An orphan meets his grandfather

The whistling Armenian

My father was 9 by the time he found out that his name was Armenian. Before then, he had never heard the word, much less knew of such a people as Armenians.

The place was the Bronx. The year, 1940. The same year that the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Detroit Tigers in seven games to win its second World Series. The same year France fell to Nazi Germany in only six weeks. While World War II raged across the ocean, young Roy, who was abandoned as an infant by his mother in 1931, was working as a paperboy and living with his third foster family.

There was a little grocery store located on a triangle corner where I stopped every Saturday afternoon after my newspaper collection, he wrote. The owner was a kind man who always spoke softly and seemed happy to see me. He would even brag about me to his other customers — much to my embarrassment.

One day he asked about my name, why it was different from the Italian people I lived with. I told him I was a foster child and did not know my parents. He seemed concerned, leaned forward over the counter and told me that my name was Armenian. I became frightened. I had never heard the word before, didn’t know what it meant. It seemed so strange.

He asked: “Do you know any Armenians?”

I was confused.

“What are Armenians?”

“Why, your name is Armenian. Didn’t you know that your name is Armenian? Didn’t they tell you?”

He then told me that Armenia was a country and that many Armenians came to America because of the Turks and that I should be proud of being an Armenian. He had surmised that something must have happened to make me an orphan but insisted not unkindly that I should not forget that I am of Armenian heritage. He proclaimed his own Armenian descent by his name and explained that all names that end in “ian” are of Armenian derivation.

I went home and told no one about this conversation. I wanted to put it out of my mind. I couldn’t completely, but I did bury it for long stretches of time. It would emerge whenever I thought about my real mother. What she must look like, act like, what would it be like living with her, how would it change me? Would I call her ‘mom’ or ‘ma’ or ‘mother’? I thought it would be nice to have a real mother, but at the same time it scared me. Being Armenian began to seem like something of a bad dream.

Three years later, Roy’s bad dream turned into reality when he met his father for the first time and moved in with him against both he and his father’s wishes. The state had caught up with Roy’s father — George Sebouhian, Sr. — and gave him a choice: pay the 12 years worth of back child support or open your doors to young Roy and fulfill your fatherly obligations. George Sr. was a merchant marine and semi-professional boxer who loathed the responsibility of taking care of a son he never wanted in the first place.

Fortunately for Roy, he found his grandfather, Johannes Sebouhian, to be as friendly and warm as his father was cold and distant. It was from his grandfather that Roy learned more about what it was like to be Armenian.

What a man he was, always joking, usually in Armenian, my father wrote. He loved to pun, jumping from one language to the other. When Grandma had company on her Thursday night, I could hear his voice booming from the parlor while the guests were tittering and laughing loudly. Though I couldn’t understand his Armenian I knew his jokes were always on the edge of the permissible. Grandma told me they were terrible, but she laughed as loud as anyone else. We used to play rummy together, and of course, he always won. How could I beat a man who had gambled at cards for years with his friends, a man who at one point in the game, when I was about to make an important move, could tell me what cards I had in my hand and simply shame me into defeat?

But I loved him for it, and for his laugh of triumph, loved him because he didn’t exalt, he simply enjoyed the incongruity of the two of us, the pimply faced kid against the balding old man. I even liked his whistling. It had no particular melody. For long minutes at a time without inhaling — sometimes even while inhaling — that mournful, sad, sad sound.

It was a sound my father would later rediscover upon listening to the deeply evocative duduk (Armenian flute) featured prominently in a music disc gifted to him by a beloved colleague, Dr. Minda Rae Amiran. Renowned musician Jordi Savall once said that the music produced by the duduk “acts as a genuine balm, at once sensual and spiritual, which touches the human soul and gently heals all its wounds and sorrows.”

The expression of the duduk was what my father heard in the whistling of his grandfather.

Why was it so sad? I don’t really know. Perhaps it was due to those slanted Sunday afternoons that never seemed to belong to the week, those interim hours that inevitably were there, even though you might be looking forward with great intensity or even back to the night before. Still, those hours left brightly dull smooth blocks of lead that had to be moved away one by one so that Monday would have room.

Former State University of New York at Fredonia professor and OBSERVER columnist George Sebouhian was preparing to write his life story when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013. He died three years later, having left behind hundreds of pages of research notes, poems and memoir vignettes.

His son, Damian Sebouhian, has taken it upon himself to complete and share his writings through a series of theme-based articles, each of which represents a chapter in the life and times of George Sebouhian, in his own words. (Note: During childhood, his father was known as Roy).

Damian Sebouhian, former OBSERVER staff writer, is a Dunkirk resident.