Grandpa Stepan’s Extraordinary Gift
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you should write your story. Your grandchild will want to read it.
Dawn MacKeen is the author of the forthcoming book about her grandfather, The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey (January 2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Our car was speeding down the hot asphalt road through eastern Syria. On all sides, the brown desert stretched out flat and unwelcoming, until a narrow river appeared, playfully splashing some blue. The Khabur, I knew. The driver slowed, and I looked out at the banks, where my grandfather Stepan had camped, nearly a century earlier, beside thousands of other Armenians, all starving, sleep-deprived and terrified of the armed guards nearby. I tried to picture his facial expression as he gazed at the corpses, tied together, floating past his tent like a parade.
When I visited, in the summer of 2007, the golden dirt looked unremarkable, dappled with shrubs, the water clear. No sign of the darkness that had transpired almost 100 years before, or of the horror that would come a few short years later when an uprising in 2011 descended into a civil war, and the region again turned into a cemetery.
Still, I trembled, thinking about him. How at age 29 he’d been forced to march hundreds of miles from Anatolia to this desert. How the Ottoman government had accused the ethnic Armenians of staging a rebellion, driving them from their homes during the Great War. How it had started with the roundup of their leaders on the night of April 24, the date Armenians mark as the beginning.
More than a million Armenians died from the forced marches, diseases and killings in the genocidal campaign that Turkey still denies occurred. By all measures, my grandfather’s days spent trudging along the Khabur River were going to be his last; the caravans of people who came before him had already been massacred.
As we passed through the village of Suwar, where my grandfather had been interned, I opened up his memoir, published in 1965 by a small Armenian press. I pored over an English translation of his words. With his book as my guide, I’d devoted my summer to retracing my grandfather’s steps from his home outside modern-day Istanbul, across the country’s interior, and into Syria, once all part of the Ottoman Empire. Except I was not on foot; I was in a car. Driving through each region, I’d reread what he’d written about that particular place. I didn’t want to miss a single detail. Mere miles from the Iraq border, I read some more:
“I, too, had lost hope of surviving, but I considered myself lucky — as strange as that might sound — because from our family I would be the only victim. My family had been left behind, while, everyday, I witnessed thousands perish with their entire families.”
I could almost hear his soft, gentle voice, so matter-of-fact about his fate. Further explaining the joy he’d felt when finding a rotten apple core, after three days of no food at all. This was the man who had died from natural causes at age 88 when I was 3 years old, the man my mother would continue to tell me about, whom she called “Baba,” whose odyssey she’d endlessly repeat: “Baba escaped from the Turks. He crossed the desert without water. He led others to safety.”
These were the stories he’d passed onto her, the stories he wanted the world to know. He’d survived, he’d written, for this purpose.
I thought about that as we left Suwar behind us and kept driving. The terrain was desolate, only periodically marked with boxy, mud-colored homes. Just glancing at the dried and cracked land made me thirsty. I read some more:
“We got on the road and walked until evening. We were amazed that there were no massacres. Let them massacre, so we would be no more. We were still reconciled with death. Ah, so sweet seemed to be dying!”
My eyes welled up. I hadn’t been able to read his account until three years before, when a relative translated his two booklets into English. As I turned the pages for the first time, finally, I understood what my mother was trying to tell me. When recounting each narrow escape, I cheered for him. It was difficult to believe the endangered protagonist was my own grandfather.
And then slowly, I realized the chain reaction of his survival — my mom existed, I existed, my aunt and uncle, my cousins, my cousins’ children; my whole family existed because he survived.
As I sat in the car in Syria, scrutinizing more passages, I had the sudden sensation he was sitting beside me. I could almost see his finger point to the places where he wanted us to stop and look. Ahead loomed a ghostly hill with a small Armenian church, denoting a massacre site. “Mrkada,” the sign read. This was where he attempted to flee the sentries, but he had been spotted.
I read some more. By the end of the summer, by the end of his book, I could almost anticipate his move in any given situation. I always knew the outcome, of course, but now I knew his journey. His words had given me the biggest gift — the gift of getting to know my grandfather, decades after his death.