Peter Balakian, a prizewinning poet and professor of English at Colgate since 1980, has written the story of how, even as he was experiencing a quintessential American childhood growing up in northern New Jersey, he was awakened to the profound and compelling truths of the Armenian past.If life appeared to me more complex and contradictory at 57 Crabtree Lane, one ritual we performed right in the center of suburbia embodied the strange dovetailing of new suburban life with our ancient Near Eastern culture. In the way that a scene comes back like a tableau, this comes back to me from July of 1960. On an ordinary summer evening in the middle of the week, the Der Hye (the priest) and his wife (Yedetskeen) from the newly built St. Thomas' Armenian Church appear at our front door. They are in summer clothes: Der Hye in his clerical collar and black short-sleeved tunic, and Yedetskeen in a tight low-cut lavender suit. With his silvering goatee, he is slightly debonair in an old world way, and Yedetskeen, with her jet-black page-boy, is chic. They stand in the doorway checking out the large black-and-white diamond-shaped tiles of our new foyer, and the cool air of the house mingles for a min-ute with the dank July evening and the smell of just-spread fertilizer.
In front of the new walnut sideboard in our freshly painted, yellow dining room, standing on a new Kirman rug, the Der Hye chants in Armenian. We stand around the new dining room table, attentive, and when he crosses himself, we cross ourselves. I am self-conscious, bringing my properly pointed three fingers from forehead to solar plexus, and fearing I'll go to my right shoulder before my left, I cross myself quickly twice to make certain I've covered all the stations of the body. He has a Bible in one hand and takes out of his pocket a cross and what looks like a silver flask, studded with jewels. He makes motions with the cross in the air and sprinkles holy water from the flask onto the rug. I watch my mother grimace at this small assault on her new Kirman but she holds her tongue. Devormyah, Devormyah, Devormyah: Lord Have Mercy, Lord Have Mercy, Lord Have Mercy. He chants it several times, recites a prayer, and we cross ourselves again. Then he looks at the five of us as we make an arc around the dining room table -- the new gold chandelier slightly obscuring his face from where I stand -- and he proclaims our house blessed.
The table is set, and while my father lights the candles my mother comes out of the kitchen with platters of plaki (white bean salad), yalanchee (cold, meatless dolmas), shrimp and cocktail sauce, chicken salad, paklava, marinated quinces, a bottle of French brandy, and crystal snifters. I eat in silence. I feel like I'm watching a play being put on in my own house. If the Walls and the O'Tooles and the Dillsteins could see us now, what would they say? I'm a little stunned, somewhat embarrassed, and in a way I can't explain, moved by it all. The incense lingers in the air like a dissolving soft blue-gray cloud, and its sweet ashy smell falls over everything and I feel vulnerable, as if I should know more about this strange pageant I've just been part of. As dessert drags on and my parents slip easily into conversation in Armenian with Der Hayr and Yeretsgeen, I drift across the hall into the TV room, turn the dial to channel 11, and the Yankees are on. I keep smelling the incense as Mel Allen's voice fills up the room and the word Der Voghromya keeps floating in my head with names of the starting lineups.
On Saturday mornings I watched from our window with envy as my friends walked with their parents in procession, family by family, down Dickerson Road on their way to schul. I wanted to join the men and boys in their black and white yarmulkes and their silk tallits. A brocade of silver and gold thread on Mr. Blumenthal's yarmulke glittered in the sun. The tallits were decorated with tassels called tzitzits, and Mark used to brag that Jews wore tallits so they could feel closer to God. "Wrapped in a robe of light: Psalm 104," he quoted. Tallits were like shawls and were adorned with gold and blue thread and tiny pearls sewn into the shapes of stars and boxes. "Tzitzits are reminders of obedience to the Almighty." Mark sounded like a Talmudic scholar when he said things like this.
I longed to be walking solemnly and confidently with my friends as they moved toward the Beth Israel Temple. I imagined the mystery of being in temple was more wonderful than anything our new, makeshift Armenian church could offer, set up on Sundays at the Teaneck Women's Club. It was strange to be Armenian on Dickerson Road, because we seemed like we should be Jews. We shared a similar feeling about family, a habit of being in the kitchen, a shower, more deliberate sense of time that was part of something I didn't understand at age seven. Dark and scrawny, with my shaggy crew cut and slightly almond-shaped eyes, I even looked Jewish.
One Saturday I was lounging in front of the TV in my red pajamas with gray plastic feet, after The Little Rascals and Sky King and Roy Rogers were over and the procession of families had disappeared down West Englewood Avenue, I turned down the sound
of the television and asked my mother why we weren't Jewish. The fact that it was December and the candles of the brass menorahs in all the living room windows of Dickerson Road were lit had goaded me on. They were more alive to me than Christmas trees.
"Because we're Christians," she answered.
"Why are we Christians?"
"Our people decided to follow the teachings of Jesus." She paused. "There's a legend that Noah's Ark landed on Mt. Ararat in Armenia. That makes Jews and Armenians cousins."
"What's Mt. Ararat?"
My mother exhaled as if she wished I would go away. "Mt. Ararat is one of the highest mountains in the world; it's snow-capped; it's our national symbol."
"The symbol of America?"
"No. Of Armenia."
As long as I had known language the word Armenia had existed; it was synonymous with the rooms of my house. An assumption. Ar. Meen.Ya. Armenia. Like ma-ma, da-da. Like hurt and horse. Arm. You. Me. Eat. The word rolled to the back of my mouth and just as I almost swallowed it, I caught it back near the epiglottis and unrolled it, pushing it forward as my jaw dropped open to the Ya and the word spilled into the air. Armenia. It was such an unconscious part of my life that I had never even thought to ask: Where is it? What is it?
My mother exhaled again. "It's in another country."
"Armenia's in another country?"
"No, Mt. Ararat . . . well, both. Armenia and Mt. Ararat are in other countries. But, we're American. That's the main thing. We're not like other Armenians. They're too ethnic."
From the Black Dog of Fate by Peter Balakian, published by Basic Books, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. Copyright (c) 1997 by Peter Balakian.