Issue 11, Winter 1955
It was a few weeks before Easter that Hadji read the cards for Levon Dai. “My heart is pulling for a sheep’s head stew,” she said one night after dinner. “It is eight years since I had kuluk, not since we left Cyprus, after the exile.” They were sitting around the table, still, three hours after the dinner began. A good dinner—eggplant, white beans, baked fish, creamy white Greek cheese, large round loaves of bread. Well fed, perhaps, yet not quite satisfied. Kelesh there, looking moodily into his coffee cup. Kelesh wanted a yogurt factory. He wanted it badly, but no one took him seriously. Kelesh was studying the classical antecedents of Dante at Columbia, and afternoons he frequented bingo parlors to earn the carfare to attend his classes. But he wanted most of all to open a yogurt factory. It was very confusing, probably even to Kelesh.
Uncle Boghos was an artist, but no-one took him seriously either. He painted from postal cards. Nostalgic scenes of the Bosphorus and the Red Sea; Saint Sophia at sundown. Everyone said: “Boghos, since when is the Bosphorus green?… Is that water, Boghos? It looks like grass... Sunset on the Sea of Marmara is never gaudy. Vivid, yes, but not gaudy. You have put in too much orange.” Uncle Boghos was not a patient man, and he often collected his canvas and paints and retreated to the bedroom. But it was lonely in the bedroom and Boghos could not paint long in solitude. My mother encouraged Boghos, but he could never take her seriously. My mother encouraged everybody. She often expressed a willingness to do the worrying for everyone else in the family, feeling, I think that it was the least she could do—not having so many of her own—but the others were not willing to shed their prerogatives so easily, so mother concentrated mostly on her concern for Levon Dai who was away from the family circle and therefore much to be pitied. She sent him tins of greek cheese and stuffed grape leaves and olives—the large black pickled kind that he could not possibly be expected to find in Iowa. And now that Easter was approaching he had no doubt already received the offering, sent railway express, of Easter bread and topig: the spicy steamed patties that no decent Armenian could be without at this season. Levon Dai was not ungrateful. If he wrote letters only at monthly intervals when he enclosed the check that provided for his godmother old Marta-mama who had brought him up, everyone knew it was because he was not articulate about his misfortunes, or given to expressing his loneliness. But one could read between the lines. Levon Dai was an eccentric: he had made money, but one understood the price he had to pay and pitied him for it.
Hadji’s husband, Uncle Pousant, worried more than anyone. He worried about the janitor, and the price of eggplant, and he worried about the American foreign policy and the English and the Bolsheviks. He worried especially about Hadji’s refusal to worry.
“How can you sit there, woman, peacefully cracking your melon seeds when you know how hard it is to find fresh dill these days!” Uncle Pousant owned a restaurant and he could not cook without fresh dill. Nor could he cook without chick peas, or sesame seeds, or pine nuts, and they were all hard to find at decent prices. Hadji could really exasperate Uncle Pousant.
Only Hadji seemed sure of what she wanted. Right now she wanted sheep’s head. This irritated Uncle Pousant. “Now you want me to go out and find ‘head’! It is not hard enough I have to rummage the town to find cracked wheat flour; it is not hard enough I have to endure the crooked looks of the fish woman as I beg her to leave on the heads of the fish. It is not hard enough I have to turn my face inside out to the butcher with pleas that he save me the liver of the lamb! Now I must go out and find ‘head’!” Hadji said not a word.
“Perhaps you think that I don’t crave head!” added Uncle Pousant. “All right, I will admit it. I lack courage. Why should I worry if he thinks I am a cannibal? They eat the foot of the pig, and I am ashamed to ask for the head of the sheep. Let me admit it, I am a coward.” No one spoke.
“I am admitting it, am I not?” shouted Uncle Pousant, “Let me see you go out and ask for the head of the sheep!”
My mother changed the subject. There had been no letter from Levon Dai today, she said. This was hardly news but my mother knew it would serve.