~~When Araxi Astardjian Oshagan, my maternal grandmother, announced in that gentle but patrician voice of hers, that she was going to start learning English, it seemed an improbable project. Our grandmother, the quintessential example of a woman who was growing very old with elegance and style, was planning to put herself out into the cruel Anglo world, willingly flounder and stumble on pronunciation and grammar rules, be at the mercy of wicked brats like myself and my brother for assistance and support. In all this, we suspected, she would perhaps end up losing some of the dignity which she wore so naturally, with such ease.
Araxi Oshagan had class. Throwing herself into the claws of English, becoming–willingly, mind you–a student again seemed strange to us. True, she was a woman of great inquisitiveness; she read a lot in Armenian and French; she wrote beautiful, loving letters to all her children and grandchildren; she embroidered and played cards; she did math exercises and puzzles. But this was different, this was like starting from scratch, this was radical–a language she knew next to nothing about save the radio broadcasts of the BBC. “I want to understand the news in English,” she answered when we asked her why she wanted to learn English.
Araxi was 82 years old when she began her venture–complete with the textbooks, the notebook in which she wrote her exercises, her beautiful hazel eyes strained, her handwriting irresolute, her spirit relentless. And when she had to practice speaking, she would corner one of us, and ask in Armenian, “How would you say …. in English?” I would volunteer an answer, and help her pronounce it correctly; my brother was more mischievous (and younger). He would answer her very fast, the English words tumbling out of his mouth with such speed that my poor grandmother would walk away, feigning exasperation. But my brother’s response was all in jest, and only a few minutes later, my grandmother would ask him something else again, and the same cycle would repeat itself. We would all laugh, and she would go to her textbook, murmuring the words to herself.
We may have had a jolly old time trying to help our grandmother learn English, but she was dead serious–but not for the reason she gave. The news in English was not the issue. What was at stake was her willfulness, her tenacity in tackling something completely new to her, something which would tax her patience as well as her mental capacities, something that would be difficult for sure, but whose reward would be a re-awakened mind, or a mind absorbed in something specific, something focused.
Our grandmother did not get very far with her project. Her tenacity did not match that of her husband, Hagop Oshagan, the literary giant of Western Armenian prose, who had decided to learn enough English to be able to read Joyce. (Earlier, at the turn of the century, he had taught himself enough German to pass off as a German soldier.) This was in the early 1940s, in Jerusalem. He had succeeded in his efforts, and was in fact reading Ulysses when he died in Aleppo of a massive heart attack in 1948.
More than four decades separated their two projects. Her ambitions were more modest though the justification was similar. He wanted to read Joyce in English; she wanted to understand the language of the news. And despite all her assurances that she wanted to learn English for very utilitarian and immediate reasons, her scheme (and she had many secrets) all along was something entirely different.
She was fond of a saying that she had inherited from his husband, and repeated it so often that it is seared in the recesses of my consciousness: The mind is like a knife; the more you use it the sharper it becomes. It may not have been so, that a knife turned dull with use and needed the intervention of a knife-sharpener to make it shiny and smooth again. But the meaning was clear to her, especially as she aged: that aging was when we needed most to get behind difficult tasks; was when we needed to do things for the sheer pleasure of doing them; was when we had the golden opportunity to achieve mental alertness.
It is not nostalgia that drives me to bring the dead and their luminous example into my present sphere, where I too am caught up for reasons not entirely clear to me, in learning something which is daunting and recalcitrant, but also deeply pleasurable, deeply alive and vital. Some four decades and vastly different circumstances separate my project from hers, but like her, and him before her, I find myself in the grip of something new and exciting, something which is its own reward, something which softens all of the world’s pains and laces them with a kind of joy which I am at a loss to contain, to hold back. Like them, I am learning a new language. Though I am far removed from the regions which spawned their passions, there is a strange, illusive continuity, an ancestral line, if you will.
It anchors as much as it excites–this line which has no terrain, no center, no slogans save the unspoken imperative which has been handed down from generation to generation, almost in code, in secret threads which connect us to each other. We, who have been thrown asunder, dispersed, expelled; we who have chosen migrancy, exile, marginality; we, strangers everywhere, who carry a sack of words in many languages on our aching, curving backs. If the word for all this is legacy (and it’s a word I don’t like because of its overuse and abuse), then let it be so, legacy. I prefer secret threads, by turns colorful and brittle; by turns enduring and instructive.
Or sillage, a word I learned yesterday in French class: the line which a ship makes as it becomes smaller, departs into the horizon, whose English equivalent is something close to “in the wake of ” — the multiple meanings held in the tightness of my hand.~~