Bruce Badrigian is a grandchild of the Armenian Genocide. His Grandmother, Isgouhi Badrigian, watched her first three daughters starve to death when they tried to escape the invading Turks around 1915. Isgouhi’s first husband was killed trying to save his family. It was her strength, courage, and pursuit of freedom that stirred Bruce to write Armenia’s Fingerprint
People often ask why I felt compelled to write a story about my grandparents experience during the Armenian Genocide. That question remains a difficult one to answer because there is no short or singular reason. In truth, the reason revolves around what I learned, witnessed, and experienced as I grew up in a household that rarely discussed it. That said, the walls told me stories. I listened…I learned.
I was the oldest of five children. My mother gave birth to five children in almost the same number of years. Birth control? Hardly, we were a Catholic family who started out in the lower middle class. We first lived on the second floor in a three-decker. When the family above us flushed their toilet, one could hear the water running down through the walls. Still, many of my friends lived in the projects where six families lived together in a large square brick box. No lawn, no yard…just asphalt for a playground and six over-sized cages in the basement for storage. She was thirteen and I was twelve. “You are a lousy kisser! Don’t you ever watch television and see how they do it?” Well, we didn’t have a television then, and when we did finally buy one, it was black and white. I’d rather be outside with my friends playing tackle football with my friends on our knees in two feet of soft, downy snow.
Speaking of walls…I often eavesdropped on my parents when they thought us kids were asleep. My siblings were asleep, but me being the oldest, I knew all the tricks. Thus, my education began…I learned how my dad worked three jobs while my mom stayed home and us kids ran wild. Even then, the walls repeated, “We need more money! More money! We apparently did not have enough money…the walls told me all about it as I pressed my ear up against them or my parents’ bedroom door. We were not starving, don’t get me wrong, but we had to make concessions. For example, Saturday night was hot dogs and beans. Sunday was the big meal: roast chicken, or turkey, or meatloaf, or steak. The other days were pretty much the same because my mom had five of us before she was twenty-six, so she didn’t have many cooking skills yet. Soup and sandwich (usually Baloney) on Mondays, grilled cheese and tomato with a salad on Tuesday, Liver on Wednesdays (yeccchhh), spaghetti and meatballs on Thursday (my favorite), always fish on Fridays (Catholic rule), and on Saturday Isgouhi Badrigian would come and make us Armenian food. We ate whatever she made because my parents told us how her cousins, parents, and family members were starved to death by the Turks during the genocide. None of knew what that was, but we were too afraid to ask, so we ate the grape leaves that were tightly wrapped around lamb, rice, mysterious spices, olive oil, lemon, and stewed tomatoes. We loved them! She brought other things she made as well: lavash, baklava, greens, yogurt and other foreign items. Some were sweet, some sour, some mystical.
Once a year, when my dad would get a rare day off (he worked a graveyard shift and on most holidays and even though my brother and I were star athletes…he rarely made it to our games…working). So, he would pack us all into the old green station-wagon and off we would go to the Converse shoe factory out in the country. We all were told to pick out one pair of Converse sneakers from the REJECTS pile in the corner (half price). It was no big deal, so what if it had an extra eye hole or a melted spot on the toe—no sweat. But the kicker was this—if you bought a pair of sneakers, you also were given a free t-shirt CONVERSE spelled out in big, bright red letters across the front. Free advertising for them, and a free t-shirt for us; dear old dad was a visionary. And don’t even get me started on what happened if you didn’t eat all the food on your plate.
My grandfather (my father’s dad) Kachadoor Badrigian died just weeks before I was born, so I never met him and sadly only have one picture of him (in the novel). I have his wide forehead and aquiline profile. My dad told me some stories about him, and said he was tall for an Armenian. My dad was 5’10” and my mom was about the same, so when she put on heels, she was a couple inches taller than him. My mom’s brothers were both 6’ 3” coming form Poland (last name Kowalski) where they grew tall children. My grandma’s name was Elsie, and she was married to Clifford Robbins whose ancestry traces back to the Mayflower. That’s right, his parents were from England. He worked for the park system and Elsie was a seamstress for a while. They both died in their sixties…less than a year apart.
When my grandmother came and stayed with us, she would speak Armenian to my dad, so he would not lose the language. She taught me Armenian by combining broken English with fluent Armenian. She told me stories about Armenia that I’d forgotten until I visited Armenia in 2019 with my wife. I didn’t realize the sacrifice my grandparents made until I learned more from my dad’s two sisters Elizabeth and Mary. They told me stories about Isgouhi who we called Nanny.
When I started teaching in California, I met more Armenians. I began researching our shared history. Many people would share how their parents and grandparents made it to America. I began to take notes and wrote down their names. “I am going to write a book someday, may I use your story?”
“Yeah, sure you are.” They would shake their heads and smile. Their names are all mentioned in the beginning of the my novel.
More than thirty years went by in a flash, and then…suddenly…I was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. My world came to an abrupt halt. My high school teaching and coaching days were over. When I learned more about PC, I knew I had to get my affairs in order.
Oftentimes, life throws us to the ground…deep into Mother Earth…to remind us that we are nothing more than clay…to teach us a lesson in humility…to help remind us that we are only human.
After thirty days in intensive care and several serious complications (one being my heart another a serious blood clot), I made it out of UCSF on my 61st birthday and was driven home by my wife with my three children in the car. Clear tubes extended from both sides of my stomach and another from my nose that extended down into my innards. It would take me almost a year to feel somewhat normal again…but never the same.
That was when Armenia’s Fingerprint was born. Most of the anecdotal research was done, but much more would follow. I desperately needed to occupy my mind other than the hellish nightmares at UCSF. Thank God for the nurses especially and for the doctors who performed a long-shot 9 1/2 hour miracle surgery called a Whipple. Writing became my panacea…my distraction from the pain…from the helplessness I felt…from my own crazy worst case scenario thoughts.
So, I wrote. I wrote about how my dad was driven to support five kids when he was just a kid himself. I reflected on the good they did and the mistakes they made. I read every book on Armenia and on the genocide I could find. And then It hit me…I would write a tale so strong…so clear…so inspirational…so positive…and so courageous that it would stand out from all the other Armenian stories I had read.
I wrote for my dad who worked himself to an early grave (age 50). I wrote for his two sisters who cared for my grandmother isgouhi. I wrote for my children hoping someday they would read it to their children, so they would never forget how much their ancestors sacrificed, so they could live free from fear, prejudice, and religious zealots. I wrote for my students and for all Armenians even though I am simply an Armenian hybrid who lost his language when his dad told him to stop speaking Armenian because his son might experience the prejudice and bullying he experienced as a young dark child with a foreign accent—only half Armenian…not a purebred. Nevertheless, I taught my children that anyone who has even a drop of Armenians blood running through his or her veins…is Armenian. For without the great spirit of the Hye, they would not be here at all.
That is why I wrote my novel. Armenia is in my heart more so than any other ancestry. And as William Saroyan shared (and I am loosely sharing his words), “You can take away our land and burn our homes, you can kill our men and walk our women and children out to the desert without food or water, you can destroy our churches built with our bare hands, but any time one Armenian meets another Armenian, they will form a New Armenia…and begin again.
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November 25, 2023
Bruce David Badrigian
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