How It All Began:
Over the last few months, I have been asked by friends, family and acquaintances how I came to write “The Gathering Place” and why I chose to write it as a collection of stories. There are two significant moments years apart that I can remember which motivated me.
After I graduated in engineering, it was the era of the manned mission to the Moon. I had an opportunity to work on several manned space projects in California, where the space industry was very active in the 1970’s. My mother and father, George and Nadine had a restaurant in Bellflower California and were preparing to retire. After the Space Shuttle was launched and the manned moon landings were complete, the aerospace industry in California was allowed to diminish. So I decided to move to Seattle to work for an aerospace company that specialized in building small rocket engines that controlled deep space satellites used for robotic exploration and communication. After my father retired, he moved with Nadine and his daughter and granddaughter to Washington, bought a home in Kirkland and we all visited regularly with the family.
Almost immediately the family began to notice that George had become more and more remote after retirement. His whole life had been consumed by his work. Since his teen years, he had been either working for others or running a business. He began to have mood swings. He spent hours staring out the kitchen window of his home at the apple trees growing in his yard. Then he would suddenly burst into a rage over something he saw on television or some unrelated event. Everything seemed to upset him. Even the grandchildren would ask, “Why is Pabik always so sad?” Today he might be diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder.
Nadine showed no signs of depression and even did volunteer work at the local hospital. She seemed always happy and optimistic. She took great joy in her grandchildren.
Despite the bouts of depression, George would become quite lively at the dinner table where he and his stories about China were the center of attention. When he rose to tell one of his stories, he would tolerate no interruptions.
One of the significant events that shaped “The Gathering Place” occurred at a Christmas party at our home. Nadine was singing Christmas carols with the grandchildren and the table was set for dinner. George was sitting in the living room which could be viewed from the dining room. He was again focused on the garden out the window and deep in thought.
My mother interrupted her time with the children and came to me with a small gift wrapped package.
“You need to open this now”, she said. “I made this for you special.”
At first I complained that we were opening gifts after dinner and the kids would get upset.
“No, no – this is just for you. You open it now,” She insisted.
I took the Christmas gift and tore off the wrapping. The gift was two small framed pictures. The first was a formal family portrait and the other was a candid photograph of a group of people in a café setting.
I looked at the family portrait and recognized that it was taken many years ago, perhaps sometime in the 1920’s. There were five subjects. Seated in the center was an older gray haired man with a mustache and goatee in formal dress, looking very serious. He had dark eyes and white hair – bald on top. Also seated in front was a matron dark haired with delicate features and sad eyes. She looked very small. Behind the matron was standing a young teenager in a suit. He was slender with dark wavy hair and the beginnings of a mustache. Behind the seated man was a young girl in her early teens with a bow in her dark hair and her hands affectionately on the old man’s shoulder and arm. In the front between the matron and the old man was a very young boy – about 8 years or so in what looked like a school uniform.
I glanced at my mother and back to the portrait and said, “I don’t think I know these people, Mom.” She smiled and didn’t say anything. So I looked at the picture again.
“Wait a minute. Is this my uncle, Varak?” I asked pointing to the tall teenager. I had met him in Chicago when he first immigrated to America and could see some features of the man I met in the boy in the picture.
My mother nodded.
“So this must be my grandmother when she was younger,” I pointed to the matron in the portrait.
“Yes, Nadine said, that is your grandfather and grandmother. He died many years ago. The girl is your Aunt Varva who you never met, and that is your Uncle Varak.”
“And who is the young boy,” I asked as I stared at the picture. My mother did not respond and I glanced up at her.
“That is your father when he was a boy,” she answered.
The second photograph, which unfortunately I have subsequently lost, was a candid group photo of people at a party circa 1941. The only two people I recognized in the group were my father and mother in their youth just before they married. I was told that the photograph was taken at the Armenian Social Club in Shanghai.
I realized then that my father had not spoken of his family or how they had migrated across all of Asia and settled in the Orient. I knew my mother’s family well, and had met the extended family over the years. But there was a deep tragedy associated with my father’s family that he did not want to share. I became determined then to interview him and get as much information as possible.
I finally had an opportunity to audio tape many of the stories my father had told to family and friends about his life in Asia. It helped to form a deep bond between us. We became good friends and I came to realize that he was one of the most interesting people that I had ever met. After both parents died in 1991, I decided to transcribe the tapes and began the long process of doing research and corroboration.
I had interviewed a number of people who experienced the same migration across Asia. Many of the stories that came from those interviews seem to center on this place in Old Shanghai, the Armenian Social Club. Interviews with people who had visited the club added details to the stories, corroborated many of the events, or provided additional insight on the immigrant experience in the Orient between the two World Wars, a subject that has had little attention in modern history.
These are a description of cultural heritage and personal history about a migration in the Orient made by some extraordinary, reliant people. The stories may help to personalize and stimulate interest in the most turbulent period in recent history.