Four Generations of Pain

My mother grew-up in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts, a working class town bordering Springfield. 

Both her parents were, essentially, the sole survivors in thier families of the massacres of the Armenians in Turkey. When my grandmother was 14, in 1913, her entire family was butchered. She was rescued by Canadian missionaries who smuggled her, over 8 days by donkey, from Marash to the coast city of Mercin and onto a ship to Alexandria, Egypt. My grandfather, who would not meet my grandmother until eight years later in the US, escaped with his parents and sister to Alexandria. After a few months in Alexandria my grandfather emigrated to the US, and his parents, having heard that Turkey was now safe for Armenians, returned to their hometown: Marash. 

A few days after their return home, while my grandfather’s sister was in the market, my grandfather’s parents, my great grandparents, were disemboweled in their home. When my grandfather’s sister, my great aunt, returned home two soldiers tasked with murdering Armenian families were waiting. At the last moment a neighbor bribed the soldiers to spare my great aunt’s life. And that day, with nothing but the clothes on her back, she walked out of town. She walked south to Syria; across the Syrian desert to Lebanon; and eventually to Beirut, where she settled and raised a family. She never saw her brother, my grandfather, again.

In 1936, about 20 years after my grandparent’s escape from Turkey, my mother was born in Ludlow, a tiny town adjoining Indian Orchard. She was the fourth of 6 sisters.

Her mother, my grandmother, was a homemaker. Her father was a shoemaker and the first man to put a zipper in a shoe. He tried to patent his invention but never made a penny from it because he didn’t trust attorneys. The details of that sad saga is another story.

In the 1940s Armenian girls from Indian Orchard did not go to college. This was partly because this was the general fate of America’s first generation immigrants; but also because many Armenian men at the time, including my grandfather, believed that women should not get higher educations. My mother quoted him as saying: “women are long on hair, short on brains.”

But my mother was not short on brains. She was brilliant. And she wanted to go to college.

Just after World War II Springfield, Massachsettes launched the “Springfield Plan.” The Springfield Plan established four high schools: Trade, Commerce, Tech and Classical. Students, at the end of ninth grade, chose a high school and, if they had the prerequisites and grades, they went where they wished. My mother chose and was admitted to Classical, the college preparatory high school.

One day at dinner, towards the end of the school year, my mother announced that she was going to Classical the following September. Her father said: “No. You are going to Commerce and will become a bookkeeper.” To which my mother replied: “I’m going to Classical and I’m going to be a doctor.”

A struggle ensued. My grandfather drank his homebrew arak and got madder as he got drunker. And after dinner he beat her. This is how my mother spent her entire summer between junior high school and high school: with an argument at dinner followed by a beating.

The first day of public school classes in September of 1949 my mother got up, dressed, ate breakfast, and went to Classical.

At the end of her tenth grade year my mother secured a job assembling fan motors at a nearby Westinghouse factory. The work week was fifty hours: five ten-hour days. In order to secure overtime pay, one and a half times the regular pay, my mother worked six twelve hour days, seventy two hours. She saved her pay for college tuition.

The following summer, between eleventh grade and twelfth grade, she did the same.

In her twelfth grade year my mother applied to and was accepted to the University of Massachusetts main campus. And, during her summer between high school and college, she again worked seventy two hour weeks in the Westinghouse factory.

By the end of the summer she knew her assigned dorm room and her roommate’s name. My mother and her soon-to-be roommate exchanged letters in anticipation of meeting and sharing a room.

Two weeks before classes started my grandfather, my mother’s father, was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He had no insurance so my mother went to the bank, took out all of her savings, and paid for her father’s surgeries. My mother cancelled her college matriculation.

My mother went back to work but, I understood many years later, her spirit had been broken and she stopped dreaming of becoming a doctor.

*****

In 1952, at a Greek-Armenian picnic in an Indian Orchard park, my parents met and, for lack of a better term, recognized each other. 

My father, a first generation Greek whose parents had come to the US to escape grinding poverty on Crete, was working on his PhD at Yale.

How it happened that my two parents, both children of uneducated peasant immigrants, had such different trajectories, is yet another story. But behind their different trajectories was a profound sameness: each of their families came to the US at about the same time. Each father had a little storefront business and each had founded a church for their community. Neither family spoke English at home. And the two family’s foods were very similar: the Greeks ate dolmades and baklava; the Armenians ate dolma and paklava. 

On December 26, 1955 my mother and father were married. 

A year and a half later, in June of 1957, my father successfully defended his dissertation. When he came home my mother had made a special plate of appetizers and had purchased a bottle wine. In the days that followed my mother told my father: “Phil, it’s my turn. I want to go to college.” My father brushed-off the notion and said, I learned many years later: “My role is to make money for the family; yours is to raise the kids and keep the house.” My mother seethed inside, but never said anything until she told me the story when I was in college.

In March of 1957, in New Haven, I was my parent’s first born.  Two years later my sister was born. And six months after that we moved to California where my father had secured a tenure track job as a professor of Spanish at Mills College in Oakland, California.

How it happened that a son of Cretan immigrants became a professor of Spanish literature is yet another story for another day. But how my father paid for Dartmouth is a story that needs telling.

My father was that most sought-after Ivy League ideal: the student athlete. He was a top student at Classical High school (he graduated the year before my mother began) and also the captain of the football team. So my father had his choice of football scholarships to the Ivy League. The Dartmouth coach went to my grandfather’s store and shook my grandfather’s hand. My father, very impressed with this show of respect, decided to attend Dartmouth.

In my father’s freshman year, before the season had even begun, in a scrimmage against Army, my father was cheap-shotted by a cadet. The injury was devastating: torn ligaments, torn cartilage, bone chips off of the femur. My father was carried off of the field with a career-ending injury.

My dad’s blown knee was also a scholarship-ending injury. 

When Dartmouth cancelled my father’s scholarship my grandfather said to my father: “Phil, I can’t afford an Ivy League tuition, but you will go. I will keep my store open later on Friday and Saturday, and I will open on Sunday and skip church, except on Easter. You will eat breakfast and dinner. Skip lunch. Eat a big breakfast. Put a doughnut in your pocket. Between me working more hours, and you eating twice a day, we’ll get you through Dartmouth.”

Of course my father could not afford the surgeries he needed to rebuild his knee. So he limped and did not complain.

At the end of his first semester teaching at Mills my father had the knee surgery he needed, eight years after his devastating injury. Some of my earliest memories are of lying next to my father while he did leg-lifts in bed post surgery.

*****

At Mills my father was an up-and-coming professor, and an “infant terrible.” 

My mother, meanwhile, had managed to escape Indian Orchard, but found herself bereft of the education she longed for. She was deeply pained and suffering. I did not, as a young boy, understand this, but I felt–how to put this?–that she was somehow disconnected. She never did anything overtly cruel to me, but I didn’t trust her.

When I was in the earliest grades of elementary school I would play a kind of Russian roulette whenever I took a glass from the cupboard. Instead of just grabbing the glass most at hand I imagined that my mother had set a booby trap. I imagined that she had put poison in a couple of the glasses so that she could get rid of me. So, when I needed a glass, I would tell myself silently: “mom won’t get me today” and I would pick through the glasses and select one a few rows back. Then, to be sure I was safe, I’d rinse out the glass. 

When my sister was in first grade she came home with a drawing she had made in school. The picture was of a large woman with crazy red hair and a broom. Next to her was a second but smaller female figure. The caption read “My mother hitting me with a broom.”

My mother occasionally slapped us and spanked us, but she never used an implement. When she saw the drawing my mother, to use a common turn of phrase, “flipped-out.” She excoriated my sister and told her that now her teacher would think her an abuser. The next day my mother called the teacher and told her that she had no idea how my sister could have ever imagined such a horror.

Years later I understood where that horror came from. When my sister and I appeared we were the final nails in the coffin that held my mother’s dreams of attaining a formal education. My mother, for decades, carried gnawing resentments: against her father, against my father, and against her children who, by coming into the world against her wishes, forever enjoined her dream of acquiring a formal education. 

My mother kept her silence but her frustrations and anger and resentments, I realized years later, were like a cancer in her. The unease and fear I felt as a child was not imagined, it was the result of my mother’s so-to-say discordant vibrations: motherly love mixed with the resentment of her children’s existence.

In November of 2006 my son Luke was born in New York City. Eleven months before, in a hospice on Cape Cod, my mother died with my father, my partner Ruth and me at her bedside. When Luke was born many commented that my mother died only two months before her grandson Luke was conceived, with the result that my mother died not knowing that I would become a father, and she a grandmother, by both of her two children.

For a long time, somewhere buried, I carried the question: “How did it happen that Ruth and I began trying to conceive a baby just after my mom died? When an answer first appeared I turned away from it. But the same answer kept appearing, again and again, like a light getting brighter as a dimmer is turned up. And the answer, I admit and now reduce to writing, is this: as long as my mother lived I had no impulse to father a child.

*****

Mathematical analysis requires parentheses. The parentheses indicate which terms act on which terms, and how the results of the parenthetical operations relate with the whole. And as I write this story I’m confronted with the question of where to put the parentheses.

If I put parentheses around the relationship of my grandfather and mother, I see monstrous violence and abuse. But, if include in that parentheses, my grandfather’s escape from Turkey, his parents brutal murders, his sister’s narrow escape and 400 kilometer trek across the Syrian desert, and that my grandfather never saw his sister after he departed Egypt in 1914, I see a yet larger horror. I see in my grandfather an unfathomable suffering and scaring, and see his violence toward my mother as a mechanical result of his having endured unspeakable violence and pain. If you drop a bomb in the ocean you don’t just kill the proximate fish, the resultant wave kills children on a beach miles away. 

If I put parentheses around my father’s dismissal of my mother’s dreams I see terrible insensitivity, egomania, and stupidity. But, if I include in those parentheses that fact my father’s parents had second-grade educations; accepted gender roles as natural absolutes; and note that my father was the product of Dartmouth and Yale–schools that did not admit women–I can see how in 1960 my father never imagined that his wife had need of a college education. And then, if I note that in 1960 my father had begun teaching at the most respected all women’s college on the west coast, the picture gets grayer. 

And, if I put parentheses around the untold number of microaggressions that I now see my mother directed at me for decades, I could pronounce her a monster. But if I include in the parentheses the suffering that my mother endured as she worked so hard to achieve dreams that were wrenched from her, I see her abuse as waves propagating through her from a bomb she did not drop.

*****

Is my family’s sad story the rule or the exception?

Open any history book and we have the answer: in the main human history is a chronology of crime and violence and horror. In fact, we can say without exaggeration, that human history is mainly the chronology of war and the convalescences that follow. Generations removed from any war can, and have, discovered in their family histories what I have found in mine. All of us carry, if we have eyes brave enough to see, the accumulated pain of our ancestors in our souls.

Would seven year old Philip Metzidakis have worried that his mother was trying to poison him if his grandparents, 50 years before, had not escaped the massacres that obliterated most of their generation: my great grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, cousins and others whose names are lost to time? I think not.

Mankind, I am quite certain, will not get more civilized: wars and violence and corruption and abuse will remain humanity’s center of gravity and, taken together, the one constant.

Nevertheless, I believe in individual transformation. A man or woman is not obliged to trust their basest impulses and thus pass-on, like a virus, their anger and suffering to their children specifically and the world generally. We can be large enough not to ascribe blame without consideration of context. I affirm that individuals can, with consciousness, interrupt in themselves the waves of horror that propagate through the world’s peoples, collectively and individually. 

My son Luke has never been afraid to drink from a glass in our family’s kitchen cupboard.

One thought on “Four Generations of Pain

  1. Phil, when we moved to Crum Ledge Lane, I had emigrated to this country just a few months earlier. I knew NOTHING about cooking. Your wonderful Mom basically showed me how to boil water. There was an opening in the hedge between our houses and she squeezed through that hole when I yelled for help. And then I took off…..

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