On April 15, 2015—the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide-I found myself on an airplane flying from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Chicago, Illinois, seated next to a gently talkative senior black man who shared my appreciation for the views out the window. A turbulent take off started us off on swapping stories—the death grip on his knee by the lady next to him on the first leg of his journey that day, my scariest-flight-ever as a child experiencing significant turbulence for the first time between Japan and Korea, his near-death experience in the seventies strapped to the wall in an overloaded military plane flying through a storm over Turkey.
We pointed interesting sites out to each other and rejoiced in sunshine on cloud tops, a top-down view of the Grand Canyon, the surprising quilt pattern of agriculture in the desert. A retired mechanic, he shared pictures of his prize cars—a pearl blue Mercedes and distinguished green Jaguar—and told of visiting car shows with a brother, now disabled by a stroke. We shared an appreciation for driving Lake Shore Drive, I described the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway One, my dream of taking it by motorcycle one day tempered by a medical school trauma surgery rotation and being in the room as the surgeon told a mother her 17 year old son would never walk again. His own brother had died in a motorcycle crash. Another brother won the lottery. How many brothers and sisters? Thirty four! Born to a father who had prayed to God for 100 kids, and with three wives over his lifetime found himself a third of the way there.
He spoke of his grandmother, a wonderful woman he adored and taught to read and drove downtown, where she would spell out the words over stores: “S-E-A-R-S. Is that …Sears?” who bought him his first car. She was 102 when she died, when he was in the military. I spoke of my own grandmother, and the delicious Sunday lunches we shared around her kitchen table, her remarkable life as one of only 50 women to graduate from high school in Aleppo, Syria, raise a family and come to the states.
Then I remembered. “What day is it today?” I asked. April 15, 2015. “Today is considered the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide,” I told him, and shared not only my grandmother’s personal journey, but the history of our people. That April 15 1915, the day when Turkish officials rounded up and killed hundreds of Armenian intellectuals during world war 1, was the day chosen to represent the start of the Armenian genocide. That the Armenian genocide was the first genocide of the twentieth century. That the population of Armenians in Turkey dropped from over 2 million in 1915 to less than 500,000 in 1923—Armenian men executed and the women and children killed in forced marches across the desert. That the genocide was never recognized, Turkey was too important as a military base, and that Hitler used the forgotten Armenian genocide to justify the start of the Holocaust, saying “Who after all remembers the Armenians?”
I shared the stories of my family. My grandfather and his twin born on the banks of the Euphrates River, in the middle of a forced march, others drowning in the waters, they were born into the mud. My grandmother born after the worst was over, in 1922, back in Turkey, after her mother, my great grandmother, survived a forced march across the desert, then turned around and walked back to her home village to try to find her family, only to find them gone. She met a young Armenian man at the village well who had survived as a boy by living with Kurdish herders, and they married, and my grandmother was born. In 1923, they walked together back across the desert to Syria to make their way in the world.
He was silent for a moment.
“You never know by looking at someone,” he said.
And he shared.
“My grandmother also lost her family. She was born a slave at the tail end of slavery.”
(I tried to do the math. She was 102 when she died when he was in the military. He was in the military in the seventies. So she had to have been born after the end of the civil war. She was born a slave after slavery was supposedly abolished. I asked to make sure.)
“When was she born?”
She was a girl when her owners needed to sell their slaves. They wanted to keep her and her sister together, but they were sold apart. She never saw her sister again. The hurt of losing her family spoke in the voice of her grandson. The same way, I suppose, that the hurt of the Armenian genocide spoke in mine.
My story of my family fractured by a denied genocide led to a sharing of his story of a family fractured by a slave trade that existed long after it supposedly ended.
Until I spoke with my neighbor on the plane, I never realized that the people I meet today, my friends and colleagues and patients, may have grown up at the knee of grandmothers who once had “owners,” who once were “property.” What feels like ancient history to me may still be living history to them. These family stories remain alive, feeding a fresh memory of historic injustice. And the stories need to be shared outside our families, until we and they, us and them, Armenians and Turks and blacks and white recognize a shared truth, and differences may be reconciled.
I felt a resonance with this stranger next to me on the plane, me a young white doctor and he a retired black mechanic, facing our histories together.
As the plane landed, we introduced ourselves, and discovered something else we had in common. Our families shared the same last name: Jones.