In Fresno, a 102-year-old woman gave $1 million to help Armenia, a war-torn homeland she has never seen. A lovely Column One by @DianaMarcum
Persimmons were drying in the kitchen and a bowl of cracked walnuts sat on the table on this November day. Clara Margossian, 102, wore her favorite scarf tied around her head, knotted beneath her chin. The one she saves for company.
In the house she had built on old fig orchard land 40 years ago, she asked her caretakers, Nunufar Khalatian and Margo Ellison, to fetch a box of the See’s candy kept on hand for all occasions. But then she noticed the women, both Armenian immigrants, checking their phones, trying to hide tears.
Six weeks earlier, as fighting escalated between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of antiquity and beauty in the Caucasus Mountains, Khalatian and Ellison had been too shocked to hide their emotions. They cried. They discussed how much money they were going to send to the Armenia Fund, a Los Angeles-based humanitarian relief organization. Khalatian sent $1,000. Ellison came up with $700. For both it was a sacrifice.
Margossian said she wanted to help too. No one in her family had ever been known for giving away money. But Margossian, the last of her clan and with no living relatives, told the church deacon in charge of her affairs to arrange a $1-million donation.
Quickly it spread throughout the diaspora that such a gift came to Armenia from a Fresno woman more than a century old — a daughter of the Armenian genocide of 1915.
She told him it was her Clara, the woman she worked for. She held up her tablet so he could speak to Margossian over video. He tearfully thanked her for helping a homeland she had never seen. He said that the money brought a special hope coming from a survivor of Armenia’s greatest tragedy.
Knarik Clara Margossian’s life spans the sweeps of history that define the Armenian experience. She was born in the shadow of the genocide and now, in old age, nightly watched YouTube updates of a war over lands her family fled.
Her mother was pregnant with Clara’s older brother when an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed and expelled by Ottoman Turk soldiers and police. Turkey continues to deny it was genocide.
Margossian’s older brother was born April 25, the day after the date recognized each year as the anniversary of the massacre. Her parents’ Turkish neighbors hid them. When the order went out that any Turkish families protecting Armenians would be killed, her parents began walking to Russia with a 3-day-old baby. Clara and her younger sister were born in Russia. One by one, their surviving relatives joined them.
The family of watchmakers prospered but remained cloistered and wary of outsiders. Neither Clara nor her siblings ever married. In the 1940s, like many Armenian families before them, they moved to Fresno, the first center of the Armenian diaspora in California. A family friend told them that if they set aside a little money each month for investing, they would be rich in their old age. Margossian still includes that man’s memory in her prayers.
The Armenian connection is written on the landscape of the Central Valley. The winter-gold grapevines on the outskirts of town, trays of raisins recently harvested, were first planted by Armenian settlers in the late 1800s. Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church is still the jewel of downtown, even now, flanked by a flashy car dealership. Across the street, Valley Lahvosh bakery makes Armenian cracker bread shaped like hearts.
Many of the city’s family names end in “i-a-n,” the ancient suffix meaning “son of”. It is the setting of “The Human Comedy” by native son William Saroyan. His novel of ordinary people on the home front during World War II is considered an American antiwar classic.
Fresno became a de facto home front to the 2020 Azerbaijani-Armenian war. At the Armenian school, the eyes of a mother dropping her children off were red and swollen from crying all night. Almost every day there was a “Pastries for Peace” or a kebab sale to raise money for Armenia. As in larger cities, people protested on street corners, fruitlessly demanding the United States intercede. In a country grappling with a momentous election, pandemic and civil unrest, their voices gained little traction.