This story is by Sara Sahagian and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Voices. So many different voices.
Selvi sat on the edge of her her bunk listening to the rise and fall of the voices and other sounds around her.
It all ebbed and flowed with the rise and fall of the ship as it worked its way into the Halifax harbour.
On this warm and windy August day in 1910, Selvi and her parents were among the vast number of immigrants making their way to North America. Besides her parents there were only a few other Armenians further along on their deck. Selvi didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand, beyond the basics with hand gestures, what anyone else was saying. It had been over three months since the seventeen year old had anyone her age to talk to.
“Ays e im bayoosages, (that’s my bag)”, she heard her mother say to her father, as they finished gathering their belongings.
It was exciting at first, “jamportel”, (travelling). The further they traveled though, the more she felt like her world was collapsing in on her. Shrinking with every mile.
Leaving their village on the shores of Lake Van with many others started out as an adventure. A group of families traveled together to Bartum, Georgia. For Selvi it was a shared experience with a few friends her own age. However, different sailing times and destinations meant the group shrunk to a handful on the trip to Rotterdam, Netherlands. When they boarded the ship in Rotterdam Selvi’s world became limited to Deck C. No way to turn back and no one she knew other than her “dzenoghk”, (her parents).
Selvi was eight years old when her “hayr”, (her father) had left for North America. She had been his little butterfly. There were distant, but fond, memories of visiting him as he worked in the family apricot orchard after she had finished her own chores. They would walk home together when he was finished and Selvi would bring him his towel as he washed up for dinner. He knew she loved the dried apricots and would always give her an extra handful when they were ready.
In the time her father was gone, the family in Armenia kept moving forward, grew up and moved on with their lives. Selvi’s father became a background story from her childhood. Then one day a letter came through the local missionary. Her father wanted them to meet him in Rotterdam. He had saved money to pay for Selvi and her mother to come to live with him in Canada and had bought a house. Unfortunately it had taken longer than originally planned. Her brothers had all grown and married some with families of their own – so they wouldn’t be coming with them.
When she saw her father again, in Rotterdam, he looked smaller than she remembered, sounded different and wore clothes she had only seen the missionaries wear. Her older brother and uncle had stepped in to raise her, watch over her for all those years. It was hard to reconnect with someone who had missed so much and now seemed so different.
Home, in her “kioogh”, (village), on the shore of Lake Van, had been full of family and friends. Multiple cousins and five older brothers meant Selvi was never alone. There was always someone to joke with, to walk with, to do chores with and eat with. Her youngest aunt was like a “kooyr”, (sister) to her. When her oldest “yeghpayr”, (brother), Artun, married, the family celebrated with a great wedding feast! Selvi worked with her mother, “medz mayr” (grandmother) and aunts cooking for days to prepare. The day of the wedding, family and friends came from villages all around the area.
“Barov yes!! (Dance with me),” her little cousins had squealed as they joined in with the adults in the family courtyard.
She would remember walking through the orchards with her cousins. Joking about who would be married next! She could see all their faces and hear all their voices.
This was the memory she held on to the most during this journey. In the dark nights on the ship, curled up , eyes closed tight thinking of everyone together celebrating, laughing and telling stories.
But the mornings would come, waking up on the narrow bunk on Deck C and reality. She was alone.
As the ship docked, Selvi and her parents lined up to await their turn to disembark. The line to immigration snaked its way down the wharf and through the doors of the processing center on Pier 21. More unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells flowed over her as she shuffled along with her parents. Her father held both her and her mother’s ID cards as well as his own Canadian passport. Others in line had the card pinned to jackets to make it easier for officials, due to the vast number of people and languages to wade through.
When it was their turn, Selvi’s father did all the talking. He had become fluent in English and could answer all the questions with ease. She had an idea of what was going on but didn’t understand the words anyone was saying. Time passed unmeasured as she moved along in her own little bubble.
She had no idea what time of day it was when she finally heard her father say, “Heroo che, hachort angioone (It’s not far, around the next corner)”.
She realised he was referring to the guesthouse they would be staying at.
That night, the first of her new life in Canada, Selvi slept in another narrow bunk, in another small room with her parents. She closed her eyes and went to sleep, maybe tomorrow will be better.
Selvi brought her hand up to shield the sun from her eyes. She gazed out from the front porch of her house on Darling Street in Brantford, Ontario Canada. Her children, four year old Anna and three year old Mardi, played in the front yard with her neighbour’s children.
Her mother called across the driveway from the house next door, “Entrik ays kisher? (Dinner tonight?)”
“Yes, mother,” Selvie replied in English.
Another neighbour, from across the street, stopped at the gate to say hello and drop off some vegetables from her garden. As Selvi turned to bring the vegetables in the house the kids started yelling excitedly.
Selvi’s husband, Pashag, walked up the sidewalk and in the front gate scooping both kids in an enormous embrace. He walked towards Selvi, holding the kids, and kissed her hello as the three of them jostled up the path, through the front door into the house. She could hear their voices talking in a mix of Armenian and English. Before she went inside to join them she took in the view of her yard, her street, her parents’ house and the houses of her neighbours and friends.
All these new voices around her had finally become “home”!