Whenever the history of the Armenian Diaspora is analyzed, it is invariably connected to our families. We talk about our survivor generation and our grandparents who overcame incredible odds and built a life in America based on the Armenian family. Regardless of your lineage, religious affiliation or geography, the stories have a common thread of family gatherings, cousins who were as close as siblings and memories of relationships that endured the decades of distance barriers. Everything we built as a diaspora community starts with our families. We discover relatives we didn’t know we had, and we all have many individuals who we conveniently refer to as “aunt” and “uncle.”
Growing up with our extended family, I disliked Sunday nights, because that meant the school week would begin shortly. I enjoyed school and my friends but not nearly as much as the never-ending joy of our family. Sunday was the end of our extended family time for the week. We had to say goodbye to our grandparents (who we adored), aunts, uncles and cousins. It represented a temporary end to our Armenian reality and morphing into the American life of our neighborhoods and schools. Sound familiar? Many of us lament the decline of that close knit existence that has been partially replaced with weekend sports, geographic dispersion and overloaded schedules. Of course, these are all choices we make, despite the substantial peer pressure that dominates our behavior. As parents, we have a responsibility to instill these values of the Armenian family that have enabled us to be close to second cousins, articulate our family tree and establish eternal memories. If we make a reasonable investment in visiting family and attending activities, then the return is handsome. I recall our immediate family being on the road visiting relatives nearly every weekend. It was so frequent that my non-Armenian friends in the neighborhood or school didn’t bother to schedule things with me on weekends. Years later, we carried that value so that our children would have a functioning relationship.
It has occurred to me lately that we need a reminder that the importance of the Armenian family has been retained in an updated manner by the emerging generation. I experienced such a moment this past week that I would like to share with you. Hopefully, it’s applicable to your own experience. My first cousin’s daughter got engaged last year to a wonderful young man. The wedding was this past weekend in California. Last fall, the bride and groom-to-be approached me to officiate their wedding. I was initially stunned because it is not something I ever imagined doing. We talked about it and the importance of God in their ceremony. They are Christian believers, but they simply are not close to any church. Based on my love for them and the spiritual importance, I enthusiastically agreed and embarked on a new journey of working with them on a ceremony. We incorporated Armenian themes and scripture that focused on their special day. The bride and groom are from San Jose, which is where the wedding took place. During our journey this past year, I discovered how the importance of the Armenian family was central in her thinking despite the geographic distance to her extended family. Her grandparents are my uncle and aunt. They are terrific people who are originally from New England (Indian Orchard and Whitinsville). In the 1960s, my uncle and aunt moved from New England, first to the Midwest and then settled in Silicon Valley. I remember it was a difficult time when they moved as they were the first of our family to leave the area. My aunt and uncle vowed that geographic distance would not define our relationships and demonstrated that by attending virtually every wedding and other family events over the next 40 years. They brought their children (our first cousins) who in turn continued the commitment with their children (one of whom was the bride). Of course, the east coast families were influenced by this display of family love, and many made trips to San Jose to visit with our “West Coast Piligians.” Many members of our family would stop in San Jose if they were in the state of California. It was almost unthinkable to miss the opportunity. This nurturing has continued for several decades and several generations.
How did this value overcome both generational time and geography? Weddings that take place at a distance from many of the invitees is a test of the familial bonds given the schedule and expense challenges. Both branches of my aunt’s and uncle’s families were invited, particularly the second cousins who are of the bride’s generation. When we arrived at the hotel, I felt like I was at a mini Olympics or east coast gathering of our relatives. There were at least 40 to 45 family members who made the trip from one coast to the next or other distances to share in the joy of the weekend. My first thought as I entered the lobby was “job well done” to our parents, grandparents and others who are no longer with us. Very few, if any, of these younger adults would have attended if not for the nurturing investment made by those who preceded us with countless weekends of building sustainable relations. Too often in our hectic world today, we miss the opportunity for our kids to establish these lifelong friendships with their extended families. My aunt and uncle proved that distance need not be a deterrent. As the saying goes, “You can’t pick your family,” but you can sure enjoy the ride.
Our dear Uncle Paul Piligian sharing his wisdom with the new couple.
Naturally, in the Armenian tradition the wedding is usually a three-day event with a welcome gathering the evening before, the wedding and a day-after event at one of the local homes. The welcome event was an opportunity to meet the groom’s family who are warm and engaging people of Palestinian Christian extraction. The cultural bonding was incredible. There is clearly a common thread of valuing family. I was particularly gratified by the emotional meeting of our family members with each other…reminiscent of my youth. Truly some things transcend distance. During the wedding reception, I put my arm around my dear soon-to-be 95-year-old uncle Paul and congratulated him. We lost my aunt Sarah last fall, but we felt her spirit the entire time. Together, my uncle and I looked out at the maze of our family dancing to Armenian and Arabic music. I whispered in his ear that this is all because of the promise you and auntie made some 59 years ago. It could have gone in an entirely different direction were it not for our parents’ commitment to their family. Everything we value as Armenians starts with our families. Our spiritual journey starts in the home. Our ethnic pride is passed to us by our parents. Our grandparents have a particularly unique role in our heritage. I was brought to tears to see the pride on my humble uncle’s face as he realized in one visual that we had succeeded. During the course of wandering around the reception, I would witness a variety of group pictures taken…families, cousins, sisters and other groupings. There were discussions about going together to Armenia and planning trips. Some of the discussions were about catching up, but more importantly, there was ample time devoted to arranging activity in the future. My cousin Nicole (the bride) exemplifies the passionate commitment to family that is the hallmark of our culture. It was very important to her that her cousins be there for her special day. They did not disappoint. God provides us these opportunities if we choose to welcome them.
In my youth, I recall family weekend gatherings at my grandparents’ poultry farm in Franklin, MA. We would go to the picnics at the camp, but I had to leave by 4:00 p.m. because some people would stop by the farm to purchase eggs. The gatherings would go into the evening under the large “toot” tree with our three-generation clan. This weekend was far from Franklin, but it was easy to draw the parallels. The older cousins added another link in their unbroken chain while the younger ones focused on building their own…just as we did back on the farm. Our families enabled our entry to the greater Armenian nation. As a community, we spend a great deal of time focused on how to strengthen our communal institutions as a means of sustaining the diaspora. At the very bottom of that pyramid, however, has been the Armenian family…both the immediate and extended. It is important to emphasize the challenges of our pillar institutions, such as the church, youth groups or philanthropic organizations, but the stability of the Armenian family is the enabler for any institutional prosperity. It begins with the parents and grandparents instilling those values from an early age with a prioritization of their time. That goal is far more complicated in 2022 with the constant distractions that can pull you from your family and prevent these values from becoming a part of the fabric of your existence. One thing is very clear. The probability of retention is much greater when parents take the time in the adolescence of their children to build an extended family.
I witnessed the substantial return on the investment of our generation with the commitment to be with each other, the generational transfer of this value and the collective identity. It is a wonderful experience to see grandparents attend the wedding of their grandchild. It is the fulfillment of the second round of young birds leaving the nest. We like to call our uncle “the patriarch” because he is the elder of our family and has mentored many of us over the years. Several years ago when confronted with questions about our family tree, my uncle took on the responsibility to write a book with visuals explaining our extended family relations and history. It documents how the family came from Sepastia and Adana to its current state in its fifth generation. He gave copies to each family, and it has served as an educational tool and reference guide for some time. The respect for this man is richly deserved, and every young person from seven or eight years old through his older nephews and nieces hugged that man with love and perhaps subtly thanking him for setting the tone decades ago. The wedding of my cousin and loving presence of my uncle were more reminders that the Armenian family is the essence of a sustainable nation.