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Robin Abcarian

Her Only Extravagance Was Her Love of Family

May 07, 1997|Robin Abcarian | Robin Abcarian co-hosts a morning talk show on radio station KTZN-AM (710). Her column appears on Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is

My indomitable grandmother, Annie Abcarian, died last week. She was 92 years old, and in death, as in life, she surprised. I'd expected something awful at the end--stench, rot, ugliness. But on her deathbed, she was sweet-smelling, white-haired and lovely. She looked like a tiny, toothless angel. Strokes had stolen her tongue, but when I kissed her forehead, she smiled.

"I love you Grandma. Just let go."

"Pretty eyes," she said.

She was human glue, my grandma was, keeping her three sons and nine grandchildren as close as she could, reminding us over and over that family matters most of all. A provincial view, maybe, but the legacy I treasure most.


My grandma was small and stocky and amply endowed, with hair a tad too blue on occasion, a sense of humor about her dentures, and a near complete lack of interest in fashion. If it wasn't polyester--that is, if you couldn't put it through the wringer and dry it under the relentless Fresno sun--she wasn't interested. She wore simple A-line shifts, even weeded her tomatoes and waxy peppers in them. She would snazz up her wardrobe with hand-crocheted vests. By the end of her life, nearly everything she owned was covered by something she had crocheted: beds, couches, tables, armrests, rolls of toilet paper. She never did crochet the bikini I'd requested. Probably just as well.

She was thrifty, too, absurdly so. She saved a chewed-up half stick of Doublemint on the bed stand in a tiny plastic box, her "gum garage." The pace at which my siblings and I went through paper towels, the fact that we stood in front of an open refrigerator door for more than 5 seconds, gave her fits.

When she moved from Fresno to the Armenian retirement home in Los Angeles a decade ago, we discovered stockpiles of toilet paper in her closets--a lifetime supply, bought by the bushel on sale. You would expect this, I suppose, from an immigrant who grew up poor, who always worked, who never allowed herself to be pampered, spoiled or seduced by the acquisitive ethic of her adopted country.

And yet, she was strangely commemorative about the things she owned. Each chair, each couch, each TV set had, in some secret place, a piece of masking tape with the date of purchase and price noted in ink. Toward the end, she'd add the name of one of her heirs. She'd already decided who'd get what.

She died, just as my father had predicted, on the last day of April, getting her full month's rent worth from the nursing home.


My grandmother was part of the diaspora, coming here from Armenia (Turkey, actually, but she'd kill me if I said so) early in the century as a young child. She missed the horrors of the genocide, but she was surrounded by people who had not, including my grandfather, and like them never spoke of what she knew or had heard. For many Armenians, the wounds were too ghastly, too close to the bone to risk reopening with talk.

She keenly felt any loss suffered by her family. You could tell by how she looked. But out loud, her fatalism kicked in. "That's OK," she'd say of divorce, miscarriage, car accidents, rejection slips. "Why dwell on it?"

It was a family trait: "Well," said 90-year-old Great-Aunt Martha at her sister's funeral, "it can't be helped."

Fatalism implies an acceptance of one's preordained place in the universe. For my grandmother, an arranged marriage, children, the life of a housewife. It wasn't enough. To my grandfather's horror, she insisted on going to work after the farm failed. She spent years on an assembly line, on her feet, packing dried figs for pennies and a tiny pension. When my grandfather died, at 58, my grandmother was only 47. She became self-sufficient, leaning on no one, never remarrying. And she bloomed into an iron-willed matriarch.

At 77, she insisted on driving cross-country with me, from California to Florida. All the way, she barked orders and lifted the tips I'd left for waitresses if she felt I'd been too generous.

"Men are animals," she told us gravely when we were in high school. By college, though, she took me aside. "Don't get married right away. Live together first. Just in case."

After I married, she would sit at my dining room table, rolling grape leaves for sarma, impressed by my non-Armenian husband, who slyly explained he'd acquired his rolling skills with a different sort of leaf.

"That's OK," she'd say.

"Hey Grandma," we'd tease. "How do you say 'far out' in Armenian?"

The love she gave was not always appreciated. She could be bossy and intrusive. But in the end, it came back to her. During the last days, my father and his brother kept a vigil at her bedside, holding her hands, stroking her forehead, telling her she was loved. I have never witnessed such tenderness by grown men.

We buried her Saturday in Fresno next to my grandfather, Mike. He'd been saving the space since 1952. It was in the poor people's part of cemetery, right next to the road. Traffic was so loud at times we couldn't hear the priest.

But what a deal! My grandma paid $300 for the double plot in 1952. Today's price: $1,200.

Her journey through life was a modest one, lacking grandeur and sophistication. She had no great expectations, just a great passion for her family. That may not seem like much of a world to some, but for my grandmother, it was the universe.

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