All in the family

A mother brings in her mildly delayed infant with visual impairment, though it is the paternal grandmother who does most of the talking, and the questioning. What are the pros and cons of an MRI that will require sedation? They have had the child seen in Germany, and by several specialists in Armenia already. Standing behind, holding the child, the mother’s face tightens in an expression that says “don’t mind my tenacious mother-in-law.”

In a society where newly-weds typically move in with the husband’s family of origin, it is the relationship between mother and paternal grandmother that is most notoriously strained. The assertive grandparents at the visits I’ve witnessed do indeed tend to be fathers’ mothers. The parade for International Women’s Day a few weeks ago featured a side-walk skit, repeated at 3 strategic city plazas, that was a lament for Armenia’s Cinderellas, a cry for them to reclaim their identity.

Transformative theatre
. Christina, a psychologist, told me of a theatre project at a special, foundation-sponsored, school that emphasizes inclusion of children with disabilities. Some weeks after the class put on a play for the families, one mother told Christina: “my old difficult family is now a good family, and all this work that I have done, taking my disabled son to the physical therapist, to the psychologist, I now believe has been worthwhile.” Before the play, the paternal grandmother had said things like “we don’t want a boy like this, get rid of him, give him to the orphanage.” But after she heard the boy sing on stage, with an audience, and realized his capabilities, the grandmother changed her mind, and found a way to love him.

Tateegs (grandmas) In 1910, Protestant Missionaries in Asia Minor were funded by American industrialists, whose zeal was perhaps more related to manning their mills than to doing God’s will. Armenians, being Christians, were ready recruits to the cause. In 1914, my friend’s great, great, grandmother saw her parents and siblings proselytized, and then scooped away from their small village to Worcester Massachusetts. Since their conversion to Protestantism also converted them to New England mill workers, they fortuitously escaped the impending genocide of 1915. But the great grandmother remained behind with her grand-daughter, my friend’s grandmother.

The Turkish community protected this woman, the mid-wife, and her grand-daughter. In 1993, my friend’s father visited the village, and confirmed an elderly villager’s memory of his mother, the grand-daughter: do you remember a midwife? What was her name? Was there anyone with her? Oh yes, there was a little girl, the midwife’s granddaughter; and the midwife never let go of her hand; she held that little girl’s hand through every moment of her house-calls.

Now, in many villages, over half of the fathers are migrant workers at Russian factories, accumulating cash so their families can eat, leaving their wives at home with their mothers. I ask one 10 year old boy what he wants to be when he grows up. “A migrant worker” he answers. The doctors and nurses in the room, all women, laugh loudly and briefly at the irony of his response. Their daily work is an immersion in the worries and fears of families fractured by the migrant worker economy.

Oligarchs The wealthiest families often have fathers with government jobs: cabinet ministers, members of parliament. The business clans, with their high-fenced castles arrayed through and around Yerevan, are widely known as “the oligarchs.” They are identified not only by family names, but by license plates. One evening, passing through a desolated construction lot to get to another neighborhood, we noticed Jaguars, Audis, and Mercedes with either lots of 7’s or lots of 8’s on their plates–business meeting.

The skeptical citizens will tell you–“we have not a democracy here; it is oligarchy.” The oligarchs keep tight control of the government, and influence legal processes-judicial, legislative, executive–in order to stymy competition in their respective marketplaces. The incumbent President’s victory in recent elections (mid-February) is believed to have been a piece of oligarchy theatre; there is talk about the conspicuous number of absentee ballots that favored him, and about the failure of the European election-monitoring organization to call the foul.

February, 10PM–a cozy dinner party on Parpetsy street with some colleagues–academics, artists–and their families. During the party, news arrives via someone’s cell phone that the defeated Presidential candidate has announced a fast, and will sit in Freedom Square. We walk the few blocks to the square to witness. The candidate, sitting, silent on a bench, is surrounded by about 50 people. A clearing of about 5 feet, and an air of mourning, respect, surrounds him. Is it for him, or is it for the thousands of stolen votes, for the chance of real democracy that he has represented? Seeing our friends, the candidate rises at once, and crosses the gap to embrace them. They share a few words of consolation and encouragement; on their faces I catch a brief smile laced with sadness, stoicism, and love.


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