Centennial Memoir

Every family has a few cherished stories about how they came to be who they are, anecdotes of some ancestor, someone clever or determined, someone lucky, or fated or foolhardy. Certainly every Armenian family has a story about how they survived the 1915 genocide.

Aug 12, 2019

I am here because of incidents a hundred years ago in Adana, a city in the far southeastern corner of Turkey.

Every family has a few cherished stories about how they came  to be who they are, anecdotes of some ancestor, someone  clever or determined, someone lucky, or fated or foolhardy. Certainly every Armenian family has a story about how they survived the 1915 genocide.  For Armenians, these stories always apocryphal: after all, if someone hadn’t survived, the teller wouldn’t be here, and their relatives would not be here, and their children and grandchildren would not, and would never be here.   Indeed, I am here because of incidents a hundred years ago in Adana, a city in the far southeastern corner of Turkey. These circumstances,  including the intervention of a brave American teacher, allowed Haroutune and Haigouhi Kalpakian to survive the genocide. A few years later they emigrated to Los Angeles in 1923 with their two little daughters, Angagh and Pakradouhi, as well as Haigouhi’s younger brother.  They rode the train from New York to  Los Angeles where they were met by Haigouhi’s older brother and sister who had emigrated years before, and sponsored them.

Pakradouhi Kalpakian was a toddler in October 1923. Now, nearly one hundred years later, Peggy Kalpakian (her name change is official on her citizenship papers)  has written A CENTENNIAL MEMOIR. Of all Peggy’s immediate family (parents, three sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins) she is the only one still alive. The solemn burden, the responsibility  of having outlived everyone impelled her to pick up the pen in 2017 when she was 95 years old. She set out to commit these stories to the page in honor of those who were gone, and to preserve their stories and photos for those who are yet to come.

centennial memoir

Book Cover

Her slender, 118 page book  honors her parents, their journey, their struggles in America,  their becoming proud American citizens in 1931.  It begins with “The Old Country,” briefly describing their lives as Armenians living in Turkey, and their marriage in October 1917. Chapter 2 recounts “The Journey,” and chapter 3, “The New Country” about their lives in Los Angeles. Peggy had thought her book would stop around 1941 when Harry and Helen Kalpakian bought the house at 8645 West Olympic Boulevard. (They would live the rest of their lives there, my grandfather dying in 1963.)  But, as often happens for a writer, new ideas came to her. New stories grew out of the old ones. She had new ambitions to broaden the book beyond her own immediate family to include the lives of her aunts and uncles. The memoir bloomed into some nine chapters, plus a glossary of Armenian terms, sections on Armenian names, on family recipes, farewells, Hojah stories (folk tales that my grandfather loved to tell).  The book also grew larger in scope and concept because while she was writing, we were able to reconnect with Kalpakians living in Europe.

All of the Kalpakians left Turkey after World War I, all of them into the diaspora, the US, Jerusalem, Lebanon, and Romania.  My grandfather never saw any of them again. His youngest brother, Nishan traveling on a French passport, went to Romania. There Nishan married and had two children, and made a life. In 1938, on the eve of World War II, because he was not a Romanian citizen, Nishan and his family, were ordered to leave.  They moved to France where they struggled during the Nazi Occupation when Nishan was conscripted. He died in 1970 in Marseilles.

Citizenship Papers

Citizenship Papers!

Thanks to the internet (and  the genealogical enthusiasms of Jenk Stephenson, husband of my cousin Patty) we reconnected with Nishan’s daughter, 85 year old Arminé Kaloustian—my mother’s only remaining first cousin. Arminé lives near Lyon, France, and one of her daughters, Astrid,  has excellent English so we could email back and forth, exchanging stories and pictures.   Summer 2018  we actually reunited when Astrid, her husband and daughter visited Southern California. Nearly one hundred years after the brothers Haroutune and Nishan had been torn apart, their descendants met.  Though my mom could not be with us—she is too old to travel—this  story too went into her book.

CENTENNIAL MEMOIR is personal, heartfelt and heart-warming. Peggy tells the family’s apocryphal tales of harrowing escapes, unthinkably fortunate coincidences in the old country.  But she also tells of a charmed childhood in 1920’s Los Angeles, school days during the Depression,  her parents’ careful frugality and emphasis on education.  The Kalpakians assimilated swiftly, eagerly, shed their old country selves without hesitation, or a backward glance. These two photos  of my grandmother document that eagerness to be American. The one, 1924, the year after they came, the other 1926, a mere two years later.  Short hair, short skirt, silk stockings, high heels. I would never describe my grandmother as a flapper, but she is certainly stylish. They became American citizens, Harry and Helen Kalpakian in 1931.

Grandma 1924

Haroutune Kalpakian spoke Turkish, Armenian, a little Arabic and some French, but  no English when he arrived in Los Angeles. In just a few years he went from working in a kewpie doll factory to owning a series of small grocery stores; his wife worked by his side; the daughters stocked the shelves and looked after one another. Thus, it was  altogether fitting that Peggy launched CENTENNIAL MEMOIR with a party at a small middle-eastern grocery and café,  Mediterranean Specialties, a favorite place of ours because the scents remind us of my grandfather’s stores.

Grandma 1926

Entering Mediterranean  Specialties that afternoon, my mom shed tears of happiness.“I never thought I would live to see this day!” she cried, arms open wide, face alight with joy.   She signed books, drank wine, nibbled on middle-eastern delights, and accepted the applause and recognition her hard work deserved.

Peggy with the galleys of her new book.

That day was one of the happiest of Peggy Kalpakian Johnson’s whole life, all 97 years.

Peggy Kalpakian Johnson is at work on a new memoir about the postwar years. Stay tuned.

Kalpakians’ new car, LA 1926: three little girls in the rumble seat

12 Comments

  1. Rosemary (Roe) Grave

    Well done to your mother (whom I did meet) for committing this memoir to print before it is lost for ever. I’ve just started watching the DVD of “The Promise” which someone gave me last birthday and I look forward to the rest as I know nothing of that part of history. My own story is of an uncle of my paternal grandmother who rose from being a humble apprentice to an Alderman in Guildford, Surrey, and who penned a tribute to Queen Victoria when she died. He wrote an autobiographical book (with poems) which was published for private circulation only. A number of years ago I tried to interest radio in the UK in 5 x 15′ extracts of the best bits but they weren’t looking for that kind of material at the time. I hope to create a website and put them up there when I have time – better not leave it till I’m 95 in case I don’t make it. I’m not even sure where the original book is – I may have lent it to another relative but may find it when I continue my turning out. If I do find it I will leave it to the Surrey local history society when I die.

    Reply
  2. Laura Rink

    Wonderful blog and great pictures. Please bring books to the September Happy Hour—I’d like four.

    Reply
  3. Jim Quinby

    This seems like a fascinating book, Laura! She is why you used to be called Peggy! I never knew. Has this memoir been published? I would dearly love to read it.

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  4. Linda Lambert

    I have been reading CENTENNIAL MEMOIR every night before I go to bed, reading it slowly, aware of Peggy (Pakradouhi) Kalpakian’s joy and gratitude threaded through each chapter, even when telling the story of the 10-year-old boy Haigaz, told to run away by his dying father. Haigaz wandered the desert, had a dagger thrown at him, worked for the Germans building a railway because he could speak both Turkish and Kurdish, and eventually picked up by British soldiers. He was emaciated, lying under a tree. He was taken to a Red Cross Orphanage and listed on an Unclaimed Orphan List in the newspaper, eventually reunited with his parents. Horrific events occurred during the Armenian genocide. I cherish this book for its family history, told with warmth.

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  5. Patty Stephenson

    Thank you to Aunt Peggy for writing this wonderful book! And thank you yo Laura, her son, Bear McCresry and the family who helped to see this book come out! My family has often asked me to write stories of my youth but I never seem to have or make the time. What a powerful example Peggy has shown us all.

    Reply
  6. Marcia Henry

    Congratulations to Peggy and you, Laura, for the support and encouragement I am sure you offered your talented Mom. Your blog post doesn’t make it clear if the book is for sale. The closest I could find ( in WorldCat) was a chapter by
    “Peggy Kalpakian Johnson” in a book entitled “Memory into memoir”
    Adair, N., Brosten, D., Canyon, N., Chase-Foster, S., Clarke, B., Doerper, V., Dwyer, S., … Red Wheelbarrow Writers. (2016). Memory into memoir: An anthology.
    and also identified in the Bellingham Public Library.

    https://bellingham.bibliocommons.com/item/show/239763150

    Your community outreach and achievements in helping to preserve memories are quite admirable.

    Reply
  7. Joan M Lovitt

    What a fabulous story!! Congratulations, Peggy, on your book. And I know just how proud Laura is of you! I’ve only known the two of you since 1962. :) Thank you, Laura, for the information.
    Love,
    Joan

    Reply
  8. Camo

    So wonderful! Congratulations to her.

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  9. Dawn Quyle Landau

    Great post, Laura! Your mother’s story is infinitely interesting and inspiring. I couldn’t make the release party and forgot to have Claudia buy a copy. Where can we get this book?

    Reply
  10. Cheryl McCarthy

    Loved Centennial. Awaiting the next book. I enjoyed this post so much, with my favorite part being the photo of your mother’s smile. It must’ve lit up the restaurant.

    Reply
  11. Linda Morrow

    Centennial Memoir is a treasure. I was drawn into this amazing story. It is a wonderful tribute to one family who came to America and prospered through hard work and grit. Peggy Johnson’s voice rang true throughout.

    Reply

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laura kalpakian
Fair Augusto & Other Stories

Fair Augusto has been reprinted by Paint Creek Press and is available on June 20th 2023.

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