Gimme Shelter: Reunion

MARIAN ZAHRA PHOTO The sounds of Armenia filled the air at a recent gathering at the home of Rich and Marianna Tarpinian.

The tent guy was late.

And Rich and Marianna Tarpinian were really going to need a tent.

Fifty people would be arriving for the reunion, and the forecast for Saturday, July 20 was for a day hotter than the hinges of hell, with pounding sun and high humidity.

The tent was scheduled to be delivered Friday morning to their Mimosa Drive house and set up for Saturday’s party. The Tarpinians were not quite in panic mode when the tent guy called. The weather had taken a toll on his business with last minute orders, but he hadn’t forgotten them, and would arrive Friday afternoon.

Sitting in his downstairs office the other day, Rich said, “He was supposed to leave the chairs and tables for us to set up, but he and his crew did it for us. Good guy.”

The reunion, with people coming from as far afield as Oregon, Florida and Louisiana, was to celebrate a shared Armenian heritage. The party was fueled by Armenian music and food, with the sound of the oud and dumbeek floating through the afternoon, along with songs and, as the Tarpinians’ daughter Marian Zahra said, “the dancing was fun for those from 18 months to 90.”

Asked if the reunion was to keep the bond to Armenia strong, Rich said it was partly that, but, “I’m an American, Marianna is Italian-American, so my children have Armenian and Italian heritage. But it’s important to remember.”

The office walls have family photos, but there’s one that won’t let you go the moment you enter. It’s a sepia-toned photo of a girl in her late teens. Her hair is parted down the middle and her lovely, unsmiling face is composed, with eyes that give nothing away. For someone so young, her eyes seem to have seen much more than most of us ever have.

It’s a portrait of Rich’s mother, Helen, taken in a French orphanage in Syria about 1920.

She was a survivor of the Armenian genocide of the early part of the 20th century, in which her whole family was lost. In 1915, when she was 12, she was ordered on a death march from her home province of Sivas, Turkey, a mountainous region, where there was a thriving Armenian community. The march took thousands of people into the Syrian desert, after Ottoman soldiers had rounded up families and individuals for deportation, and in many cases, outright murder.

Along the way, the deportees were herded like cattle, starved and beaten. Helen was travelling with her younger brother, Krikor, until they were forcibly separated, and she had to leave him, hearing his cries, as a soldier ordered her not to look back.

She survived, and found refuge, and finally made her way to the French orphanage. She later emigrated to America, married another Armenian immigrant, and they started a family of two boys in Brooklyn.

Between 1915 and 1916, one million Armenians were murdered, which followed another holocaust in the late 1890s when 200,000 to 300,000 people perished.

They are a people with their own language, literature and culture, and were also separated from most of their neighbors by religion. Surrounded by an overwhelming majority of Muslims in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians practiced orthodox Christianity. They were convenient scapegoats, and during the murderous time of World War I, their fate was sealed.

Rich never heard many stories about his mother’s early life. “She never really talked about it to me,” he said. But she made sure he and his brother knew their roots. As children, they were sent to an Armenian School in Brooklyn, and learned to speak, read and write the language.

It would take another generation for Helen’s story to be completely revealed.

Rich and Marianna raised three children, two girls, Helen and Marian, and a son, Stephen, in Nassau County before moving to Shelter Island in 1984.

Stephen, who passed away in 2015, was an accomplished athlete, author of several acclaimed books and a businessman. In his early 20s, living at the family home, with Helen living upstairs, he would sit and talk with her, asking her questions about her life.

The result is Stephen’s book, “The Resurrection of An Armenian Girl” — available at the library — a beautifully written account of his grandmother’s ordeal, survival and eventual triumph to make a meaningful life for herself and her children.

Near the end of that life, Helen was in San Simeon by the Sound. Rich visited one day, and after staying awhile, was saying goodbye, when his mother said, “Do you have to go?”

They talked some more, when Helen said, “Do you know, I still think of my brother,” the boy she was forced to leave in the desert.

“She died the next day,” Rich said. “Growing up, we ate everything that was given to us, it was forbidden to waste food. She died around noon, just after lunch, and the staff said there was nothing on her plate.

She finished her meal and they said she just tipped over a little bit. What better way to go?”

In “Resurrection of an Armenian Girl,” Stephen Tarpinian has two quotes. One is from Adolph Hitler, who said, on the eve of World War II, “Who after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

And the Armenian-American writer William Saroyan, who said that when two Armenians “meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

The house on Mimosa Place on a hot Saturday had more than two, plus the spirits of Helen Tarpinian, and her grandson Stephen, who brought her story to life.

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