A couple of years ago, I was in a doctor’s office waiting room doing what I usually do: reading the true crime section of People, perusing Us Weekly to see if stars really are just like me, and considering what height I should claim to be.
I was taking a reading pit-stop, thumbing through a piece about the royal family, when I heard the nurse call my last name. Except it wasn’t my last name anymore. It was my maiden name—an Armenian moniker I had never heard outside my own family.
I looked up. A blonde woman rose, deposited her own copy of People on the table, and followed the nurse down the hall.
I wanted to bolt after her, to ask her who she was and how we might be related. Instead I used all my willpower and buried my nose back in the magazine. After all, most people don’t enjoy being grilled about their identity or followed by strangers. Especially at the doctor’s office.
Fast forward a few months. A friend shared a post about a neighborhood meeting via NextDoor, the social media site where people complain about traffic and accuse neighbors of purposely blowing barbecue smoke toward their house. I scanned the text. Stopped. Squinted.
The neighborhood meeting would be moderated by the woman from the doctor’s office who shared my name.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to make the meeting. I also knew I wouldn’t be able to restrain myself from contacting her. So I fired off an email, shared my former last name, and waited.
An hour later, I got a reply.
My last-name twin had recently moved from Glendale, California, a city that’s 40% Armenian. Like me, she got her fair hair from her mother’s side. (Hers: Scottish. Mine: Scandinavian–with some help from my hairdresser). We didn’t have any aunts, uncles or grandparents in common, but we figured we must be related. Somehow. Some way.
As we ended the e-conversation, she said, “It was great to meet you, Kathy. It’s nice to know where the Armenians are.”
It was a comment that hit home.
My great-grandparents emigrated to America during the genocide that took the lives of more than 1.5 million Armenians. This tragedy resulted in an immense diaspora. Most fled to the U.S. Some settled in Russia, France, Lebanon and other places around the world. Two-thirds left their ancestral land never to return. Today, only one-third of the world’s Armenians live in Armenia.
I think this scattering of Armenians explains our continual search for one another.
Introduce any Armenian to someone with a surname ending in –ian (or -yan) and they’ll ask, “Are you Armenian?” or perhaps even offer an “Inchpes ek?”, which means “How are you?”
It explains our strong crazy-strong ethnic pride and our compulsion to tell anyone who will listen that the Kardashians and Dr. Kevorkian aren’t the only famous Armenians. (For starters, there’s Cher, Andre Agassi [original family name Aghassian], William Saroyan, and Chris Bohjalian. And truth be told, the Kardashians have done great work in raising awareness about the genocide.)
It also makes me think of my father. He not only only searches the credits of every movie for Armenian names, seeking long-lost family, trying to connect with a people scattered but not conquered, but also insists that Star Wars’ Lando Calrissian is Armenian. As he sees it, Armenians are everywhere. Even in space.
Like Ellen, whose pen name for her wonderful new series is in honor of her grandmother, my books have family names. Zartar for my great-grandmother. Levon for my grandfather.
It’s my way of paying homage to their lives. It’s how I try to give them another way to leave a mark on the world.
April 24 is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. For those whose families have been forever changed by genocide—and there have been so many throughout history—we don’t need a day to mourn and reflect. It’s in our hearts, written in indelible ink on our DNA.
Still, as the church bells in Yerevan and Glendale and around the world peal, “Remember! Remember!” my mind goes to our shared past and our yoked present.
I think of where the Armenians are.
Friends, are there family names (first? last? middle? nick?) that have special significance for you?