Monday, May 27, 2013


Under the Same Roof
(Our Paternal Grandparents’ House in Keurkune)

by Vahe H. Apelian

I spent most of my teenage summers in our paternal grandparents’ house with them and with my Uncle Joseph and his family as one extended family. In fact my brother Garo spent a year or two in his early childhood in Keurkune year around.

My paternal grandfather Stepan had become the natural inheritor of the house as he was the only survivor of his immediate family. The house is built with double layered stones. On the outside, the walls remained uncovered and each stone block remained visible. The inner surfaces of the outer walls and as well as the inner walls partitioning the rooms were covered with a special mix the villagers made to plaster the walls. It was a mix of minced wheat stalk and clay that put a heavy white to off-white plaster coat on the walls. In hindsight I realize now that the coat acted as an excellent insulator against cold and moisture. On one of the inner walls there was a cavity that probably was made by design by not placing a stone there. The cavity served as the treasury of the Keurkune’s church where my grandfather kept the meager Sunday offerings of nickels and dimes in a tin can.

The width of the outside walls is such that, as a kid, I used to sit in the window and gaze at the mountains. The windows had wooden panels for cover but no glass. The floor and the ceiling were made of wood. Wooden logs extended from wall to wall. On these wooden logs wood was nailed. Some, if not most, of the ceiling logs were blackened over time. It was also said that the blackening was also due to the attempted torching of the house. Turks, who had taken over the house after forcing the local Armenians out had attempted to torch the house when they vacated the region and fled as The World War I was ending with the defeat of Turkey that would lead to the dismemberment of the once powerful Ottoman Empire. Among the blackened wooden logs across the ceiling few silkworm cocoons had remained lodged. They were yellowed a bit but remained very visible against blackened logs. My grandparents had raised silk worms at one time.

The roof of the house was covered with special blue dirt the villagers called "kuyrock". There were few quarries around the vicinity of the village that yielded this bluish stone. These blue stones are light and easily crushed. They were overlaid on the roof and rolled over with a big round stone that used to be found on the roof of each house. During rain the roof would leak at times. The next day I would see my grandfather laying more blue dirt at the spots and go over them with the roller.

The house, much like the other houses had a special place for clay water jars. My grandfather filled the earthen jars with water he fetched from the spring. It was my treat to have him seated me on the saddle of our donkey on the way to spring. He fetched the water in four tin containers. Two tin cans were placed on each side of the saddle. After he filled the tin cans with water, he capped them with small gasli - laurel – tree branches with leaves on them. On our return I would trail the donkey with him. At home he poured water from a tin can into the two earthen jars we had at home. As I grew older I could tilt the jars myself and fill the brass cup we kept next to the jars. We all drank from the same brass cup. Water from the jar remained refreshingly cool to drink. I later learned that it is due to evaporation as the clay jars were porous and they would ‘sweat’ and evaporation kept the water surprisingly fresh and cool to drink, in a natural cooling process, during the hottest days of the summer.

Almost every room of the house had a fireplace. My grandmother and Aunt Asdghig prepared food on the fireplace in the room we used as the kitchen and in the dinning room. The fireplace in the other rooms was used for warmth during the cold days of the winter. At times my grandmother would cook in these room as well. Smoke coming from the chimney of a house meant life. Woo (վայ) to the house that had no smoke coming from its chimney. Hence comes the common Armenian expression we use to this day even though oven and chimneys have long gone into oblivion – մուխը Մարել (Moukh Marel) - extinguish one’s smoke - meaning something has happened. The expression is used passively, threateningly or sympathetically.

The house is two stories high and each floor was an almost exact replicate of the other with a center hall with doors opening into four rooms on each floor. However the two inner rooms of the first floor did not have doors that opened to the central hall and could only be accessed through its adjoining front room each of which had a door that opened to the central hall. For a while we used the lower right hand side room as the kitchen and the dining room. We sat on the floor around a floor table. A kerosene lamp illuminated the table during dinner. Its adjoining inner room was used to store hay for the animals. We called the room hartanots.
For many years the lower left hand side room, which also had a door that opened to the courtyard, served as the stable along with its adjoining inner room and housed our chicken, donkey and cows. The ceiling of this front room that served as the stable i.e. the floor of the upper room had collapsed during the baptism of my father and had remained unfinished up to my early teens. Therefore I would view, by looking down the door on the second floor, the stable below on the first floor. I have seen our cow give birth to a calf there and our chicken nest and end up with colorful chicks that immerged from the eggs to my utter impatience and periodic checking with my grandmother. These naturally raised chicks were colorful and beautiful indeed, unlike the dull off-white colored chicks grown commercially nowadays. The animals and we lived under the same roof.

The courtyard was walled. The oven – toneer – was located at the right hand side of the entrance. Further to its right was the outhouse. My grandmother baked bread in the oven. Every week she would prepare the dough a day before and make a cross sign on the dough and cover it to ferment. The next day she would bake the bread by plastering the handful pieces of wetted dough on the inner side of the upright oven heated by burning sticks. It was customary for us kids to visit the ovens of the village after the baking was over to fish charred bread pieces remaining on the inner wall of the oven. We called these charred and blackened pieces of bread kurmush. Charred as they were, but they tasted great! Later on, my Uncle Joseph had a bakery erected on the same spot and operated it for many years. He ran the bakery once a week and more often during Christmas and Easter. The villagers would bring their dough there to bake bread or the different pastries they made on special occasions.

There was a mulberry tree in the courtyard, a remnant of those days when they raised silkworms. The tree also supported the grapevine that gave succulent red colored grapes we called ouzoumlek. These types of grapes are not used to make grape molasses and are only for consumption as fruit for desert.
The courtyard would become busy in the evening as our grandfather returned from the fields. The cows would be milked and then driven to the staple. The chickens would naturally head there in the evening and get their sleep above ground on logs. My grandmother would collect the eggs the hen laid. She could tell that a hen had laid an egg by the hen’s vocalization during the day. I later learned that hens lay eggs only during the day. That is why the lights remain on day and night over the commercial coops for hens to lay day and night.
The house had a wooden balcony on the second floor. Spectacular view came into view from the balcony and the far ends of historical Antioch where Apostle Paul reached proclaiming the Good News. An invisible border separated Syria from Turkey. Parts of the serpentine road that connected the region to the world beyond also came in view. We used to call the road zivti Jampa, which means the paved road. It was then the only road in the region that was paved and connected Kessab to the outside world. I believe the road was laid and paved by the French during their colonial rule over Syria after the First World War.

Our grandfather Stpean was born in 1898 and was driven out in 1915 as well. He never alluded to the house as having built after he was born. In all probability the house was built in the later part of the 19th century. The house likely is over 100 years old and may bridge three centuries, 19th to 21st. The house had remained as it was up to my early teens. Additions and renovations have changed the house since then. Some of these early renovations came about when I was there. However the main structure of the house is the same as it always stood then as a testament of its solid stone solid foundation. Rarely has an Armenian household remained in the family for over 100 years. I have now known of three generations who were born in the house, my Dad and Uncle Joseph, my cousins Stepan and Ara and Steve’s children Tsolag, Shoghag and Hovag being the last.

Vahe H. Apelian
On this Memorial Day, Monday May 27, 2013
Loveland, OH

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