How many times have you thought of people older than you whom you have crossed paths with but who may not have fully appreciated their perspective at the time? You might have had great respect for them, but you just couldn’t grasp their depth until you were in their shoes. God has an answer for this void. This is called the wisdom of aging. I would like to convey such an experience in this journey that we call our Armenian identity in the Diaspora. My father Carnig was an active and respected member of the community. Besides professional relationships, his friendships were in the Armenian community. He was my mentor and I followed in his footsteps of trust in the Armenian world. When I began to find my way in my late teens and twenties, I became the beneficiary of the wisdom of many of his peers. One such encounter was with an iconic leader of the Providence community named Charles “Chick” Perethian. Everyone knew Chick, and he knew everyone. Chick was gifted with the type of personality that attracted friendships and trust. He had a network in the Armenian community that was unprecedented.
Our dear friend was the son of genocide survivors and grew up in the community of Pawtucket. He was a veteran parishioner of Sts. Church of Vartanantz in Providence. His dear wife Angel was the longtime administrator of the parish office, mostly during the ministry of the iconic Der Mesrob Tashjian. I loved listening to Chick talk about her days at the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), community challenges, and especially her love of youth. At an Olympic dance or community event, our gang would sit together, and Chick would invariably stop by our table first and bark her proverbial, “How are you, AYFers?” He was warm, sincere and full of wisdom. I spent time talking with him at proms, only pausing for our traditional “brethren” haha Dance. Chick was a hard-working family man with the values of the greatest generation, who made his living selling leather goods. He traveled throughout New England calling shoe houses and serving accounts with leather goods. Every month, on the same day, Chick was in the Springfield area and had dinner at my parents’ house. The day of her visit was also my mother’s bowling league night, so she would cook dinner, stay for about half an hour, and head out to the bowling alley. My father, Chick and I enjoy dinner together and engage in intriguing Armenian political discussions late into the evening. I would marvel at the depth of knowledge these two men had and the brotherly respect they had for each other. Chick always asked the right questions and took a genuine interest in my thoughts and the work of AYF at that time. He was a great sounding board for new ideas, and it gave me great comfort to know that these two patriots of the previous generation had our backs. These evenings together created a special relationship and made our social gatherings even more impactful. Predictably, around 9 p.m., Chick would say he had to hit the road to attend the parish board meeting in Providence. When I told him it was late, he laughed and answered me: “The important questions are always at the end of the meeting. With this, he would offer a wave of farewell from his starting vehicle until the following month.
Their imprint on Armenian society is permanent.
During my youth, absorbing the knowledge of people like Chick Perethian was always of paramount importance. Through our friendship, I began to understand the foundation of our community that we inherited. He was a generation older, but my comfort level with him made him a cooler uncle. He represented a living example of the faith and heritage values we received. He was a proud American and lived his life to advance our Armenian interests. They were representative of those who came before us and explained in detail how the AYF developed from the 1930s to the 1970s. They were men and women whose parents were genocide survivors, were born during the Great Depression and literally set out to save the world from oppression at an age comparable to mine. They raised families and built many of the institutions we enjoy today. Their imprint on Armenian society is permanent. Of course, many have done this task for our generation, but Chick was our man and was always available to share his wisdom with us. Even though we think we have a full understanding of the interpersonal dynamics between our generations, it is only when we have played this role ourselves that we have gained a true appreciation. It’s the value of experience—memories and lasting respect.
Many years ago, my father and mother explained to me that I would not understand their joy as grandparents until, God willing, we were blessed with this gift. Now that we are grandparents, I really understand what my parents told me 30 years ago. This illustrates the importance of establishing relationships with the older generation early, because without this initial relationship, further learning will not take place. This would be defined as a tragic missed opportunity. I am grateful that my parents, in keeping with traditional Armenian family values, instilled in my sisters and me a deep respect for our elder generation. When our grandparents or other people of their generation visited our house, it was clear that we would show them respect and attention before apologizing for acting like children with our cousins, otherwise there would be a price to pay. This was never a problem as we loved the attention from our elders. I cry a little when I see young people separated from elders because of geography or family behavior. Mutual benefits for each generation are essential to realizing our potential.
It was this value established in my youth that created the opportunity to learn when my paths crossed with Chick Perethian. Although I loved the man very much, I still did not, looking back, have a full understanding of what drove his passion. We just enjoyed it. We understood the part that showed a sincere interest in our needs as AYF members of that day and a common interest in engaging in Hai Tahd’s affairs. What I didn’t understand at the time was the “continuation of the story” that governed his joy. Chick lived her youth watching us carry on the legacy of AYF. Intellectually, in my twenties, I may have had a superficial understanding, but full internalization did not occur until the generational transition of roles. We gave him the opportunity to continue his worth by receiving his wisdom. It was heartening for him to see the work that was so much a part of his identity continued by those of the next generation. It was further confirmation that his path had been the right one with the advocacy of a new generation. It brought an inner peace that we will only be able to appreciate later in life. It is a latent gift that binds generations to our common mission. I developed an even greater appreciation for the man and his peers so many years later. I’ve had similar feelings about our current youth for the past few years. Every time I or someone of my generation is asked a question about our times or contemporary issues, it creates an instant bond that rejects generations and makes us all just sons and daughters of the Armenian nation. It is a transformation that strengthens our community.
I taught Sunday school for many years at the high school level. These former students are now adults and my peers as we share responsibility for our faith and our heritage. Life has a way of providing us with these new possibilities that are created from changing relationships. Students become peers and mentors become brothers and sisters with a common goal. These micro-relationships and the resulting depth of understanding are the essence of who we are as a community. Once the branches are set at Junior Seminary, the Olympics, or Camp Haiastan, they support our growth for a lifetime, as we can confirm by continued joy in unpredictable ways. All of this is a verification that our communities, our relationships and our participation are worthy of our investments. They pay bountiful returns and are able to maintain a sense of purpose. In the end, if our intention on this earth isn’t to give to something greater, then what’s the point? Hidden in the seemingly endless capacity of our hearts, we protect the memory of those who have been part of our journey like Unger Perethian. We are all better off because of these people. If you are young, identify these relationships and make the most of this opportunity. If you are older, please understand the importance of passing on your experience and knowledge. We have all been called upon to contribute to the continuity of our civilization. For this sacred responsibility, we must do our best to prepare for the task. Embrace knowledge. Protect the values of those who guided you. Take the time to inspire your children and appreciate those who came before you.