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Taking Disaster Down to Basics: Helping Grandma

January 19, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

The usual brown air hung over the Valley. Everything but the traffic seemed normal. Monday morning, as I drove north on the wide, empty San Diego Freeway, I had misgivings. Maybe I was making too big a deal of it. Maybe I didn't need to drive out to Mission Hills.

It wasn't until I was forced off the freeway at Devonshire, then headed north on Sepulveda, that the magnitude of destruction began to show itself. Masonry and glass, in piles all over the sidewalks. A cinder-block parking structure folded like a piece of paper. The metal frames of the windows in a new, four-story building twisted out of their squares, bent as easily as paper clips.

The sign on Holy Cross Hospital was dispiriting; it had collapsed into a V. Staffers stood at the end of the driveway next to gurneys, waiting for patients. My anxiety cranked up a few levels.

I was headed for a place on the hill just behind the hospital, a magnificent, peach-colored old folks' home. As I pulled up its steep driveway, I practically held my breath.

The complex looked as if it had come through the quake unscathed. Inside was another story.

In the big dining room, a curtain of water--burst pipes--fell steadily from the ceiling. Men with brooms and mops were doing their best to keep the flood at bay.

In the lobby, a sea of aged men and women sat in eerie silence. Nearly five hours after Mother Nature had viciously shaken them from their slumber, they sat, perhaps 70 of them, quiet, fatigued, confused.

I saw her as soon as I walked in.

Turquoise velour robe. Short white hair. Coke-bottle glasses.

My grandma, pushing 90.

She seemed a little disoriented when I reached down from behind her chair and wrapped my arms around her. Then she recognized my voice.

"Oh," she said, almost crying. "It's you!"

How could I have thought I was making too big a deal of it?


Miraculously, no one at Ararat Home was hurt. When the three-story building had stopped lurching, the residents filed slowly and calmly down the stairwells. They are, after all, Armenians, and Armenians are used to hardship. An earthquake was not going to devastate this group.

"Oh, I wasn't scared," Grandma said. "I was lying in bed and just watched my wall come toward me and go back. I thought, 'Oh good, they got good beams in there.' "

Down in the lobby, the old people sat, hungry and thirsty. Some asked for water, some asked for help to the toilets, a few were escorted by flashlight up the darkened stairwell to retrieve pills or eyeglasses. Mostly, though, they just waited.

It seemed as if there were no particular plan in motion. I couldn't even find Bob Shamlian, the home administrator.

But in truth, all sorts of people were at work, turning off gas and water mains, repairing lines that would allow the emergency generators to kick in, phoning relatives to come evacuate their loved ones.

And Shamlian, was, in fact, taking care of the most important thing under the circumstances: lunch. He walked in around 11:30 a.m., having bought out a bakery's entire supply of lamajoun --Armenian pizza. Shamlian was followed by Evieny Janbazian, a tall, handsome woman married to the man my grandma calls "the big shot"--the home's minister. Janbazian cheerfully announced that food would be served next door in the one-story (presumably safer) convalescent hospital.

You never saw old people move so fast.


My grandmother's second-floor room was a mess. Ransacked by the hand of God. Dressers and night stands flung over. Drawers splayed. Plaster lamps in pieces. Cracked walls, broken mirrors. And everywhere photos, jewelry, knickknacks, candy, crackers, shoes.

For Grandma, the last six years have been a time of paring down. She has contracted her life into what fits in the room she shares with a friend. Still, I was astonished by the mountains of her stuff unleashed by the quake.

I grabbed what I could for her: some clothes, some toiletries.

On our way to my father's house in Venice, I told her I was surprised by the mess.

She laughed and told me about the time her roommate had asked, "Why do you have so many things, Annie?"

"I have nine grandchildren," my grandmother replied (somewhat boastfully). "I keep all their pictures, and all their children's pictures. And when they send me cards, I like to keep them. I don't like to throw anything away too soon."

For her, this is the bare bones; she has parted with all that she's going to.

By Tuesday, my grandmother was already anxious to get back to Mission Hills, back to her things: "If I can get back," she said, "I want to get back there."

"Why?" I asked.

"Well, why not?"


When disaster hits, we act like people who have been in a car accident, patting themselves, asking: Is my arm where it's supposed to be? My leg?

The day of the quake, we were reaching for our kids, our parents, our friends. We needed to know that they were safe. More than that, we needed to connect, to share the moment. And when we know we are whole, we can upright the furniture, pick up the pieces and get on with the rest.

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