The stories masked pain I never guessed at.

Jul 14, 2023

One hundred years ago, 1923, the Kalpakians left Constantinople, bound for America. Their immigration was sponsored by members of my grandmother’s family, people who had emigrated years before and had established themselves in Southern California. In the Kalpakians headlong, single-minded haste to become Americans, they jettisoned their old country past and their struggles as new immigrants, consigned all that to oblivion save for three particular anecdotes. These three stories are funny and charming. But they masked what must have been an ocean of anguish, of pain I never guessed at until—among my earliest endeavors as a writer—I tried to take those three anecdotes and render them into shapely fiction. From one of them, the Dumbbell Story, I created “The Land of Lucky Strike,” first published in Fair Augusto.

Lucky Strike? Chesterfield? Juicy Fruit?

Once arrived in Southern California, Harry Kalpakian had to get a job and swiftly. However, he spoke no English. In the old country Turkish was the only language allowed on the street or for commerce. Armenian would have been his home-language, the language of intimacy. He had as well a smattering of Arabic, and Greek. (Keep in mind, none of these uses the English alphabet.) My grandmother, on the other hand, learned English when she was educated in an American Protestant school in the city of Adana, Turkey. Helen’s schoolgirl English would have been useful in the immigration process, but it was no help now to Harry who had to support his family while she stayed at home with two little girls, my mother, Peggy, a toddler, Angagh, age four, and a third daughter born in January 1924.

The Dumbell Story

Sometime in 1924, Harry Kalpakian went to work for Helen’s older brother, Art Clark (his old country mouthful-of-a-name neatly Anglicized). Art owned a string of cigar stands near the Pickering Pleasure Pier. No doubt Helen coached her husband with Cigarette? Cigar? Candy? Thank you! Sufficient English, easily augmented with a smile, and hand gestures, pointing to the logos, Lucky Strike? Chesterfield? Juicy Fruit? The Dumbell Story is based on the following incident: A young flapper came by the cigar stand. She did not want cigarettes or candy; all she wanted was change for a dollar. Harry had no idea what she meant. Cigarette? Cigar? Candy? Thank you! was all he could repeatedly say, pointing to his various wares. This girl was disgusted, and before she sauntered off, she sniffed, “Dumbell.” Harry came home and asked Helen, “What means dumbbell?” But her proper schoolgirl English was not equal to slang. Finally Art had to tell them dumbbell meant stupid. Everyone had a good laugh over this. Indeed everyone had a good laugh over this for generations.

I tried to imaginatively enter into my grandfather’s life and mind

When I went to shape The Dumbbell Story into “The Land of Lucky Strike,” I tried to imaginatively enter into my grandfather’s life and mind. I asked questions. Big Picture questions: How would the pace, the light and noise, the sensations of 1920’s Southern California have affected him as a new arrival? Detail questions: How would he have navigated the commute to the beach? I set the story at Christmastime to make the new customs even more bewildering. The inner turmoil I imagined for my grandfather was that of a foreigner adjusting to American life, that is, face forward to the future.

I never asked myself what he might have lost from the past

On re-reading “The Land of Lucky Strike” for the new Paint Creek Press edition of Fair Augusto, I was suddenly struck by the questions I did not ask: what might Harry Kalpakian have lost from the past? Harry, unlike his wife, lost his language, his religion, and his family. Helen’s surviving family was together in Southern California. She had been brought up Protestant. She spoke English. When Angagh’s kindergarten teacher came to their home and told them their daughter was falling behind at school, husband and wife made a pact: at home they would only speak English, no Armenian, no Turkish. English alone. No doubt this stringent measure helped Harry to learn more swiftly, but he must surely have felt the loss of Armenian, the language traditionally spoken in all the homes he had ever known. Over time Harry’s English came to be good, but his speech always remained heavily inflected. Growing up, I never even wondered why my grandmother’s English was flawless and without accent, and his was not.

Harry’s family dispersed into the diaspora in 1921; he never saw any of them again.

Harry Kalpakian , c. 1950 Olympic Blvd.

My grandparents married in 1917 in Adana, Turkey. Harry’s people, merchants, and bankers, were not especially happy that he had wed a penniless orphan, however well educated she was. A formal portrait of the young couple standing on either side of Harry’s mother fairly bristles with the implication of Trouble to Come. And it did. Given Armenian tradition (and the perils of wartime and even being Armenian in a Turkish city in 1917) the bride and groom went to live with the groom’s family. Three generations, thirteen people lived under one roof. Armenian tradition also demanded that the bride does the bidding of the groom’s family, especially his womenfolk, that she becomes a kind of servant. My grandmother (educated by American Protestant teachers) didn’t much care for this arrangement. Bride and groom stayed there nine months and then moved to their own place. Their departure created an indelible rift. “They never forgave us,” my grandmother wrote in 1983 ub her terse “My Life.” Only in the last few years have I come to wonder if she also never forgave them.

Many journeys and much anguish lay ahead.

After the Great War the victorious English and French divided up the Middle East, a complex web of alliances and betrayals and land grabs that reverberate to this day. My grandparents were hastily forced out of Adana, east to Alexandrette, Syria where they lived for four months before taking a ship to Constantinople. They remained there less than two years before leaving for America. In 1921 the other Kalpakians were also forced out of Adana. Harry’s mother and father, one sister and two brothers got French passports which allowed them to go to Romania. Another sister, her husband and children, the husband’s mother and his unmarried sister went to Haifa in Palestine, and later to Jerusalem. Many journeys and much anguish lay ahead. Time and again history uprooted these Kalpakians, and split these families further. Shortly before World War II, the Romanians revoked French passports and many of these Romanian Kalpakians were evicted; they went to France where they lived through the Nazi Occupation.

Imagine the dizzying array of passport and visa stamps

Those Kalpakians who went to Palestine endured the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Ousted from post-World War II Jerusalem, they moved to Syria, splitting again, some to Lebanon, some of them eventually on to Canada and France. In the 1980’s my grandfather’s nephew brought his family to America. One can only imagine the dizzying array of passport and visa stamps, decades of official documents signed by unsympathetic bureaucrats. No such upheavals awaited Harry and Helen Kalpakian. On arrival in Venice, California, they had an instant home. They moved into the gardener’s cottage on the grounds of 905 Harding. This fine ten room house was owned by Helen’s sister and brother-in-law, John Boyd (Anglicized name) who had sponsored their immigration, They had emigrated at least fifteen years earlier and John Boyd was now successful pharmacist. The Boyds had two children. Helen’s older brother, Art Clark, also lived there until his marriage in 1926, (That gala wedding reception is one of my mother’s earliest memories). Helen also had a beloved cousin and her family living nearby. How did Harry fit in with these people? No anecdotal evidence remains, save that in 1927, Harry quarreled bitterly with John Boyd. The Kalpakians abruptly moved out of the gardener’s cottage and into an unfurnished rental where they used overturned orange crates for beds for the little girls. Harry never again spoke to John Boyd, nor went to 905 Harding Avenue. Helen continued to see her sister, though that relationship was no doubt strained by this profound quarrel.

Harry’s family vanished altogether, beyond even the pale of inquiry.

My grandfather became a grocer, small mom-and pop stores; in 1931 they bought a house. In 1940 they moved to a large duplex on Olympic Boulevard, and lived on the upper floor. This was the only house of theirs we, the grandchildren, knew. In it there was nothing of the old country, other than the rugs on the floor and the books in Armenian language on the bookshelves. There were mirrors in the front hall, the dining room, the bedrooms and bathrooms. No pictures save for a single framed California desert scene that hung in the livingroom. No family photographs whatever. No mention was ever made of Harry’s family, certainly not to us. It was as though they had vanished altogether, beyond even the pale of inquiry. And so they had. Not until 2016 did we, the grandchildren, reconnect with the cousins living in France.

For all his sophistication, he was still a dumbbell.

Harry Kalpakian (1887—1963) became an American citizen, but he remained Old Country in a way that my grandmother did not. He wore, no matter the weather, a coat and tie and long-sleeved white shirt, a hat when he went out. He was soft-spoken and there was about him a quiet formality. He told old country Hodja stories. My grandfather read books in Armenian, but he never used it to speak to his children. His religion was the entrenched rituals of the Armenian Apostolic church, but his daughters went to the nearby Protestant church; they married in Protestant churches and brought up Protestant children. His parents, his brothers, his sisters dispersed in 1921, and Harry never saw any of them again. “The Land of Lucky Strike,” only explores the central character’s sense of strangeness in a new land, where, for all his sophistication, his reading, his many languages, he was still a dumbbell. Revisiting my own work, I marvel at my limits of my imagination and the questions I never asked. “The Land of Lucky Strike” was broadcast by the BBC2 on Christmas Eve in 1982. A British friend taped it and sent me the recording. I sent it to my widowed grandmother. It was the only story of mine she ever liked. The Unruly Past: Memoirs [Paint Creek Press 2021] has a long chapter about the Kalpakians, and their relationship to their past.


  1. Alana Tutwiler

    Your family history is very intriguing and full of mystery. Great post!

  2. Katherine Thomerson

    I still have my autographed copy of Fair Augusto Laura! I loved reading this piece. I think I will pull off the shelf my Fair Augusto and read it again after all these years – autographed in March of 1993!

    • Patty Stephenson

      As you were preparing to write this post and we “chatted” on texts many memories came back to me. What a blessing that has been. Just now when I saw the “bookshelves of Armenian works” I had to search my memory for where they were – and came up with Grandpa’s office in the back of the house. Through you I have learned a lot more of the value of memoires and capturing our memories in written form – something that I was never good at. Thank you for giving us back stories that have been forgotten.

      • Laura Kalpakian

        Yes I had a longer paragraph about that little study, but I cut it cuz the post was already quite long. I loved that desk that fronted the window with its view of the garage! and the scrap of lawn!

  3. Brenda Wilbee

    It’s interesting how as time passes we ask new questions. I loved “What did he lose?” question. My own grandfather who immigrated when 11 from England, who had all the benefits of understanding the language in Canada, refused to speak of home. Refused. Lots of questions I never asked.

  4. Sky Hedman

    That’s quite a story, Laura. I, who has not migrated between continents and languages and families, am in awe of what your family members endured. Sky

  5. Richard Little

    Dear Laura, One of the great joys of our friendship is having in common early years in Santa Monica and environs, about which we had pretty much nothing in common. My sister and I are there because my folks lived there and attended “Samohi” and after the war attended USC – Dad a Cal grad, son of a former Speaker of the California Legislature, mom a music major at UCLA, grandparents ex-Midwesterners. All pretty “American” and privileged (though not rich, I hasten to add). So, to add to your questions you never got around to asking, I like to fantasize that one warm Southern California day, Dad would have pulled over and gone into a nonsdescript Venice grocery store, and bought soda pops from a nice Armenian fellow on our way to the beach. Coulda happened, no?

    • Laura Kalpakian

      My grandfather owned (in succession, not allot once) three different little mom and pop stores. In my mom’s memoir, I think she has the address or at least the locations. The last one, which is the one I remember, was in Highland park. But yes, that could have been! also, my grandmother worked for the Boyd’s in one of their Santa Monica drug stores in the late 20’s. So that too could have been, our familial paths overlapping. There’s a picture i my om’s memoir of my grandmother and my aunt, sort age 4 in front of the drugstore.

  6. linda morrow

    Your post left me thinking about my mother, her journey from Cuba to the United States and her refusal to share with me much about her life in Cuba. So many asked, but unanswered questions…so much lost.

  7. Jean Waight

    Laura, this goes deep into the experience of immigration , deeper than “Finding Your Roots” can. Important work!

  8. Shirley van Veen

    Loved, loved reading about your family! What courage they had to step out into the unknown. How difficult to reinvent yourself and leave so much of the old behind. Thank you for sharing your story!


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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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