It seemed to me that God had placed the Panians under his personal protection.
In our village of Gurin,1 my grandfather had a vast, densely cultivated cherry orchard—an expanse of four thousand cherry trees! At least, they said four thousand, but who knew? Nobody had ever counted. Only my grandfather knew for sure. When asked about it, he would smile contentedly and say “Four thousand? More, much more!” For him, cultivating these trees was like an act of religious devotion. On a separate plot of land he had rows of apple, pear, peach, and apricot trees, and even more cherry trees.
On workdays, right after stepping out of the house, he would cast a fatherly glance toward the orchards before walking on. On Sundays, after Mass, he would go straight to his trees, even before stepping inside the house. He would gaze at the leaves, pick up the pebbles and rocks from the soil, and gather broken twigs. He would inspect the trunks to make sure that worms hadn’t gotten into them. He would then cast a final glance over his dominion. Sighing contentedly, he would make his way back home, walking with his eyes looking at the ground. When he finally came in through the door, the lunch table would be ready for him, and we would all be sitting around it, awaiting his arrival.
During harvest, donkeys would carry our produce to the markets. The fruit pickers, who were usually Turks, would work from dawn to dusk. In the evenings, they would return to their homes with a basket of assorted fruit in their hands—the perk of their job, an extra privilege granted by my grandfather. The orchards produced enough to reward everyone with plenty.
My grandfather’s gardens belonged to the entire extended family. Almost every day, this or that group of relatives would take a stroll through one of them. They would pick the ripened fruits and chat while their happy children played. My friends and I would compete to see who could collect the most tree sap, which seeped out of the trunks. We would eat it, and it would stick to our tongues and the roofs of our mouths. I remember the taste exactly—I liked it more than anything else in the world.
We also had a vegetable garden where we grew cucumbers and tomatoes, pumpkins and eggplants, lettuce and potatoes, onions and garlic, mint and beans. In another corner of our lands was a vast field of flowers, with rows of roses, lilies, carnations, daisies, and basil plants that intoxicated the air with their fragrance.
“It’s an empty world, an empty world,” Manug Emmi2 would say to my grandfather. “It’s up to us to fill it with homes, with fields, with beauty, and show God that we can create something out of nothingness.”
“That’s how it’s been since the beginning,” my grandfather would reply. “We build our homes, we plant our trees, we fill the Earth, but there are still those who struggle in misery, there are still beggars and thieves.”
“When God created man, he created him to live in the Garden of Eden,” mused Kevork Emmi from off to the side, “but beggars, thieves, and criminals have always existed, and will always exist. Such is the world, and it will never change. Cain and Abel, I tell you.”
. . .
My grandfather had always been God-fearing and pious. With his own hands he had built homes and a church, and he never missed a Sunday Mass at the local church. For decades he had sung the glory of God. He often participated in official rites, and when he toiled in the fields, he always murmured his hymns and prayers. He would sing in such wistful tones, with such a sweet voice. Sometimes I would try to sing along—mostly with the tune, as I didn’t know the words. At night, right before going to sleep, I would once again hear the soft music coming from my grandfather, and I would doze off in my grandmother’s arms.
I don’t remember much about my father. I had very little awareness of being his son. He would leave early in the morning and return late at night. During our meals, he would talk sparingly of daily events, of the goings-on in town, and of neighbors and acquaintances. He rarely spoke of business. By trade, my father was a cobbler. He owned a shop in town and produced high-quality, expensive shoes. He even made Yemeni boots, preferred by Turks and Kurds. Several times during the year he would fill a bag with his shoes, and he would tour the nearby villages, sell his wares, and return with sacks of grain, rice, lentils, and beans, as well as jars of jam and honey.
My mother was the personification of love and joy. It seemed as if a gentle, kind star shone out of each of her eyes, and her expression conveyed a virtuous serenity. Her smile was like the shining sun, and it generously graced me, my sister, and my brother. She knew by heart every single one of the prayers recited at our church, and when she was working I often heard her sing hymns, too. She also knew all of the popular songs of the time, and she often sang them in her melodious voice. She was still young, and extremely beautiful, and she was always the talk of the neighborhood women. “There has never been a woman like her in our town, nor will there ever be one again,” they would say.
My maternal grandmother lived with us. My father invited her after the death of her other daughter and the emigration of her son to distant lands. She helped around the house, mostly taking care of the children, satisfying some of her longing for her dead daughter and her distant son. At nights, we scarcely left her alone. My sister and my brother would sleep on her lap, and I would sleep leaning against her back. It seemed to me that she never slept. She spent the hours covering us with blankets and murmuring prayers over us. She was an old woman, exhausted by life, but her prayers gave her strength. She was our guardian angel, completely dedicated to her family.
My grandfather’s wife, by contrast, was a disagreeable woman. She had appeared on the scene about a year after the death of my grandmother, and she had married my grandfather. She was already quite mature and there was no talk of her having any children. She seemed jealous of my mother and her three healthy, happy children. She refused to mend my grandfather’s pants and socks, and she didn’t set up a good table like the other women of the family. She never had a smile on her face, never had a kind word for us like everybody else. She barely ever left the house or had any visitors, instead remaining ensconced in her room like an owl, whiling away the days.
1. Gurin, known in Turkish as Gürün, is in east central Anatolia.
2. Emmi is a male honorific, translatable into “uncle.”