Eulogy for my brother Dan Terhanian 1926-2010
“Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed that an exception would be made in my case. Now what?
Ahmehn mahrt beedee mehrnee, ahbah yes guh hahvadahee vohr mahhuh eenzeee pahtzahreek tzehvov chehr ountounehl. ahbsos, heemah eench beedee uhllah eenzee?
These were the last words of William Saroyan that he telephoned to the San Fransisco bureau of the Associated Press for release after his death.
Saroyan was adept at capturing the common man’s fascination with life’s little moments and little people. He could dramatize the human
foibles that kept men from attaining their desired destiny. And fittingly, his last words expressed the naive innocence of a man who spent his life dreaming myriad dreams. The best of which was the fantasy that death would make an exception of him. Why should death make an exception for him?
He was the eloquent voice of the tattered Armenians in diaspora. The little people that silently lamented unthinkable atrocities perpetrated by the Turks who successfully butchered them and desecrated 5000 years of their history. Raping and torturing virgin Armenian women and murdering them brutally. Forcing younger girls into concubinage. This was the ultimate humiliation of a subjugated people. Slaughter the men, rape the women, force march the elders until they starve or die of thirst, and take the youngest children and raise them to be Turks. Burn and destroy all vestiges of Armenian history such churches, monasteries, graveyards, seize houses and land, and eliminate as much as possible any Armenian survivor on the ancestral grounds of ancient Armenia.
Saroyan eloquently wrote,
” I should like to see any power of the world
destroy this race; this small tribe of unimportant people
whose history is ended,
whose wars have all been fought and lost,
whose structures have crumbled,
whose literature is unread,
whose music is unheard,
whose prayers are no longer uttered.
Go ahead, destroy this race. Let us say that it is again 1915; there is was in the world. Destroy Armenia.
See if you can do it.
Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their house and their churches.
See if they will not live again. See if they will not laugh again.
See if you stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world.
You sons of bitches
Go ahead, try to destroy them.”
He loudly echoed the quiet frustration of hundreds and thousands of survivors trying to piece together their broken lives and traditions. Trying desperately to teach a new generation what they barely learned themselves. Saroyan, however, mysteriously picked up the broken mantel of the Armenian writers who were mercilessly massacred by the Turks. They tried to systematically wipe out the Armenian intellectuals of Istambul and silence the Armenian renaissance of literary eloquence. But Saroyan, born in a dusty town called Fresno, California, reincarnated the heroic characters of ancient Armenia, who were appearing in California as farmers, barbers, grocery shop owners, wise grandmothers, struggling mothers, and wild kids. They were all nondescriptly living banal lives until Saroyan revealed the noble stature of their dignified failures in life. How could they not fail?
Failure for nearly 20 centuries has made the Armenian a happy creature: one of intuition, of heart and soul, who continues to live because of music, poetry, dance, soft lullabies, stories of wisdom, epic lost battles, and the joy of human warmth.
Saroyan demonstrated his playful nature when he stopped a lecture and began to sing and dance to the simple Armenian folk song,
khndzoreen dzahreenuh dahguh
yes eem yahruss seeretzee
khndzoreen dzahreenuh dahguh
khndzoreen dzahreenuh dahguh
Under the apple tree
I lovingly embraced my sweetheart
Under the apple tree
Under the apple tree
Saroyan brandished his mustache, his belly, his singing and dancing, his elan for the village culture of the old country. He epitomized the determined resistance of the Armenian villager who tolerated centuries of oppression by dancing to the sweet notes and simple words of his folk songs.
Why should death not make an exception of such a man? He was a failure. He failed himself and he failed his people and all people. Saroyan entertained them charmingly, but left them in the midst of an unending tragic-comedy. He should die. But even by dying, he entertained and instructed an unfinished lesson with no concrete answer. His last words were the quintessence of Saroyan. He demonstrated what he didn’t know, the final lesson that he never learned, the ultimate knowledge that he never reached.
He was genuinely gifted as a writer. He could connect with the common man by expressing their pains and joys. His heroes resolved their unending monotony by human compassion They were little people with endless love. Their hopelessness was dwarfed by their moments of intense comedy, the impossible, the unimaginable happening in the most banal situations. Saroyan was an explorer as daring as Columbus. He explored the human soul riddled with paradoxes which was a most perilous terrain. He did not unravel its mysteries nor did he reach the goal of understanding the purpose of life. But he entertained his reader with vignettes into the lives of the little guy and his heroic attempts at offsetting life’s miseries.
Saroyan writes about an Armenian barber in Fresno who was the worst barber in the world. He couldn’t cut hair. He pretended to be a barber in order to capture a single audience for his philosophizing about life. As a young teenager Saroyan would save up his coins to get a haircut so that he could hear the barber tell tales about distant Armenia and its heroes, politics, history, current events, cutting hair, dogs and cats, any subject was fair game. Saroyan was spell bound by the barber’s eloquence and knowledge. The barber would serve him a cup of strong Armenian coffee and they would spend an afternoon together without caring about time, money, schedules or the haircut which was awful. The barber was a gigantic character hidden in an obscure barbershop in Fresno thousands of miles away from Armenia. He was a little guy whose understanding of life was oceanic. He was willing to share his knowledge with young William for 25 cents. No wonder Saroyan became a great writer. His teachers were the unknown bards of poetry and song of ancient Armenia, who miraculously escaped the sabers of merciless Turks. They lived incognito in little shops and humble homes. They were orphans whose education was interrupted when they were still children. But they clung on to whatever little bits and pieces that they remembered from their childhood of what it meant to be an Armenian. The rest was revealed to them from the voices in their hearts and the rhythms in their blood and whatever they could pick up from the few elders that survived.
Saroyan tells another story of the saddest Armenian in the world who joined a traveling circus. His job was the put his head into the mouth of a lion during a circus act. One day, during a performance, a lion killed the Armenian while his head was inside the lion’s mouth. His stories revealed the plight of the ordinary person who struggles with fleeting joys and seemingly unending frustrations. One tries to remember the joys to offset the interminable frustrations. Eventually and inevitably one is defeated by the frustrations of life. Saroyan did not give a solution to the human problem. He made defeat heroic, sad but great in magnitude. He had to because he was Armenian. He was a member of a race of people who were accustomed to heroic defeat, to living dignified while constantly being subject to humiliation by barbaric people.
Being an Armenian was Saroyan’s religion. It was not a religion, but it was Saroyan’s religion, his god, his purpose in life. He wanted to prove that no one, no army, no nation, no world power can kill the Armenian spirit. He was the voice of the Armenians in America. The immigrant Armenians were survivors of massacre and untold cruelty, But now, they could breathe the fresh air of American freedom. He was a first generation American of Armenian descent who inherited a horrible past full of blood and gore and defeat. His father, an Armenian Protestant minister died when he was a child. His mother had to turn her children over to adoption because she couldn’t afford to care for them.
With such a history, he couldn’t believe in God. What God would permit such horrors?
His religion became the Armenian American identity. It was something strange and beautiful, full of paradoxes, tinged with irrationality, impetuous, daring, heroic, unpredictable, irascible, a lonely warrior in a vast desert with phantom enemies and no friends. His solaces were the vivid descriptions of the people he met in his family and in the streets of Fresno.
My brother Dan was part of Saroyan’s world of first generation Armenians in America. Dan’s religion was not exactly Orthodox Christianity. It was being an Armenian which included going to the Armenian Church and attending services that for the most part commemorated important dates in Armenian Christian history. The only part of the Christian teaching Dan imbibed was living a moral life. He didn’t learn this from the sermons but from the statements and example of Kevork Amou and Amoghli Terhanian and their good wives, baron Hampartzoum our father, and Vehanoush mayrik our mother, darling Morkor – Mom’s auntie, Tavit Sudjian, Bolotdos Vosbikian who was our tuhatzee in Matalia, Pemyamin Gostigian who owned the gaifee where Pop used to hang out, Mom convinced him to bring Morkor into America from Cuba where she was stuck Beden Endrikian, Garabed kehree, Uncle Charlie Artinian or Boston Charlie, Khosrof Essayian and his good wife, Uncle George Tashjian and his wife Manoushag, Horobagee, Mariam bagee, Eghsabet kouiyrik, Jimmy Vosbikians parents, Diamond Essayian and her husband, Baron Panossian, Hye Sird, Baron Roupen the Evangelist, Der haiyr Hagopian, Ingehr Gostan Boyajian, the Arpagians, and many many other elders (I can’t remember all of them) who always exemplified the baseline wisdom, mahdtuh badeevov behdk eh ahpree – man must live with honor and dignity.
For the last thirty years, Dan and I talked about these heroic Saroyanesque characters and the lessons we learned from them. They were unknown giants of humanity. Supermen and superwomen who stories would make you hair stand on end. But they reluctantly talked about their past. They wanted to protect us from the horrors and the humiliation. Morkor was a Mona Lisa like angel who taught us to be a human being that endures all the miseries of life and comes out an angel rather than a devil. She was an angel who was raped and stabbed and left for dead, whose child by an Arab died, but somehow she lived and came to America and became the surrogate mother of three Armenian boys. She taught me to go to church every Sunday and pray to Jesus who she was convinced was an Armenian. She would perform the ancient ritual of aghsharel or purification with salt and prayers of Narekgatzee whenever we were sick. She taught me to pray in Krapar, the ancient Armenian language glorifying God. Dan loved and respected Morkor more than anything. Every time we talked he would say, I went to church and lighted one candle for Pop, one for Mom, one for Morkor, one for Amou and one for Amoughli. These were his heroes, his saviors, the ones he loved the most. I am sure he is so happy to lay next to them in eternity because they were the paradigm of dignity and honor vohrohvhedev badeevov aprehtzan yehv mehran.
My brother George loves Danny very much. He did not always agree with him in material matters but he imbibed the unspoken law in traditional Armenian families of always deferring to an elder out of respect. Because our father died in 1956, Dan became the leader of the family, the protector of Mom and Morkor and myself and George was second in command. Dan had the stature of a leader. He was one of the founders of Camphi, he started the Armenian radio program with Hye Sird in the 1950s and assiduously spent every Sunday preparing for it on his meat counter at the back of Betty’s Market. I was very proud of him when I would hear his voice on the radio. “That’s my big brother Danny.” George gave me my first car when I was sixteen and Danny taught me to drive. He would say, “Now watch out, be careful, don’t do that, go slow, look to the right, look to the left, ease out ease out, don’t go fast…. Kevork Amou taught me an Armenian proverb, “Vodkut vehrmageet chap vehrgantour – don’t stretch your foot beyond your blanket.” Dan was the incarnation of this proverb. He always lived within his means and never dared to take a chance if he could help it. Dan related to me once a story about Kevork Amou who was invited by a family to dinner so that they could borrow money from him for a business venture. Uncle Kevork enjoyed a wonderful Armenian dinner, chorek, dolmas, meesohv kufteh, tutvash, mahnur yapragh, vossbohv abour, tahrkhanuh abour, baklava, kadaheef, ect. After the sumptious meal, they sat down to drink Armenian coffee and the hosts presented their business plan to Kevork Amou. After hearing the long explanation, Amou said, “Khelkuhs chee hahsneer gohr – meaning it (your proposal) doesn’t sit well in my mind or in other words I don’t understand your proposal.” He kept repeating this cryptic phrase and finally left without saying no, but not saying yes. Dan and I would laugh over and over again at Amou’s shrewd way of getting out of the obligation of loaning money. Dan respected Amou more than anyone because he was a man of discipline, principled and steady as a rock. He hardly ever deviated from his principles. At least, we did not know of it.
Dan and I frequently talked about Amou and Pop. Amou was disciplined and Pop was more passionate and untamed. Pop could wax eloquently in a speech or toast. He was more daring and had a warm heart. Indeed, he ran off with Mom to get married without getting permission from her relatives the Endrikians. Dan learned to be disciplined and very cautious, overly cautious from Amou. Amou taught him to buy US Government saving bonds every month once he was an independent business man. Dan followed his advice religiously.
Dan learned from Mom how to work hard. She started her own tailor and dry cleaning shop on Wayne avenue to increase the family income. She worked her heart out trying to make a success and Pop would get angry at her. She was cleaver and good with the clients sometimes working 12 to 14 hours to make sure they got their clothes promptly. Pop kept his shop in the Mayfair house and employed Morkor to help him. Morkor was loyal and obedient but Mom was more independent and daring. Dan and George resolved this situation by uniting the whole family in a new venture, Betty’s Market. Everyone had their duty in the store, even me. Mom was Betty the business woman, entrepreneur and working Mom. Pop was the grandsire who would spend hours during the day drinking coffee at Horn and Hardart’s in Germantown and I think, all night playing cards at Gostigyan’s café. After the café, he would go to the Wharf in the wee hours of the morning and make the purchases of produce for Betty’s Market. At that pace, Pop didn’t last long and he finally succumbed to cancer of the lungs caused by three or four packs of Chesterfields a day and ten to twelve cups of coffee.
I remember the day Pop died in the morning on June 3rd, 1956. Later in the day, Amou and Amoughli arrived from New York. Amoghli immediately started to cry when he saw Mom. And then all of them began to cry. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t understand death or what it meant. But I could see it was very emotional and heartbreaking. Mom cried for a week.
Dan told me a few years ago that Pop, Amou and, I think Amoghli, were saved from certain death because Pop’s and Amou’s mother understood that there was a bleak future in Malatia for young Armenian men. She sacrificed everything she had to send them to America where they would be safe and perhaps be able to one day save the rest of the Terhanian family. This was in 1913. When the massacres started the Terhanian boys in America were helpless and tortured by the bits and pieces of news that came from Turkey revealing progressively the horrors of the massacre in Malatia and elsewhere. Danny told me whenever Amou talked about his mother he would cry and Pop’s eyes would become wet. They realized how much she sacrificed to save them and they couldn’t do anything to save her. I think this was one reason why Pop killed himself by smoking and sometimes drinking because there was no other way to mask the pain of being helpless and humiliated and living in a foreign country where everything was difficult for him.
A few months ago, George took me to see Danny in the hospice. We were jolly. Dan would always ask me, “para bedk ouness, yes shad para ounem, chem kedehr inch uhnem.’ I told him, “parayeet pehranuh kaknem, yes kou paraheet bedkt chounem.”
Dan chuckled and said, Seedak uhseer, megh uhnkam chee, hahzahr uhnkam parayeen pehrahnuh kaknem, yes ahl bedhk chounem.” He looked at George and said, “Beats (Danny called George, Beats), you got all my money right?” George said, “Don’t worry, I got it all safe in the bank. You’re a rich man.” Dan said, “You’re Goddamn right, I want to give it all to the church, I don’t want you guys to take a penny of it.”
We all laughed and laughed.
I asked Dan, “Where is Mary?” He said, “I think she’s at home.” I said, “No, she died, don’t you remember?” He looked at me and said, “Vehruh kuhnatz gahm vahruh kunatz aghcheekuh?” George smiled and said, “Kohrem teh vahruh kuhnatz.” (I think she went down.)
Dan said, “Votch, aghchikuh huhreshdak ehr, movie star ehr, vehr kuhnatz. She was an angel, a movie star, she went up.” We all laughed.
Then Dan said, “geenuhs ehren thrahmnehruh ennzee chee tzuhketz.”
(My wife didn’t leave any of her money for me.) I said, “kehzee dahr neh Casino guh vazeheer, yehv shit house gehtahr tuhramneerut.” (if she left any of her money to you, you would have run to the casino and the money would have been lost to the shit house) Again we laughed and laughed.
I’ll end by saying, I loved Danny. He was family, He was good. He was jolly and funny and all Armenian. I learned from George that we should always respect mehdz yeghpaiyr (big or oldest brother).
He was our medz yeghpaiyr and he will always remain in our prayers.