My hand began to ache as I held the blunt knife in my hand and pressed into the slab of plaster to create a new clean line. One would expect that perhaps we would have been provided with a more pliable material, one that didn’t need the force and brutality with which I tackled this piece of cement-like clay. I was nine years old and in Armenian Saturday school. Me and seven other students were in the art studio standing behind a desk, our knives in one hand and a picture of an intricately designed cross next to our empty rock-like canvas, each of us emitting small, angry grunts as we thrust our knives against the surface only to realize we were creating pathetic little scratches instead of deep, curved grooves. We were all assigned the task of creating a ‘khatchkar’. Literally translated, it meant ‘cross stone’, and carried the weight of hundreds of years of Armenian history and tradition dating back to the 12th century.
The weeks progressed and the grey rectangular slab became my mortal enemy as I attempted to carve into it and create a khatchkar masterpiece. We were given four weeks to complete it with the expectation that we would also be taking it home and working on it during our leisure time. I would put mine on a table in the basement, where it would remain untouched until the following Saturday morning when I would hoist it under my arm and feel the weight of it pressing on my lap as my mother drove me to school. My only relief was the knowledge that my classmates also hadn’t made much progress. However, the anxiety of having to complete the project in less than a week began to prey on my nerves.
The art teacher, Mr. Samosian walked around the room, quietly evaluating our work as a curator would walk through a museum. I could only assume he was disappointed considering he hadn’t uttered one encouraging word. Instead, he clicked his tongue against his teeth, which created a sharp sucking noise and made our hearts wearier.
“None of these look like anything close to becoming a cross,” he said.
We all put down our knives and listened.
“Aida,” he said. “You barely have the shape of a cross on there. Have you been working at home? It doesn’t look like it,” he said, answering for me.
“It’s very tough,” I said honestly, hoping my classmates would chime in. All I heard was a stray cough and the tinkering of someone’s knife against the stone.
“We are displaying these at the church festival next Sunday,” he said, his voice full of warning. “Do what you can with the remainder of the period and then finish the rest at home.”
It was then and there that I decided to feign illness and not go to the festival at all. I wasn’t ashamed of how little I had produced, but furious with this impossible and sophisticated project that would have been better suited for a professional sculptor, someone of the likes of Rodin, for instance. It also echoed the role that my culture and upbringing would resonate throughout my childhood and adolescence. Everything about being Armenian felt like a hindrance from living my idea of a normal life. I wouldn’t be able to marry someone unless he was Armenian. My mother never made brussel sprouts. I wasn’t allowed to watch Different Strokes or Three’s Company. I was forced to wear skirts that hung below my knees and wearing a bikini was out of the question no matter how old I was. And I couldn’t have a boyfriend. Being Armenian felt as if I had been permanently cursed with no reprieve in sight.
My parents had enrolled me in St. Illuminator’s Armenian Day School since the first grade, when the school first opened. My father had been one of the founders of the school and my mother was the head of the P.T.A. The school offered a Saturday program, and for reasons I could not fathom, my mother had insisted I attend on Saturdays as well. Never mind the fact that the next day I would have to sit through a two-hour Sunday school lesson at the Armenian Church in the city. Perhaps my mother thought that keeping me occupied among my peers would help me preserve my culture. As I grew up I was discouraged from having friends who were American, despite the fact that I had very few Armenian friends and little interest in belonging to such a small, clannish culture.
I realized that it wasn’t only a generational gap that made it difficult to have a healthy relationship with my parents, but also a cultural one. My father’s family had fled to Bucarest, Romania during the Armenian massacre, and he had lived there until he came to America during his early adulthood. My mother’s family, also originally from Armenia had gone to Beirut for the same reason. I was too young and self-absorbed to appreciate how their lives had shifted so drastically when they moved to this country. I was more concerned about how insulated I felt, existing and growing in a small bubble that did not extend itself to the real world.
“I don’t feel well,” I said.
It was Saturday evening and we were sitting at the dinner table.
“What’s the matter?” my mother asked. She didn’t look concerned. I knew I had to be more convincing.
“My throat,” I said, resting my hand beneath my chin. “It hurts.”
“When did it start hurting?” she asked. She had a way of finding me at fault regardless of the circumstances.
“Just a little while ago,” I said. “After I came home from school.”
“Why didn’t you say something then?” she asked. She was irritated.
“I thought it would go away,” I said, “but it got worse.”
She snorted. “You thought,” she said. “You and your thinking.” Unexpectedly, she reached over and put her hand on my forehead. “You don’t have a fever,” she said. “Go to your room and lie down.”
I lied down on my bed with a newfound terror. When I had made up my mind that I was going to fake being sick, I had also stopped trying to work on the khatchkar. It was as I had left it – practically blank with some faint marks that resembled more of a geometric exercise than a detailed cross.
I was consumed in my thoughts until I noticed my father in the room.
“There’s a piece of cement on the table in the basement,” he commented.
I didn’t say anything.
“Is it yours?” he asked.
I nodded. “It’s supposed to be a khatchkar,” I said, bursting into tears, and covered my face with my arms.
“Do you want me to help you with it?” he asked.
I nodded again. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask for help. Although my parents spoke English well I knew they hadn’t graduated from high school and their reading and writing was poor. I had always done my homework by myself, knowing that I could never turn to them.
I held the knife in my hand and felt my father’s grip on top of mine, his hand strong and steady. He helped press deeply into the surface and my hand moved through the rough sketch I had wanted to draw. It took a long while, or at least it seemed to, and finally we stopped. It wasn’t close to the picture that Mr. Samosian had given us as inspiration, but I knew I could bring it to the festival to have it put on display. On the bottom right hand corner there are two initials: A.Z. and H.Z. The first one is mine and he carved it in for me. The second one is much less noticeable. When we were finished he had left and gone upstairs. I knew I would always remember that he had helped me with it, but his initials H.Z. – Harutiun Zilelian, felt significant. I would like to believe that his fatherliness had taken precedence over his nationalism, and that he helped me with it because he knew I needed him. My khatchkar had preserved that moment in time. It was more than I had hoped for.
Red Hen Press, October 2017