By Taleen Mardirossian
Lately, life has been something like a broken VCR player that in spite of missing the pause, rewind, and play buttons, is still very capable of fast-forwarding at an ever-increasing speed. A few days ago, I rolled out of bed after snoozing more times than I’m willing to admit and started what would possibly be one of the longest days of my life. Thanks to LA traffic, it took me over 30 minutes to travel a distance of four miles, causing my already impatient self to bite a nail or two. As I finally arrived in downtown and headed to an early meeting, I immediately contemplated whether to enjoy my short walk in the 15 minutes I had to spare or rush in a desperate attempt to grab a cup of much needed coffee. I chose the latter and began running in what proved to be a very uncomfortable pair of new wedges. Out of breath and completely out of shape, I finally arrived, and with my luck, the always-empty coffee shop was crowded with a line of people.
As an avid coffee shop go-er, I knew what was coming and dreaded the scenario that would soon take place. The barista will hold a black Sharpie as he asks for my name, expecting something simple, then I say “Taleen,” and he stares at me with a blank face, so I repeat it, before spelling it for him once, twice, and possibly a third time, until the cup is successfully claimed as mine. As someone who insists that her name be pronounced correctly, no matter how many tries it takes, you can imagine how a simple task, like ordering coffee, can be a tedious one. I would be lying if I said I’ve never been tempted to come up with a makeshift name, solely used for coffee purchasing purposes. Maybe Taylor, Tanya, or something closer to my name, Pauline perhaps. But every time I’ve considered this, I’ve instantly felt a surge of guilt rush through me, causing immediate dismissal of this thought. But today is different, I convinced myself. I don’t have time to waste. I have a long day ahead of me. I deserve a break.
A part of me was shaking my head at the mere thought of foregoing my Armenian name, even if only for a few seconds, when Armenians had been suppressed of their language, culture, and identity for decades. I felt as though exchanging my name for an easier one would mean that I surrendered. Surrendered to this unspoken, unwritten, but vividly present notion that the once Ottoman Empire, now Turkish Government, expects us, the new generation, to forget our roots. Go ahead Taleen, do exactly what Talaat would want you to do, when you know very well that although the conspirators are dead, the conspiracy is still alive and well. I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes at myself for how pathetic this was sounding. As if it makes any difference to the teenager at the register whether my name is Tanya, Taleen, or Joe, for that matter. As if using another name for five seconds was going to make me any less Armenian. What difference does it make?
Then the moment finally came and my inability to surrender, even to a bunch of dead people, beat my desire to make life a bit easier, and I responded, “Taleen. T-A-L-E-E-N.” I was shocked at his ability to not only write my name correctly on the first try but also at his perfect pronunciation. As I pulled the cash out of my wallet, satisfied with this unbelievably smooth transaction, he went on, “That’s such a unique name. Way cooler than Denise or Kelly.” No offense to the Denises and Kellys of this world, but this was the start of a conversation that went something like this:
“Does Taleen mean something?”
“It’s actually the name of a village in Armenia.”
“You’re named after a village? Were you born there?”
“So your parents were born there?”
“No, they were born in the Middle East.”
He began making my coffee.
“I’d love to hear, if you don’t mind.”
“My great-grandmother named me. She was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. And the village she chose as my name is where many survivors from her birthplace, a village called Sassoun, relocated after the Genocide. It’s where they started all over again.”
“So Taleen became the new Sassoun.”
“I guess you could say that. I don’t think anything compared to Sassoun for her but it must have come close.”
“Did she ever talk about it, the Genocide?”
“All the time. Her life was consumed by it, and how could it not be after watching her entire family beaten to death?”
“To be honest, I’ve heard of the Genocide but I don’t know much about it.”
“Long story short, the Ottoman Empire killed 1.5 million Armenians for being Christian, among other bullshit reasons.”
“When did this happen?”
“It’ll be 99 years this Thursday.”
“April 24. It’s the day they murdered Armenian intellectuals. That’s when it all began.”
“I had no idea. And Armenians still care about it after so many years?”
“How could we not? Based on the calculations of the Turks, I should have never been born. If that’s not personal, I don’t know what is.”
For a moment, he had no words.
“You know, they will face consequences someday. It’s never too late.”
As I always do, I silently thanked the Aries in me for my stubborn tendencies because on that day, it was the reason why one more person learned about the Armenian Genocide. As I made my way out of the coffee shop, I thought to myself, having an Armenian name isn’t what makes me, or anyone else, Armenian, so why does it matter so much? I drifted back to a moment from over a decade ago, still vivid in my memory. I was ten years old, sitting next to my great-grandmother, intently watching her eyes as she said to me, “If you don’t remember your history and embrace your culture, who will? And if no one remembers, then 1.5 million people will have died for nothing.” In that moment, I made her my first and only promise, and it remains a sacred promise I can never risk breaking. As I turned the corner, lost in my own thoughts and in disbelief at the turn my morning had taken, I noticed an older woman shivering, wrapped in what looked like an old bed sheet. She was sad, frail, helpless, and most likely, homeless. Her pale face and jewel-blue eyes reminded me of the very person in my thoughts, my great-grandmother. I walked up to her, wished her a good morning, handed her my unsipped cup of hot coffee, and witnessed a miracle in its simplest form, a smile.