakes, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, sagas set at summer camps in the Adirondacks when Calvin Coolidge was president, or the stock market crash of '29, when good men jumped out of windows. My grandmother's stories didn't seem to belong to any time or place; she just started in like this: Djamangeen gar oo chagar, which means A long time ago there was and there wasn't.
"There was a rich woman who lived in a big house with her husband and was envied for her beauty, and when it came her time to meet Fate--because everyone must meet fate once in their life--she went to Fate's house to make an offering. And what an offering--the best spring lamb, stuffed with almonds and pilaf, apricots and pomegranates, quinces and walnuts, and to top it off, two fine rubies in the eye sockets of the head. She carried it all on a silver platter, and walked through town in her white silk dress, pearls around her neck, and her wrists jangling with gold bracelets." My grandmother shook her wrists so I could hear those bracelets clatter.
"She knocked on the door, once, twice, three times, and waited patiently.
"When Fate came to the door, with her bright hennaed hair, rubbing her eyes so that the mascara smeared her cheek, she didn't even look at the woman. `Don't bother me,' she whispered in an irritated voice, `I'm sleeping, be gone!'" My grandmother threw her head back as she said this.
"The next week, a woman who was poor as those ladies on Eighth Avenue with paper bags knew that it was her day to call on Fate. She lived in a hut in the country, without a dime to her name. All she had was a black dog that she had found dead in a field, and so she dragged it home and cooked it. Even the apple she placed in its mouth was wormy. The next day she went to the house of Fate in a black dress, which smelled like oil and rotten milk. She trembled as she knocked on Fate's door." My grandmother made a knocking motion with her hand. "Fate appeared in a white dress, with diamond brooches in her hair, and she looked beautiful as a queen. The poor woman felt even more unworthy and had to restrain herself from running away. But to her surprise, Fate opened her arms and said in a voice sweet as honey, `Come in, I've been waiting for you for a long time.'"
My grandmother nodded at me as if to confirm my comprehension, then there was silence. After the timer went off, and we took the choereg out of the oven and put it on wire racks to cool, still there was silence. I was beginning to get angry, but my grandmother treated me with such tenderness that I couldn't be angry at her, so I was angry at the story, which excited but baffled me. I wanted to say "Gran, these stories of yours--they're weird, and I don't get them." But I couldn't talk to my grandmother the way I could to my mother, so as I stared at the warm, shiny choeregs cooling on the wire racks, I just blurted out: "What's Fate, Gran?"
My grandmother looked around the kitchen and then looked me square in the eyes, as if she were about to attack a melon with her hands to see if it was ripe. "Pakht," she said, "it's Pakht," making the deep, guttural gargle with her throat, as you do with some Armenian words. "Pakht. You know, luck, fate. Fate." She paused again, taking a spatula and slipping it under a couple of choeregs to make sure they weren't sticking to the rack. "Fate, it's your destiny, it's what's in store for you."
"Uhuh," I gargled back through a swig of 7-Up as I began sliding the choeregs off the rack and onto a big dish. My grandmother went on, "It's a force, something bigger than you are."
"You mean like God?" My grandmother looked at me with serious eyes and then down at the choeregs cooling.
"No, not God," she went on slowly, "no, yavrey." And just as she was letting me know with her eyes that she didn't want to answer any more questions, my tongue had already slipped out of my mouth again. "What about the dog?"
Animated and clipping a choker of pearls around her neck, she backed out of the kitchen as she looked at her watch, and began warning me that we had to get to the grocery store. "The dog ... the dog, the dog is fate's answer to us--to the human world."
"That dead animal?" I asked, feeling dumb. "A dead black dog?" I heard myself say it again. "Gran, what are you talking about?"
"The dog tells us to have hope. The dog tells us there is mystery."
"Mystery, hope?" I echoed.
Then she pounded her palm on the red Formica counter. "The dog tells us that appearances are deceiving--the world is not what you think, yavrey." Then she grew impatient and began ordering me, "A & P by three-thirty or we won't have dinner ready for the girls."
I wanted to ask why the rich woman was turned away and what happened to the lamb with rubies in its eyes, but my grandmother had drawn the line. She had said all she wanted to say, and even my annoying prodding wouldn't get me anywhere. So the image of a white lamb with two red precious stones in its eye sockets floated in my head as we left for the A & P. We walked and trotted and jogged through her shortcuts, empty lots, alleys, and backyards. My grandmother walked fast and this amazed me, for I--who thought I was the Maurie Wills of my Little League team--had to work hard to keep up with her. With her mended hip and slight limp and manner of pushing off with her cane, the stride of her thin, sturdy legs was relentless. I was manic with joy as I ran alongside her. We always finished our walk at the overpass where the Garden State Parkway was being built. It was 1958 and this Eisenhower highway was being built from north to south along the whole snaking eastern side of New Jersey. As we hung over the railing watching those giant machines gouge out the earth, she peeled the wrapping of an Almond Joy and gave me half.
On these walks my grandmother liked silence, but when she talked, she talked about the stock market or the Yankees, who she had followed since the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig days. Her love of Joe DiMaggio made her reluctant to accept Mickey Mantle with open arms. Mantle had a lot to live up to, she said; he was a "playboy," a "prima donna," she complained. "But Casey loves him," she went on. Her feeling for Casey Stengel was inveterate and she loved his head-down-skip-over-the-white-line on the way to the mound; the way he pulled his ear, and signaled to the bullpen. "Manages on instinct," she reminded me.
When she spoke fast with her Armenian accent she had a tendency to leave out the articles, as Armenian immigrants often do, and sounded like Red Barber with his hard, clipped Brooklyn style. When she said things like "Baseball means something; you keep averages, turn off the radio when you want; box scores the next day; it's free," I realized the game was something more than a game to her. I realized she felt the game more deeply than anyone I knew.
My grandmother and I followed the Yankees together, and by the time I was ten it had become an ongoing conversation between us. Box scores, averages, pitching rotations, prognosis for the World Series--because there was almost never a series without the Yankees. In August of '59, my grandmother walked around our back yard in Teaneck muttering, "the damn Chicago," because by the end of the month it was clear the White Sox and not the Yankees were headed for the series, which would mark the second time in my short life that the Yankees would not be playing in October. In April of '60, she said about the Yankees' acquisition of Roger Maris from the Kansas City A's: "We say in Armenian, one man's luck is another's stupidity."
The Yankees of the 1950s and early '60s were more than a team, they were a mood, an image, a feeling. They were thin blue stripes and elegant numbers on a white uniform. They were a Y spliced into an N on a blue cap. Power and muscle and confidence, and they did what great teams do, they won in ways that seemed inevitable yet magical. Even now when I see the Yankees logo--a red, white, and blue Uncle Sam hat topping a bat inside the white circle of a baseball with the Yankees script across the center, I feel not just nostalgia but a thrill, and I think, too, of my grandmother's quiet, intense passion for her team.
After we had moved to our new house in Tenafly, my grandmother began to appear at the door after dinner when the Yankees were on channel 11--now that she and my aunts lived a five-minute bus ride away in Englewood. In our new, paneled TV room, the two of us sat on a black leather couch beneath big framed posters of the Cote d'Azur and Monaco, while upstairs my mother put my brother and sisters to bed. As the light coming through the sliding glass doors turned purple and then black, the blue-gray of the TV lit the room.
By the early sixties, my grandmother had come around on Mickey Mantle. Perhaps because of his bad knees, his constant struggle to stay healthy enough to play, and maybe because there was something pathetic about this man who undermined his brilliant talent by his own foolish behavior off the field. He was, she said, a tutoum kulukh, in Armenian, a pumpkin head, a dumbbell. But by the end of the 1961 Mantle-Maris duel for the Babe's season home-run record, my grandmother came to see Mantle as a tragic figure who endured his own frailties with grace and courage and who was forced to watch from the sidelines in the second half of September as Roger Maris hit sixty-one to break the record.
So as the camera caught Mantle's boyish blond face and zoomed in on his wondrous 17 1/2-inch neck while he took his warm-up swings in the on-deck circle, my grandmother and I grew silent. "His swing is like a great wind," she said, "sheeewwww." And when he sent one out of the park, my grandmother would say "Outta here," and dish into the crystal bowl of pistachio nuts on the coffee table. Splitting the shells with her thumbnails, she would pass me the salty green nuts so that we could celebrate with our teeth.
I remember my grandmother during the '62 Series between the Yankees and the Giants, because that October she decided to watch all the Series games in our new TV room. "It's a bigger screen," she said to my mother about our new RCA, "and I can see better," and although she didn't say so, I think she wanted to watch the games with me. But that fall I disappointed her by listening to every game on the radio with my friends behind the chain-link backstop of our sandlot diamond. We scurried between the field and transistor radio and sometimes stopped our play as we did for the final half-inning of Game 7. I remember how Yankee fans stood on one side of the backstop and Giants fans on the other as Ralph Terry faced Willie McCovey while Willie Mays and Felipe Alou stood on second and third waiting to break the Yankees' 1-0 lead, and how the loud crack of the bat came over the radio as McCovey smacked a line drive that seemed destined for right field and a 2-1 Giant victory to win it all when Bobby Richardson leapt to his left and snatched the ball to give the Yankees another World Series. When I returned home, my grandmother was waiting in the driveway for me, dressed in a beige linen suit and a choker of pearls, with a small, quiet smile on her face. "Good ole Richardson" was all she said.
About two weeks after the Series had ended, the Cuban Missile Crisis took over our lives, and my grandmother began showing up after dinner to watch the news with us. Walter Cronkite's face, slightly worried and avuncular on the big black-and-white screen, followed by aerial footage of aircraft carriers and the shoreline of Cuba. My father mocking Kennedy's Boston accent, saying, "Cuber's just a stone's throw from Florida." My mother passing a tray of dried fruits and nuts that my aunt Alice had just sent from Fresno. In my fifth-grade class everyone was talking about the bomb and the end of the world. Meredith Gutman, sensing my inclination toward morbidity and terror, stared at me one morning and said, "The whole world will go up in smoke," as she wiggled her fingers and raised her arms like a conductor.
That week I had found on my parents' night table a small pamphlet called "A Citizen's Handbook on Nuclear Attack and Natural Disasters," published by the United States Department of Defense. It was written for barely literate people and illustrated with cartoons. Aimed at assuring Americans that no harm would come from nuclear war, it read:
If an enemy should threaten to attack the United States you would not be alone.
If a person receives a large dose of radiation, he will die. But if he receives only a small or medium dose, his body will repair itself and he will get well. Most of the nation's food supplies would be usable offer an attack.... Also, to avoid injuring your eyes, never look at the flash of an explosion of the nuclear fireball.
Even to a fifth grader this seemed ridiculous; it was clear from the media that nuclear war meant death and destruction. The pamphlet, which went on to instruct families on how to make a bomb shelter, must have been geared for suburbia, for who else but suburbanites would have basements large and fine enough to be converted into bomb shelters? And we were to stock our new shelters: 6 months of evaporated milk, 18 months of canned poultry, 12 months of ready-to-eat cereals In metal containers, 18 months of hard candy and gum, 24 months of flavored beverage powders, jugs labeled "water," pills labeled "medicine."
I was sure my mother would prefer the end of the world to this menu. Disgusted and secretly terrified by the whole Cuba business, I went home each day in late October after playing football, ate dinner, and opened the door for my grandmother and followed her into the TV room to watch the images of aircraft carriers and Cuba on the screen.
I lay in bed one night sweating, filled with images of bomb shelters and cereal in metal containers, and decided to go downstairs for a bowl of Frosted Flakes. As I passed the partly opened door of the TV room, I noticed that my grandmother was watching the late night news. Just as I was about to fling the door open, she took a long ivory pipe out of her purse, filled it with tobacco, and lit up. I was so startled that I stood frozen in the dark hallway, watching her through the two-inch crack between the door and the doorjamb.
I could hear Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro, Cuba from the newscaster's voice. My grandmother drew long puffs on the pipe and put it down on the coffee table, then made the sign of the cross and said some Armenian words: Der Voghormya, Der Voghormya, Der Voghormya (Lord Have Mercy, Lord Have Mercy, Lord Have Mercy). Then she crossed herself again, took a puff on her pipe, and said Sourp Asdvadz, Sourp Asdvadz, Sourp Asdvadz (Holy God, Holy God, Holy God). She stood up, crossed herself, sat down, and pulled from her purse a dazzling blue and ivory and apricot striped cloth. She placed it on her lap like a napkin and then opened up a big fat biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, in which a '57 baseball card of Hank Aaron was tucked as a bookmark.
For days afterward, I thought of my grandmother's strange ritual in the TV room. Because I felt guilty for spying on her while everyone else slept peacefully upstairs, I couldn't mention it to anyone in my family. Weeks later, after the Cuban Missile Crisis was settled and enough time had passed so that what I had seen seemed like fiction, I told my mother that one night in the summer I had seen Gran take a smoke on a pipe. Seeing on my face that this amazed and somewhat frightened me, she said, "Oh, in the old country, at a certain age, women smoke pipes once in a while. It's a sign of wisdom."
If I was relieved that my mother had given me an answer, I was unsettled that the answer had unfurled more questions. The old country. That phrase that came up now and then. A phrase that seemed to have a lock on it. I knew it meant Armenia, but it made me uneasy. If I asked about the old country, the adults would change the subject. Once my mother said, "It's an ancient place, it's not really around anymore." Where had it gone? I asked myself.
If I lived in a house where the old country still had a presence, why wasn't there a map, or photograph, or beautiful drawing of it somewhere, like the one the Zandonellas had of Milan in their TV room? Since there was no picture of the old country in our house and since I didn't have one etched in my mind, the old country came to mean my grandmother. Whatever it was, she was. Whatever she was, it was.