Madeline D’Andrea: Family memories from Armenia |

Madeline D’Andrea: Family memories from Armenia

I am a first-generation Armenian-American. My Armenian mother was born in Turkey in 1919 and came to the United States in 1920 at the age of 9 months. She lived to be 98 years old. She always loved bananas and, story has it, she was given her first banana on the boat when she crossed the ocean on the way to the United States.

I knew my grandparents, who basically spoke only Armenian, as people in my life who loved me. It was never about the words.

My grandmother would tell us the soap opera story, who was married to whom, as she watched the soaps on TV while she learned English. My grandfather had been a baker in Turkey, and as his grandchildren, we used to giggle about him looking like that old Swiss Colony wine commercial with “the little old winemaker me” with his little white mustache and a twinkle in his eye.

My grandmother used to steal my grandfather’s coins from his pockets and hand them to me to split with my siblings, always with a finger to her lips to indicate that I was not to say anything to my grandfather. She also would fix us Jiffy Pop popcorn and gave us big chocolate Hershey bars with almonds. Popcorn and chocolate covered almonds are two of my favorite foods to this day.

They bought land and became grape farmers in the Central Valley, Fresno to be specific. There is nothing like a yellowed Thompson seedless off the vine. The yellow means the grapes are ripe and full of sugar. And grandma would sit at the table preparing a dinner we loved by laying each grape leaf at the top of her old and chipped porcelain bowl to make dolma for us, ground lamb and rice wrapped up in grape leaves and cooked till tender in tomato sauce.

My grandmother’s brother was the family sponsor. He was the editor of an Armenian paper in Boston.

My grandparents had converted to be Seventh Day Adventists in Turkey, so they would only sell their grapes for raisins. Barbecued lamb chops, with summer savory and chopped red onions on top was my grandfather’s specialty, always served with rice pilaf, still mouth-watering just thinking about them. And crinkly, black, Armenian, kalamata olives were served at every meal.

Watching friends who came over to our house willing to try one of those olives was always fun because, predictably, the olive is so salty most people’s mouths just puckered up, followed by our friend spitting out the seed and half of the olive.

My mother had an older brother and sister, who remembered hiding during the genocide in caves, and that they were hidden and protected by a Turkish family.

I probably missed stories of the old country due to the language barrier, but what I do know is that what they passed on to me was love. Their attitude about life was clear. Their example was that every day each of us is given, no matter the circumstances, no matter what has been done to us, the opportunity to ultimately make our own choice in every moment, to hate or love. I’m grateful they chose love.

Madeline D’Andrea lives in Penn Valley.

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