Around the year 1900 in a village of about 100 people, called Keghi, Armenia, there lived two important families. One was the Melkonian family. They were the merchants, or store keepers, of the village. They had four children, one whose name was Satenig. She was very beautiful and everyone in the village loved her because she was so sweet. In the Narsisian family, there were four sons. The youngest was named Tosig, or Thomas. In the province of Erzurum, there was a newspaper that would go out to all the villages in the area. The people began to hear word of the Turkish government's plans to invade and take over Armenia. They wanted the rich farmlands and crops, and wanted to destroy all the people in order to obtain it. They hated the Armenians because they were Christian. The Narsisian family held a family council and decided to have Tosig and his father try to make it to America, where they heard you could get rich and have freedom. The mother cried to lose her youngest son, but knew they had to go. So Tosig and his father made the long journey to America, where they worked night and day to earn enough money for the boat ticket back to Armenia to bring the rest of the family to America. After almost a year, they made enough money for three tickets. It was decided that Tosig would return for the family while his father would continue to work and purchase a home for them. Tosig arrived in Keghy, Armenia to find that everyone was packing their belongings in wagons and fleeing to the mountains to escape the Turkish soldiers. Tosig went to his house to find his mother crying. Tosig moved quickly. There was a river in the village that had to be crossed in order to escape. He arranged for a boat, and that very night, he and his mother went to the river. She reminded Tosig about Satenig, and he quickly went to ask her parents' permission to take her to America with him. They had no choice but to let her go, even though she was only 14 years old. Her mother and little sister Savguel cried, along with Satenig. They rushed to the boat to find Tosig's brother's wife there. She knew that they only had three tickets. She was crying and asked Grama Narsisian, Tosig's mother, if she would take her new born baby girl Violet to America with them. The story is told that Grama Narisian was in the boat, and she threw the baby to her as the boat was leaving. They knew in their hearts they would never see their families again. The very next day, the soldiers came. It was said by Satenig's brother, who made it to America years later, that Satenig's mother was seen with her grandchildren being marched out of town. He hid in the bushes, ate grass and anything he could find, to make it to the boat to America. Tosig later sent money so he could come. He shared the horrid stories of what had happened back in Armenia.
Out of respect, Tosig waited two years to marry Satenig. She was 16 and he was 16 years older than her, but they were so in love. Grama Narsisian taught her everything while also raising little Violet. After Tosig and Satenig were married, he purchased a farm in Cuyler, New York where they had four children: Mary, Andy, Margaret and Marie. Tosig was a righteous good man who took care of his family and ran the farm with integrity and hard work. When Tosig was in his forties, he developed cancer. He suffered, but still took care of everyone. He passed away when Mary was eight years old. She was very close to her father and after he died, she stopped eating and talking. The family sent her to a center for children where she lived for two long years. In the meantime, Satenig struggled to feed and take care of her children. One time, she got a job cleaning floors at City Hall, and a lawyer came in and saw her. He said to her, "You are too beautiful to be on your knees cleaning floors," and he sent her home with a sizable amount of money. Shortly thereafter, she realized she would have to marry again for her children. A cruel military Armenian man, Hagop, married her, but she only loved Tosig. Satenig would sleep with Mary when she came home from the center. She would cry for Tosig and her family in Armenia. Shortly thereafter, she developed cancer and passed away. Mary soon married Philip Cook, so they raised Andy, Margaret and Marie.
Tosig did not live long, and his death was Satenig's death. She was so young when she passed away. She was not only beautiful, but her spirit was so sweet. Everyone loved her where she lived, because she was so giving and loving to everyone. They knew how mean her husband was to her and the children. When she passed, an Armenian woman said, "Ah zah dahv." It means, "God saved her."
Satenig is my great-great grandmother and Mary is my great grandma, whom I was blessed to know and love.
Something I wrote after Grandma Mary's funeral:
In those beautiful, perplexing mountains, we gathered together, hand in hand, as family tradition, around my great grandma’s grave and sang with joy the Armenian song Hingala. I looked up and around, to the soothing sky, to the unworried mountains with their dreamy white caps and captivating rocks, to this immaculate world that I live in. And as we sang the words, “a song for cheerful days” in Armenian, I knew the source of the peaceful heart I have always maintained during trying times.
To be outside and in this beautiful world and feel so alive and free, to be overcome by emotion, to be Armenian gives me strength like nothing else. We look at nature and feel, we see suffering and feel. There is an invisible rope that holds us together as great families, and holds us together as Armenians. The knowledge of being in it together, of being there for one another, warms and comforts me. An Armenian heritage- meaning a strong family. Knowing that families are forever, and that I am connected to a strong and humble people, gives me hope to share that same strength as them, who have endured so much. As an aunt has said, “We all feel this greatness inside of us, don’t we? We just feel different from others and can’t quite understand why. It is our heritage.” I could not agree with her more. I know that I come from a noble and righteous heritage. As Armenians, we feel deeply and search our souls constantly looking for something. In a crowd, we are looking up and over, exhibiting courage in all that we do. Being Armenian is more than an ethnic background, it is who I am. I am Armenian; who I am is a direct reflection of that noble and righteous heritage. I find strength in my family, peace in nature, courage in knowing who I am and where I come from. The ability to find light during the darkest times comes from my Armenian heritage.
As we pulled out of the driveway, still entranced by the grandeur of the mountains, my heart was smiling. Why me? My question was answered. Because I am from a noble and righteous lineage, because “a song for cheerful days” echoes in my heart, reminding me to look for the light, to press on with strength and courage, because I know I am not alone in the fight, because ES HAI EEM... I am Armenian.
Hingala, a song for cheerful days, translated into English:
The shepherd forlorn in the mountains,
Played a song of love
A song for red cheeks, a song for warm eyes,
A song for cheerful days.
And came a new spring
With the beautiful flowers,
Flowers of eery color, I love, ha, ha, ha
Flowers of every color.
But this is your lot poor shepherd
To be abandoned in this deep valley, hingala, hingala
A song for red cheeks, a song for warm eyes,
A song for cheerful days.
* Thank you so much to my sweet Aunt Elaine for sharing my great heritage with me.