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Surj with Tatik (Coffee with Grandma): Reflections on first love and heartbreak

July 13, 2020

Stories

By Lilly Torosyan

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New Surj with Tatik (Coffee with Grandma): Reflections on first love and heartbreak

As the closest connection to our ancestors, grandparents provide an incalculable wealth of knowledge, in the form of stories and lessons. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected the elderly, driving a physical wedge between us and our living treasure troves, who are left isolated and as fragile as ever.

At h-pem, we will publish a series of pieces, titled “Surj with Tatik,” dedicated to grandparents and what they mean to us. Some will be about rites of passage and discovery, others about heartbreak and family, food and careers, but at the heart of them all lies love. Check out the first piece below!
 

Reflecting on 10 decades of life

“Surj with Tatik” (“Coffee with Grandma”) is a recurring series, exclusively on h-pem. The writings tell the stories of the real-life interactions between the author and her 91-year-old grandmother, Hranush, known as “Hro Tatik,” during the final eight months of her life. However, Hro Tatik couldn’t even drink coffee anymore during this time.

So, why the title? Because in Armenian culture, coffee is not just about the coffee, but the company of loved ones, usually women of varying generations, and the conversations that arise in the presence of those tiny coffee cups (often the most taboo and well-guarded secrets pour out as the grounds pour in). 

The once-daily morning ritual was a reflective time for Hro Tatik. In this inaugural episode, she shares memories of her first love, a dashing political dissident in post-WWII Armenia. July 13 marks the one-year anniversary of Hro Tatik’s passing. This is the first in a series of articles dedicated to her memory. For length and privacy, some details may be altered.

 

‘And he left with a kiss’ 

From vivid childhood tales in 1930s Aleppo to bleak recounts of young motherhood in Stalinist Armenia, Hro Tatik’s voice blazed a mile a minute. She’s just moved in with us, and her mind, like her chronicles, is an unbridled mess. We brace ourselves for the worst—early-onset dementia, says her doctor’s form. Ninety-five percent of her speech centers on the past—of over 70 years ago. On her third day in our home, she opens her mouth with the man who stole her heart.

A lazy Saturday morning, reading some Hovhannes Tumanian, pausing between to recollect a new memory. (Photo: Lilly Torosyan)A lazy Saturday morning, reading some Hovhannes Tumanian, pausing between to recollect a new memory. (Photo: Lilly Torosyan)
 
At 16, Hro Tatik met her OTP (one true pairing). It was a pairing of the elements: Hranush, her name meaning “sweet fire,” with Vahagn, his being the ancient Armenian God of Fire, Thunder, and War. Sadly, their flame was extinguished before it could burn. Vahagn, true to his name, was quite the firebrand, speaking out against the Soviet regime. His words condemned him to a Siberian gulag, where he would spend the next two decades serving hard labor. But before leaving, he professed his feelings to his beloved—and asked for her hand. 
 
In her prime, Hro Tatik was a beautiful woman—and she knew it. If her stories have any basis in reality, men fawned over her—and she fancied the attention. She tells of a boy who loved her and she brushed him off... at 12 years old. (Perhaps “love” is too strong a word here, but I hold my tongue.) All four of her sisters rejected their first loves, she tells me, with a tinge of cockiness. That’s half a soccer team, I think—but don’t dare say it out loud. Hro Tatik hates soccer.
 
Staying true to her family’s form, Hro Tatik brushed off Vahagn, too. His love was unrequited, she told him. But that’s not true, she pensively confides in me. She was heartbroken when he left with nothing but a stolen kiss.

For the next few days, we hear gripping stories of Vahagn and his family. But why did she reject him? Because his mother was crazy, of course! His father was a sweet man, though. Poor guy was split in half by a train in Soviet Armenia. She claims to have witnessed the whole thing. Her eyes bulge as she says, “he became two.” Akh, apsos…  (“What a shame…”)

One evening, we’re in a coffee shop (contrary to my disclaimer, this really did happen) when she whispers to lean in close. “You see that man, right there?” I turn back as stealthily as I can manage to peer at the hipster grandpa, with a snow-white beard and fashionable top hat. “That’s him.” “Who, Tatik?” “Melkon. That’s Vahagn’s father.”

"Armenian (coffee)" (Illustration: Lotash) Check out Lotash's Instagram page for more of her beautiful illustrations!

 

‘Will you write about me?’ 

My Hro Tatik is as strong and stubborn as women come. In adulthood, I heard about her youthful days, spent on a card table, chain-smoking and drinking with the fellas—hard liquor, of course. I didn’t realize it growing up, but almost everything was a game to her. As a child, my sister and I dreaded our semiannual phone conversations. When you called, she would complain that you didn't call enough. When you called more frequently, she would spend half the conversation complaining that your sister or mother or cousins don’t call. The cards were always stacked in Hro’s favor.

Ten years ago, Hro Tatik’s husband, my papik, passed away. As a toddler, Papik survived the genocide; his adolescence was spent in Syria without a mother; as an adult, he escaped Stalin’s gulags by the skin of his teeth; and, in the tail end of his life, he survived open-heart surgery. Yet, in death, he did not merit an obituary. Papik’s passing showed how fragile life and the memory of a life lived can be. After that, my phone conversations with Tatik changed. It was as if she wanted us to win.

On one occasion, she mentioned that she saw one of my articles in a local Armenian newspaper and cut it out and saved it in her drawer. She asked me to write a story about her life. The next time we spoke, she asked me to move across the country to live with her. On my occasional visits to California in the following years, she was kinder, softer. Her steely exterior was withering. Was it a sign of age wearing down a querulous woman, or the fear of being forgotten?

“Grandma and Grandpa, If I could, I’d give you my heart/Until then/Read my cup and you will see a heart.” (Poem and art: Aram Spendjian) Check out Aram Spendjian's Instagram page for more of his beautiful illustrations!“Grandma and Grandpa, If I could, I’d give you my heart/Until then/Read my cup and you will see a heart.” (Poem and art: Aram Spendjian) Check out Aram Spendjian's Instagram page for more of his beautiful illustrations!

 

The V-word 

What’s funny is that Tatik has not mentioned Papik once since she’s been here. Instead, all week, her focus has been on Vahagn and her quest to be reunited with her doomed first love, whom, she believes, is still MIA and could magically show up on our doorstep, any day. She asked me to find out what happened to him on my computer—a tool that, to her, might as well be a miracle-worker.

At first, I indulged. I spent hours each day asking her questions, prying into the depths of a past that had remained buried for decades. But pretty soon, the memories overwhelmed her. My dad says that he doesn’t know what happened to Vahagn, but he tells us to drop the search. We avoid all mention of “the V-word” and anything sounding remotely like it… 

Over 48 hours have passed since she said his name. We think we may have won this round. Mom and I are sitting on the couch across from Tatik, reading the Sunday paper. Our coffees hadn’t yet settled when, flipping between the travel and lifestyle sections, she jolted us awake. “What good is your useless paper and computer when it didn’t find my Vahagn! Why haven’t you found my Vahagn yet?!”

Her brows are furrowed in her signature scowl, and her little body is tensed, shaking in her armchair. It’s a combination of the Old Hro and the New Hro, in one frustrated, vulnerable body. I pushed her too far. She did not like this game. Three-quarters of a century later, the memories of heartbreak and regret have bubbled to the surface. 

In that moment, we realized that no one wins when you’re competing with the past… 

 

Stay tuned for the second installment of Surj with Tatik, coming soon!

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