Burlington Free Press
Every family is interesting: Just ask
February 27, 2005
By Chris Bohjalian
My uncle died of lung cancer in December, and at his memorial service in
Florida last month, I learned two incredibly cool facts about him that I
wish I had known when he was alive.
Cool Fact No. 1: When he was in the Army in the Korean War, he was one of
the soldiers who escorted Marilyn Monroe through Korea on her USO tour there
Cool Fact No. 2: In the late 1970s, he owned a small chain of yogurt stands
in New York City called “Yeah, Yogurt!” and his Times Square store was
frequented almost entirely by young people watching their weight, which in
Times Square in the late 1970s meant mostly prostitutes. There were,
according to his children — my cousins — some young actors who frequented
the little store, too. But mostly it was prostitutes.
I also learned the considerably less cool fact that he liked Judy Garland.
This is not the first time that I’ve been surprised by minutiae from
someone’s life at a funeral. I even learned things about my own mother at
hers. But in the myriad discussions I had with my uncle over the four
decades that we knew each other, we never once talked about his experiences
in either Korea or Times Square.
Granted, in some of those years I was in diapers and so I probably wasn’t a
And in all fairness I did know the basic facts that Uncle Fred had been a
soldier in the Korean War and that he had owned a couple of health food
stores when I was in high school. But when we spoke — and we spoke a lot
because he was one of those rare and wonderful people who actually liked
people half his age — we never spoke about these tidbits from his life and
so I didn’t know the details. Actually, because he was so generous of spirit
and interested in other people, we never seemed to speak about him at all.
When we talked, we were likely to discuss my wife and my daughter, his wife
and children and grandchildren, and football.
Football is, of course, the great life preserver to which all men cling in
times of conversational awkwardness. I don’t honestly know what women do
when there is an uncomfortable pause in a conversation, but men invariably
resort to football. When Uncle Fred was dying this autumn, we never talked
about his imminent mortality or the excruciating pain he was in, but we
talked a lot about the Giants and the Dolphins, which, given their seasons,
at least put us in an appropriately somber frame of mind.
You would think that by the time my uncle died I would have learned my
lesson and made the effort to ask him to tell me about his life. After all,
in the last quarter century I managed not to ask my two Armenian
grandparents a single thing about their lives in Turkey or Armenia or Paris
in the years surrounding the First World War. This was no small
accomplishment, since when I was a child their house always looked like the
Istanbul wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Likewise, I never asked my mother a single question about her sister who had
died of spinal meningitis when the two siblings were in elementary school.
And yet as a novelist and journalist, I ask these sorts of questions of
people who are strangers all the time.
The truth is that too few of us take the time to access these remarkable
sources of history all around us. We might know, for instance, that ol’
Auntie Em liked ice fishing and smelt, but somehow we missed the detail that
she was part of a civil rights march in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
It’s already the end of February, and so I’m a little behind with my New
Year’s resolutions. But here’s one I’ll make before it’s really too late:
This year I’m finally going to sit down with my father and my aunt and ask
them to tell me about their lives.
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress