M. M. Adjarian
Long before I learned to read, I would beg for stories. My mother would make a rhyming game of my entreaties. The minute after I’d say, “tell me a story,” she would sing out “about Jack and Norrie!” Not that my mother ever told me anything more about either Jack or Norrie. This was simply the way we opened the door to being present to each other, which was more than we would ever be able to do later on.
She would only submit to my demands after she had finished teasing me. And when she did—almost as a way of apologizing—she would read to me from Dr. Seuss or the Little Golden Books that I would sometimes pick out from spinning wire racks at the grocery store. But my favorite stories were the ones she made up herself.
When I think of my mother now, I see her sitting at the round glass-topped table in our kitchen. Perhaps I am across from her frowning at a plate of vegetables. She doesn’t chide me into eating though. Instead, she leaves the table momentarily to search for a pencil and a piece of paper and returns. Shapes emerge on the sheet before her as she begins to sketch.
“This is the laughing potato,” she says. “And he lives in a beautiful garden far away in Idaho.”
She draws two more vegetables, a handsome carrot with a long chin and a tomato with chubby cheeks set in a mischievous face. I stop playing with my food and watch fascinated as my mother calls these beings into life with just a few quick strokes.
“These are his friends,” she explains, sketching out their arms and legs. “They’re alive with all good things that came from the earth where they grew. And they laugh and smile because they know that they and all the vegetables in their garden will go to the market and feed children just like you.”
Her restless pencil ceases moving.
“And do you want to know a secret?” She leans in towards me, a slightly conspiratorial look on her face. I am wide-eyed with expectancy. “All the magic that’s inside of them will go into your body and make you as healthy and happy as they are.”
My mother straightens up and then points to my plate. She’s all business now. “But first you have to eat what’s in front of you.” Because I love her drawings and her stories, I begin to eat. I might grimace while I do it, but the idea that I’m swallowing something magical into my body is too powerful to resist.
My mother, of course, had learned early on just what kind of power her stories and drawings had over me. They could stop me from crying. Or make me sit up straighter and behave better. Or get me to eat the food on my plate that she couldn’t bear to see wasted. But as I got older and her interest in motherhood waned, the storytelling stopped. “Jack and Norrie” became the rejoinder that told me she had no intention of performing. She didn’t forget her stories though. When I was six, she pounded them out on an IBM electric typewriter and sent the manuscript to several New York publishers. But after her stories got rejected, she threw them away and never spoke of them again.
My father was not immune from the pestering I showered on my mother. Most of the time, he would just smile one of his vague and gentle smiles and say “not now, chérie.” But one evening my father surprised me with the one and only story I would ever heard from him.
“All right. Let me tell you about the lion and the giraffe,” he said. Memory won’t yield the details exactly as he recounted them. But there’s a version I sometimes tell myself when I want to remember him.
“Papa, will you tell me a story?” I ask. I have just gone to bed and he has come to say goodnight.
My father doesn’t respond. Instead, I watch the dark outline of his body turn around and walk to the side of my bed. He sits down on the floor, stretches himself out on the carpet and begins.
“Once there was a little lion and he lived in Africa with his family. He had a good life because he had a mother and father who kept him fed and made sure he was safe from other animals that could have hurt him.
“But the little lion was also curious and wanted to see rest of the world. He thought that if he could climb the tallest tree in the jungle all the way to the top, he would get his wish. So one day, he did just that. Then he realized too late that he could not come down again and started to cry.”
“Was he afraid?” I ask, not quite daring to believe that my father is telling me a story.
“Yes. But then a giraffe with a very long neck walked by the tree.
‘Why are you crying?’ the giraffe asked.
‘I wanted to see the world from the tallest place in the jungle. Now I can’t climb down.’ So the giraffe used his mouth to grab the creature by the scruff of his neck and put him on the ground.
‘Thank you!’ And the little lion ran home to the family he thought he had lost forever. He never forgot what his friend with the long neck did for him.
“One day when he was much older and out hunting, he saw a pack of hungry hyenas running after a tired old giraffe. The beasts almost caught him, but the lion chased them away.
“The giraffe was very afraid and trembled because he thought the lion was going to eat him. But instead the big cat said, ‘When I was small and foolish, I climbed up a tall tree so I could see the world. Another giraffe saved my life. Now I have saved yours.’”
He falls silent again. Then I see his darkened silhouette rise up from the floor. My father bends down to kiss my cheek. “Bon soir.”
“Good night,” I say, smiling in the dark. Like the little lion, I, too, believe I have a father and mother who will always be there to protect me from harm.
My parents told stories to teach and amuse me but also survive the rigors of parenthood. They told other ones, too, that celebrated their successes as immigrants to America. The older and more inquisitive I became, though, what interested me was what my parents concealed rather than revealed. The little girl who once demanded stories now wanted to know about the desires and embarrassments her parents kept hidden from everyone, including—and especially—their children.
Before she divorced my father, my mother would tell me about the Fulbright scholarship that took her from Italy to Cornell in 1952. She met my father shortly afterward, married him in the fall of 1953 and gave birth to my older brother the following spring. After she graduated with a second Master’s degree in nutrition to add to one she already had in biochemistry, they moved to the flat greenness of Kansas City. My mother became a researcher at the Jensen-Salsbery Laboratories, a pharmaceutical firm that produced veterinary supplies. When my father received an offer to work on contract for the UCLA Special Collections library, they moved to Los Angeles in 1960.
My father’s story—the one I know is true because neither parent contradicted the other when asked about it—began with a Cornell University librarian’s chance discovery of his work at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris around 1949. The woman saw a display of books my father had rebound and decorated with intricate gold-leaf tooling. She requested that they meet. “We have a library full of books that are falling apart. Can you help us?” she asked.
Thunderstruck by his good fortune, my father accepted immediately. He left Paris and its postwar deprivations in 1951 abundantly grateful to start a new life in America. “It was like a dream come true,” he told me. “Just incredible.” Two years later, he was a husband and father working hard to establish his rare book restoration business.
Strangely enough, my parents’ stories about their early years in the U.S. never said anything about what had brought them together in the first place. Perhaps it was love – for a time anyway. Once my mother told me that she would sometimes find him parked outside of where she lived. I imagined him sitting in the old Studebaker he had struggled to buy. Perhaps he would be smoking Camels in place of the Gauloises he couldn’t get in the States. He had never felt this way about any woman, not even the red headed Algerian-Armenian girl he had left behind in France.
But there had never been a chance with her anyway because her parents didn’t like him. “I was the half-breed who wasn’t good enough for her,” he told me. That he had grown up without a father hadn’t helped his cause. In America, though, no could tell him he couldn’t have a woman because of who he was. And my mother was quite a catch. A dark-haired beauty from a fine old family and one who also happened to speak French, she was everything he could ever want and more.
My father, on the other hand, was decidedly not the love of my mother’s life. That distinction belonged to an American soldier she told me she had met during the war. “His name was Bob,” she said, careful not to tell me anything more. What my father did have was an impeccable sense of timing. And he was interesting because he was different from the intellectuals and social elites whose company she kept. Long after they had gone their separate ways, my mother’s face and eyes would soften every time she looked at my hands, the ones I thought so bony and inept.
“They’re his,” she would say. Then, with just the faintest hint of a smile, she would add, “Your father was an artist, you know. A real artist.”
I would hear this many times as I was growing up; eventually I concluded that my father’s gifts must have counted for something to her. In the bitter years after their divorce, it was the one observation that would remain untainted by any negative qualifiers. Maybe she had felt something, however fleeting, for my father. And maybe that feeling had been rendered even more potent by the newfound thrill of taking up with man who earned his living with the sweat of his body rather than the efforts of his mind.
Despite their different backgrounds, my parents were also very alike. Both had suffered through a war that had destroyed huge swaths of continental Europe. And both were outsiders to their families. When my mother’s father Paolo had died of pernicious anemia at age 39, his greedy brothers snatched up the money and property to which my grandmother had been entitled. My mother, the daughter she had with him, became a symbol of the betrayal she could not forgive. It didn’t help that she also resembled Paolo’s side of the family. So it was easier to send my mother away to convent schools rather than keep her nearby.
My grandmother’s prejudice eventually extended to me, not because I looked like my mother or my grandfather, but because I looked like my father. Max Adjarian was a man who not only lacked the proper social credentials; he was also unforgivably French. And
as the daughter who looked like him, I bore the weight of her scorn. When I met her, I was too young to notice. She was just a tiny big-breasted woman with dyed red hair who complained that I was as spoiled as I was incapable of picking up after myself. My mother took my side and defended me like a lioness. But that all changed as I grew older and the situation between my parents became more fraught.
My father never experienced the pain and privilege of knowing his own parents. The woman who adopted him was a nurse who had been unable to have children. And the man listed on his birth certificate as his father was a Turkish-born merchant living in France. My father always said the man, whom he knew as Uncle Hagop, was not his father, and that his adopted mother had told him his real father was a doctor. But she never told him anything else.
When I would press him for more information, my father equivocated. Once, he told me that we were related to Hrachya Adjarian, a linguist who had published the Armenian Etymological Dictionary. My mother told me later that my father had based his “facts” solely on the coincidence of shared last names and had no proof to back up his claim. Later, he told me another story that involved him going to England to visit the man he thought was his father. By the time he got there though, the man was dead. His family immediately became suspicious of the blue-eyed Frenchman who asked too many questions and told him to leave.
My parents told they had met at a gathering of the Cornell International Students’ Club. And when they did marry, it was at just about the time when my mother would have had to return to Italy. That was a matter of record, just like the fact that my older brother was born eight months later in May of 1954, three weeks after his original due date. The problem to which neither admitted was sexuality. My mother was too proud—and my father too invested in his own respectability—to boast of their carnal transgressions to anyone, including their children. But had the pregnancy been just an accident?
Once she set foot in New York, my mother vowed to stay in the United States no matter what. “I never wanted to go back to Italy. Ever,” she would declare whenever the subject came up. Marriage would mean a new life away from a country ravaged by fascism and war and from the mother she loved and hated with equal ferocity. That the man she would wed was man who was neither an American nor someone she necessarily loved and who would become the father of a child conceived out of wedlock was beside the point.
The stories my parents told me also hid the class differences—as well as the unspoken longings and resentments—that developed into the major fault lines that underlay their marriage. “When I met your father, he had so little. He didn’t even have a change of underwear,” my mother told me once upon a time, her lips curling in disgust. “The ones he had were so old and stained with urine. It was awful.” Unable to stand my father’s poverty, that she took it upon herself to buy him several new pairs.
My father told me something else. In his version, it was my mother who had nothing and he who had shown munificence to her. “Your mother—she had nothing, I tell, you, nothing.” He spoke of taking a second job washing dishes in a local restaurant so she could complete her master’s degree. That made sense; her fellowship had only lasted for a year. By the time my father met the woman who would become his second wife, though, those facts evolved into another story about growing up in a family that, with its titles, gloved servants and village estates, sounded almost exactly like the one my mother had known.
My mother’s story also changed from one that celebrated accomplishment and aspiration to one that expressed an inconsolable regret for missed opportunities.
“I could have done so much!” she would sigh.
And I would ask, “Why didn’t you?”
The answer was always the same. “I met your father.” One thing I knew for sure was that UCLA had also promised my mother a prestigious fellowship to continue her research work in nutrition and biochemistry. Yet—and of her own free will—she had declined the offer and decided to have more children instead.
The reason behind my mother’s refusal was more complicated than what appeared on the surface. I would learn much later on from my brother that when he was a child in the late 1950s, she had suffered a mild nervous breakdown. Was it the wolfishly petty and competitive atmosphere in the laboratory that did it? Or was it the combined pressure of working, raising a family and being a wife at a time when the imperative for women was to stay home? If she felt out of place in her profession and burdened by too many
responsibilities, a retreat to the hearth must have seemed like the heaven-sent answer to a painful dilemma.
Just like my father’s evasions and exaggerations, though, the domestic life she intended as the storybook solution to her problems was anything but magical. Storytelling could redefine the world long enough to temporarily mask personal frailties or pacify a petulant child, but it could not change reality.
About the Author: M. M. Adjarian has published her creative work in the Baltimore Review, The Missing Slate, Grub Street, Verdad, South 85, Eunoia Review, The Serving House Journal, Pif, Crack the Spine, and Poetry Quarterly. She lives in Austin. Visit her website here.