The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
“We are the boat; we are the sea. I sail in you; you sail in me.”
From Somos El Barco, Lorre Wyatt
I wrote “Little Boats” about a year ago. I wanted to write a story that sewed together several threads from my Armenian past.
I tried many years earlier to write a story about my father’s childhood and immigration to America. I began the story in the small village in what was Ancient Armenia but is now present-day Turkey.
The name of the village, Piran, has been changed. During the Armenian Genocide, my father lost most of his family members except his paternal grandmother, Toumeh. She hid my father in the basement of her home.
After a harrowing journey from his village of Piran to Aleppo, Syria, my father came to America with the help of his Uncle Simon. My mother was born in the village of Talas near the Greek and Armenian city of Kayseri in central Turkey. Her family left Turkey when she was one year old and settled in Beirut, Lebanon. I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware with my three siblings. My mother’s mother came to live with us from Beirut when I was four years old.
When I was young, I asked my dad a lot of questions: What did you like to do when you were my age? Did you have brothers and sisters? How did you get here?Most days my father was too preoccupied with other things like listening to the news to answer me. But one day when I tugged impatiently on his sleeve and he had finished eating dinner, he decided to tell me his story.“I came to America by boat, he said. I was eleven years old, more or less. My Uncle Simon in America sent money for me and his intended bride. I traveled from my mountaintop village in Armenia to Aleppo, Syria to Beirut, Lebanon. From there, my uncle’s betrothed and I took a boat to Marseille, France, which was a very lively port. I saw more people there than I had seen in Aleppo and Beirut combined. The people came from Africa, from Asia and from every country in the world that I could imagine.
“After two weeks in Marseille, we boarded a ship for America. We traveled in steerage, and the fare for me was $57.50, one-half the adult fare. The trip took a long time, but I did not mind. When I could sneak up to the deck, I loved to look at the endless blanket of silver waves and imagine what America would be like. In America, I would have a lot to eat, and the watermelon seeds would be made of gold. At night I rocked to sleep in the ship’s hull, which was like a gigantic cradle.
“We arrived many days later at Ellis Island, where I was examined and accepted and sent on to Providence, Rhode Island. My new Aunt-to-be had some friends in America. They came to meet her at the boat, and they whisked her away. They had arranged for the raven-haired beauty to marry someone else. When my uncle arrived to pick us up, he vainly looked for his bride, but he found only me, his skinny nephew from the village in Armenia where we were both born.
“When I grew up to be a young man, I had forgotten how to speak Armenian. I wanted to learn, but there weren’t any Armenian schools in New York. For the first time since I was 11 years old, I embarked on a ship and sailed back to Beirut. In Beirut there were lots of Armenians. I found a very good Armenian school, and I enrolled. That’s where I met your mom.”
“Did you get married right away?” I asked. By this point, my mother had joined in our conversation.
‘No.” My mother said emphatically. “I barely talked to your father. He tried to tease me, but I ignored him.”
The war broke out in Europe, and my father had to come back to America. He caught a boat to Genoa, Italy and sailed back to New York City. “I was on the last civilian boat out of Genoa,” my father told me.
“When the war finally ended, I sent your mother a friendly letter. How are you doing?” I wrote. “Do you still want to come to America to study?”
After receiving her parents’ blessing, my mom wrote back. “Yes.” She sailed from Beirut to America, just as my father had done many years before. She arrived in New York City in 1946. My father met her at the ship. The trip was rough, and she had been very seasick. Mom pined away and longed for home during her first year at University, and at the end of the year Dad asked. “Will you marry me?”
“Yes.” She said. My parents got married at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. My stock answer to anyone who said to me that their ancestors came over on the Mayflower would be that my parents got married in the Mayflower.
I had barely turned four when my grandmother came from Beirut to live with us. She flew over in a plane, the first time in her life. She did not bring much with her: a few pieces of clothing, all in black, and a very long wooden stick.
Grandma liked to bake. I used to play under the kitchen table when Grandma used the long stick to roll out the dough. The dough grew and grew until I saw the ends hanging over the edges of the table.
I liked the white curtains of dough surrounding me. Most of the time, she was making paklava. She buttered layers of dough and filled the center with nuts, cinnamon, and sugar. The sweet smell of cinnamon from the baking paklava pinched my nose.
One day grandma announced, “Today I am cooking Manti. I will make little boats. And I need your help.”
I came out from my hiding place. Grandma had cut the big sheet of dough into little squares about the size of a flattened walnut. She put a tiny spoonful of meat on the dough. Now your job is to squeeze the edges together. See like this, she told me as she demonstrated. I teased and squeezed the dough all afternoon. When I had finished, we had a flotilla of white ships which grandma baked in the oven. Then she filled the baking pan with chicken broth and all of the boats floated to the top.
We watched the boats bob up and down in the broth and told each other stories. One day, Grandma, let’s hop on a boat and go back to Beirut, I said. After that we’ll take another boat to Armenia where you were born.
We can not do that, she told me. Armenia is surrounded by very tall mountains, and you can not get there by boat.
Then why do Armenians bake little boats, I asked her?
Because, she said, we have big imaginations.
I imagined myself seated in a manti where the meat usually goes, sailing back to Beirut. When I arrived at that magical blue harbor where my family members had set sail for America, my boat sprouted wings.
I started to fly.