by Fr. Krikor Maksoudian
Very little is written about the life of the older generation of Armenians in America. Generally those who sought asylum in America prior to 1915 were considered to be lucky, as they escaped the horrors of the Genocide. Nevertheless, that generation also experienced a different kind of a tragedy. This is a recollection about the final hours of an old man who was a member of the generation that lived deprived of family life and human warmth.
It was one of those beautiful sunny days that make New England so special during the autumn season. My father, a priest of the Armenian Church, and I, still a young lad, parked the car in front of an old four-story brick house in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the south end of Boston, not far from the Armenian Church and the headquarters of the Baikar Publishing House on Shawmut Avenue. Many elderly Armenian men, all of them single and immigrants from the western provinces of Armenia, lived on this and nearby streets. They were colloquially referred to as be’kers [bachelors]. In the early 1950’s the majority of these people, exhausted by the fast pace of life in America and the hardships of work in factories, were living their twilight years. Each one of them had his tragic story.
About an hour earlier before our arrival, the Armenian undertaker from Watertown had notified my father that there was at that address a gravely ill old man and requested that he visit him immediately to give him Holy Communion. The intervention of the undertaker in such matters was not unusual. In those days, elderly Armenian men with no family were frequently forced to make their own funeral arrangements with undertakers, especially when they realized the approach of death. Father and son, we both paced through the main door of the house and asked the young black children, running in and out, the number of the old man’s room. We climbed the stairs to the second floor and halted in front of a partially closed door. A croaky voice invited us to enter. The room was almost empty, old and humid, with plaster fallen off of the decrepit walls. At one corner there was an ancient bed and a few feet away a dresser, as if fallen from grace. In the middle of the room, a very thin old man with an arched back was sitting on a shaky wooden chair. He held on to a cane with both hands. I noticed that he was blind and was breathing with great difficulty. The nakedness of the dark room and the old man’s blindness, as well as his weakness which predicted the approach of death, presented a contrast to the bright day outside and the bustling of life.
My father immediately announced that he was the “Der Hayr” and that he had come to pray for his health. The old man, however, well aware of the gravity of his condition, wished to express without any delay what he had in mind. He first stated that he had made all the necessary funeral arrangements with the undertaker: secured a burial place, ordering a tombstone and paying in advance for all the funeral expenses. Now, he said, he still had in his possession a small amount from his life’s earnings.
Thereupon, he reached for his pocket with some difficulty and pulled out a stack of paper money. After feeling them with his fingertips and dividing them into two equal parts, he carefully counted and handed over the two stacks to my father saying: “Der Baba, I don’t have much money, but I wish to give all I have to the Armenian nation. Give these twenty-five dollars to the church to bury me and give the remaining twenty-five to one of the poor Armenian schools in Beirut.”
This was the last will of the old Armenian immigrant who had come to the American shores from western Armenia. At the sunset of his life, the immigrant’s soul, deprived of the immediate presence of loved ones, sought warmth in his church and in the thought of educating the youth of his people. After this encounter, it became clear to me what it meant to be an Armenian. Today, after forty years, I have come to realize that the old man who gave up his Armenian soul in one of Boston’s inglorious and poor quarters…was not blind at all.