Rise the Euphrates

The war my grandmother waged against my father was fought with petty measures and indirect slights; its battlefield and prize were the children’s souls. Casard taught us Armenian: Dad countered with his family crest. Casard served Armenian food and taught us Old Country ways; Dad obliged by hauling out the box of photographs from the army trunk in the basement and showing us the picture of his parents—a diminutive woman standing beside a tall, slender man on the front porch of a white clapboard house. Theodore and Bette Loon died within six months of each other while Dad was away at college. Heart trouble, ‘Dad said. Each time I heard him say this, I solemnly nodded, as if I knew just what that meant.

Memory will play tricks on you; I cannot recall an incident in which my father, a gentleman, ever directed one harsh work at Casard. When harsh words were required, Momma was the one to say them. Casard needled and ridiculed Dad, but everyone knew she was just trying to provoke Momma, who had done the unthinkable by growing up and abandoning her. Dad was the reminder, the excuse.Wholeness, I am told, comes from within, but that Christmas when I was nine, as we drove in silence from the church to Cousins Bakery, I thought that wholeness was everywhere but inside us. At the bakery Dad picked up Casard’s rye bread and rolls, and no one said a word about the hollow ache inside our bellies.No one said a word each time Casard attacked my parents’ marriage the way a moth attacks wool: making little holes here and there, so that the damage becomes apparent only after it is done.By the time we reached Casard’s house, Casard’s best friend Poppee and her family had arrived and we were all supposed to be joyous and happy. Casard had set the table with Christmas napkins and plates, colored bowls, silver trays and crystal serving dishes filled with pickles, beans, scallions and radishes; the good china plates were laden with roasted lamb and beef, dolma, kibbeh, bodyjohn pie, green beans, mushrooms and pilaf.The adults oohed and aahed at the splendor of the feast. Auntie Vart commented on the centerpiece made from pinecones, boughs and ribbon, but Casard wrinkled her nose and waved away the praise. Seated at the head of the table, Casard studied the family gathered about her: there was Momma and Dad and we three kids; Poppee and Great Uncle Alex and their daughters, Auntie Sarah and Auntie Vart, and their husbands and children. While Casard surveyed her guests I observed that Uncle Eddy’s brother from Russia, seated across from me, was at that moment picking his bulbous nose. Momma saw me staring and fluttered her fingers in front of my face.Casard waved for Great Uncle Alex to say the prayer. Great Uncle Alex bowed his head and mumbled something in Armenian; Van, Melanie and I caught up in time to say “Amen.”The women removed the aluminum foil from the platters and served the men, the children and finally themselves. Everyone knew that Casard was a great cook and we heaped food onto our plates as if we would never eat again.We picked up our forks, ready to dive in, when Momma noticed that Casard’s plate was empty.“What, Mayrig? What can I get you?” Momma asked.Casard shook her head at a spot in the center of the table.“Something from the kitchen, Mayrig? Salt, pepper? You need salt and pepper?”Casard pursed her lips and, with her chin, pointed at the reindeer shakers on the table. She bowed her head.Everyone tried to find the one thing Casard lacked so we could all start eating.“What?” Momma exclaimed. “Mayrig, are you sick?”“Was only thinking to myself,” Casard mumbled, her chin resting on her chest as though she were dozing. Suddenly, her head bobbed up and she stared at Dad’s neck. She smiled, squinting, as though straining to see him.“What—” Momma said, crossing her arms. “What now?”“It’s nothing,” Casard assured her, waving at us to begin eating.We picked up our forks once again—everyone except Momma—but as we took our first bite, Casard turned to Van, who was seated on her right, and whispered loud enough so everyone could hear, “I was just thinking to myself, your father must be disappointed we don’t serve none of that Episcopalian Jell-O salad.”Dad’s fist hit the table and the ice in our water glasses chimed.Casard, startled by the noise, looked up. “Don’t you worry, Araxie,” she said. “I know what those Cath-o-lics like. I see them at the store, buying. Next time”—Casard tapped the side of her head—“next time, Mayrig remembers. We’ll serve’em Jell-O right on the table like it was food.”Momma straightened the silver beside her plate. The room was silent.  Momma took in air, then under her breath she said quietly, “Enough.”Dad combed his fingers through his hair, his face flushed with anger. “You had to spoil it, didn’t you?” he told Casard, his lips pressed as though he were about to cry. “Couldn’t leave it be, not one holiday.”Uncle Eddy cleared his throat. “Hey, George, you catch the Knicks last night?”Momma shot Uncle Eddy a look that left him with his mouth hanging open.“This is supposed to be Christmas,” Momma said to the fork at the side of her plate. “In other families.” Momma lifted her glass from the table and, without drinking, set it down. She seemed to be concentrating on her breathing, as though it required special effort just to keep the air moving in and out.“There’s a draft in here,” Casard announced. “Seta, go check the door.”“No,” Momma cut the air with a finger. “You keep Seta out of this. You’re always trying to put her in the middle. There’s no draft and you know it.”“On my shoulders, Araxie. I feel blowing.” But instead of looking at Momma, Casard gazed pleadingly at me.“There’s no draft,” Momma repeated, her voice loud and firm. She pointed her finger to keep me in my chair.Casard bit her lip and looked at me, but I avoided her gaze. Staring at my plate, my face burned with shame. When I looked up again, I expected to find everybody watching me, but they all had their eyes glued on Casard, who had began rubbing her arms in an effort to warm them, and on Momma, who was concentrating on breathing.We were never a quiet family, and we certainly never shirked a good fight. But the schism that had grown between Momma and Casard—the thing involving Dad and, I now understood, me—was too deep to discuss. It lurked behind the women’s dramatic battles and heavy silences. Until that moment I never knew whose side to be on, Momma and Dad’s or Casard’s, since both sides were me. But sitting there, I made a decision.“Momma,” I said. Both women looked at me, and when I lifted my eyes to meet Momma’s gaze, she inhaled sharply and raised her brows. Then, as though granted permission, she pushed back her chair and headed for the stairs.She returned with Casard’s sweater. “Put it on,” Momma said, dropping the sweater in her mother’s lap.Momma took her place at the table and turning to Uncle Eddy, the harmless, declared, “Eddy, I want you to know: my husband does not eat Jell-O salad.” Van says I remember that Christmas because I was finally old enough to see both halves, Seta and Loon, though they had been obvious to him long before. Later, as we drove home in Dad’s new Buick, Momma finally let go of the sorrow she was holding. It came slowly at first, then in a great gush of air.My father steered with one hand and wrapped his free arm around her shoulder. She murmured something to him, something about “So alone.” Then she started to sob, while in the backseat Melanie, Van, and I bit our lips and braced ourselves.Dad glanced at the road, then back at Momma and whispered something we could not hear. A moment passed. Momma’s shoulders coughed up and down, she burrowed her face into Dad’s wool coat.At the next stoplight he threw the car into Park and kissed her. Again and again, then deeply. He went on kissing her, despite the headlights behind us and then the horns, despite Van, Melanie and me watching from the backseat. We heard the horns, but more shocking was this kiss, like some miracle. We did not know what to do, except hold our breath and grab hands, while the light changed twice more.The light turned a third time before Dad let go of Momma and, putting the Buick back into gear, drove us home through the snowy, silent streets of Memorial. Dad was turning the car into our driveway when Momma peered into the backseat to find Van, Melanie, and me, still stunned by that kiss, still pressing hands.And if someone says Christmas, this is what I see: the look of surprise in my mother’s eyes, as if we were her bonus presents, wrapped in muffs and coats and ribbons, as if we were for her from him and brand-new.