Fountains and flowing rivers, before the mourning

Laura Marginata

"Make you-self at home, honey. You wanna take a shower?"

Auntie Parouz's suggestion made me vaguely uneasy. Would she think me uncouth if I didn't wash up? I had traveled only an hour by plane and another hour by limo—hardly enough to work up a sweat. I decided to risk falling a notch in her esteem. "No thanks, Auntie—maybe later."

I didn't intend to converse much with Auntie the weekend I stayed at her house. But when the man I had flown to Massachusetts to interview couldn't see me until late afternoon, extra time suddenly materialized. I sat on a couch beside Auntie and she told me a remarkable story.

The ironies of Auntie's life began 76 years ago. As she celebrated her ninth birthday, hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were rounded up and executed by Turkish soldiers. Life for Armenians in Turkey was shattered. Parouz and more than one million other Armenians were driven from the land their ancestors had tended for centuries. Hundreds of thousands perished. Parouz's birthday—April 24—had become her people's day of mourning.

It was early summer, 1915. Parouz and the other Armenians from her village of Yenikhan were given 24 hours to pack. They could take only what they could carry on their backs. Parouz's family packed bread and water. Her mother concealed as much jewelry and money as she could on herself and Parouz; they buried the rest in their yard.

The Turkish gendarmes never explained what was happening. "Dey said, 'You gonna come back.' " Parouz's voice is so soft and husky it almost seems a whisper. "Dat was foolish—dat we believed it."

The soldiers prodded the marchers up and down mountains, past unfamiliar villages. At each stopping point, more Armenians were forced into the ragtag procession. Few Armenian men marched, the soldiers having early on shot them or thrown them into gorges.

If the Armenians didn't walk fast, soldiers on horseback would whip them. Parouz saw one of them slit a woman's face from ear to ear. The woman had to press one hand down on the top of her head and the other under her chin to hold her face together.

The marchers were robbed at every turn. One soldier ripped a gold earring from Parouz's ear; her left earlobe still hangs in two pieces. It was commonly thought that Armenians swallowed their valuables for safekeeping. Parouz remembers how a Turkish soldier looking for gold had sliced open a pregnant woman, scooped out the baby, and tossed it aside.

For eight months Parouz and her mother endured this nightmarish journey to nowhere. Parouz's bare feet had such deep cracks that her mother tore fabric from Parouz's raggedy dress, cleaned out the pebbles imbedded in her heels, and stuffed the cracks with cloth.

Everywhere they would trip over dead Armenians. The dehydrated, malnourished corpses were swollen like balloons. Parouz noticed puddles where the bodily fluids were draining.

They screamed as Parouz's little brother was carried off by a horseman. They wept as pretty Armenian girls were raped and kidnapped. Her fair skin, blue-gray eyes, and auburn tresses made Parouz herself a likely victim, so her mother shaved her head and eyebrows and smeared her with dirt. Despite these precautions, a soldier grabbed her and was about to ride off when a young girl threw sand in his eyes. Blinded, he dropped Parouz. The rescuer grew up to be my grandmother.

One would expect Parouz to be bitter. Yet she is love incarnate. Sobbing quietly, she thanks God—for her mother's companionship on the march. For the good-hearted Arab woman who hid her for three years. For happy childhood memories, like picking daffodils near Yenikhan. She doesn't condemn Turks as a group: many were undoubtedly decent, she says; the government was awful.

While telling her story, she apologizes to her daughter Alice and me: "I'm sorry, I'm makin' you cry." She forgives my gruesome questions ("What do you remember about the corpses, Auntie?"); our brief visit has so pleased her that she exclaims, between sobs, "I'm enjoyin' every minute!"

Parouz is slipping toward eternal sleep; terminal illness rages within her. Perhaps my most vivid memory is how she still suffers over water. No matter where our conversation meandered, it returned, like a parched traveler, to fountains and flowing rivers. Armenians, filthy and dying of thirst, weren't permitted to touch water. Children died diving into wells. People licked grass. They lapped up mud. For five gold coins her mother bought a cup of water from a Turkish villager; her family gathered round to sip it.

A few months ago, hospitalized after a stroke, Parouz couldn't have liquids. She became so desperate that one night she begged the nurse to empty the flowers from a vase so she could drink the water. Ironically, since the stroke, her eyes no longer water—she literally has no more tears to shed.

She can't bear to see water wasted. "If anything drips," Alice says, "she'll about go crazy." Only after leaving did it dawn on me why she kept urging, "Take a shower, make you-self comfortable": her most precious possession is running water—enough to lavish on someone else. Forgive me, Auntie Parouz. I didn't know you had offered me the ultimate luxury.

This essay appeared in the International Herald Tribune (April 24, 1991).