By Melissa Lake
Disclaimer: By no means is this my story, not even is it entirely my grandfather’s story, but in some way or another, it is every Armenian’s story. This telling of my grandfather’s past has been repeated through generations and parts where memories were either lost or forgotten have been cautiously filled in by me. This is not meant to be an entirely historically accurate piece but I can promise you that the emotions displayed within it are one hundred percent true. This is the story of my grandfather and his survival of the Armenian Genocide.
When I was young, I remember reading a story about how squirrels are one of the most kind-hearted creatures in the animal kingdom based on their tendency to adopt other, non-related baby squirrels that had been either orphaned or abandoned. I thought that was a strange characteristic to determine the goodness of something, but then I realized, only humans are capable of deeper qualities like mercy or forgiveness and that kindness is rare in the animal world. Another fact about squirrels that has earned them their title of honor is that they tend to be very altruistic creatures, willing to put their own lives at risk to ensure the safety of their kin. So if we base the idea of primitive goodness off qualities of compassion and self-sacrifice, my fifteen year old recently orphaned grandfather found himself in very good hands.
The part the movies always forget to show you when your favorite hero is courageously sprinting from danger with widened eyes and shortened breath is the hesitation before the leap. That brief flicker of doubt before our autonomic nervous system decides fight or flight- where our brain fights with itself- deciding whether or not it wishes to live. For a boy who lost everything in a single day, my grandfather’s body must have been in the living equivalent of rigor mortis, every muscle fighting with every tendon, deciding whether to live or die. Pumped full of both adrenaline and doubt, in seconds that felt more like days, a fifteen year old boy had to choose between a futile last goodbye coupled with a far-fetched chance at vengeance, or a future. In the end, humans are animals of instinct, we are genetically and biologically programmed to save ourselves, and in what may have been the worst four seconds of my grandfather’s life, a primitive urge he could barely control told him run.
If such a thing as fate existed, its dark wings must have been what carried my grandfather to the doorstep of a home he had never seen before. Exhausted and afraid, he tucked his small frame into a dusty alley, both welcoming and fearful of the sleep that was falling upon him. Hours later, as the sun rose with a red hue deep enough to compete with the bloodshed of the night its morning rays cast away, a portly woman with dark hair streaked with gray stumbled over the protruding foot of a young boy asleep beside her home.
Startled awake, the urge to flee surely overcame my grandfather again. But whether it be maternal instinct, deep-rooted compassion, or our dear friend fate once again, the strange woman invited my grandfather into her home and his weary body accepted before his brain could even process the danger.
My grandfather spent three years in a home living as a refugee and a pseudo-son. In a time when Armenians were being hunted with the same fervency that Hitler hunted Jews, the family who took him in must have known his true identity and still sheltered him regardless. Their altruism and kindness is to what I owe my life. And while everyday must have been rife with fear and paranoia, there must also have been enough love and affection that inspired such gratitude in my grandfather for him to name his first son after the man who saved his life.
While my grandfather lived a life that was more comfortable than most, the time came when he knew he must leave. Eighteen and alone, his new family did its best to prepare him for a world that was entirely against him. And so, on an overcast day in the middle of the spring, my grandfather walked out the door leaving behind his past and taking with him a new name- Marash.