Among my favorite photographs of my father is an old black and white image that was taken when he was five years old. It’s a formal portrait from 1933: He is standing between his mother and father, and the three of them are impeccably coiffed. My grandfather is dressed the way I would remember him from my boyhood, in a suit with a vest, seated regally in an ornate straight-back chair. My grandmother is standing behind him in a modest black dress with a white collar and a corsage the size of a teacup. And my kindergarten-aged father is wearing shorts and a long sleeve white shirt and a necktie, though the tie’s wide front dangles at least an inch-and-a-half above the more slender rear of the tie.
The portrait stood on one of the three dressers in my grandparents’ bedroom in the great brick monolith my grandfather built in a suburb of New York City in 1928 and 1929. I loved that house. And, as a boy, I studied that picture for hours. My grandfather actually had hair then, while my grandmother’s hair was the color of creosote—not the white of the lace doilies she made for the arms of the easy chairs in the living room. And my father, of course, was nothing like the six-foot-one advertising executive and Little League baseball coach who raised me, a study in suburban confidence, and a man who was relentlessly, determinedly American.
By comparison, that little boy in the photograph was downright exotic. He was as exotic and foreign as my grandparents. He was…Armenian.
My father, Aram Bohjalian, died this past summer at the age of 83, meaning that everyone in that photograph is now gone. But in the last years of his life, I found myself probing my father about his childhood in ways that I never had in the past, trying to understand the transformation from the son of Armenian immigrants into Don Draper — albeit an ad man who loved his wife and children and didn’t philander. How, I wondered, did he evolve from the child in that image who spoke only Armenian and Turkish when he started school in Westchester County, unable even to ask his teacher where the bathroom was, into a brash, statuesque purveyor of popular American culture?
His last years were an innermost ring of Dante’s inferno, but the blessing that accompanied the medical travesties that beleaguered him in old age—a colostomy, macular degeneration, a bad ticker—was that we spent lots of time together. This was especially true over the last 12 months. I live in Vermont, he lived in Florida, but I saw him every four to six weeks this past year. He was striving mightily to get better, because there was still so much he wanted to do: He wanted to get back on the golf course, he wanted to take his girlfriend on one last cruise. He wanted, someday, to watch his granddaughters get married.
I am writing a novel set in Armenia, Turkey, and Aleppo, Syria in 1915, and to help pass our time together I would ask him to tell me what he could recall about his mother and father: their childhoods in Turkey, their first days in America, the ways they tried to make Tuckahoe, N.Y. feel like home. My mother, who was Swedish, sometimes joked about her in-laws’ living room, calling it the Armenian Annex to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (While she may technically have been the odar—the outsider—in that Armenian enclave, she never doubted how much my grandparents loved her.) The food there was Armenian, the language was Armenian, and the carpets and hookahs (yes, hookahs!), and needlepoint and lace were Armenian.
And while my father shared with me a fair amount about his parents and his extended family, he would always grow vague when I would press him on this: Tell me, I would say, about becoming American. Tell me how and why you went from that Armenian bastion to Madison Avenue. He would answer by talking about playing baseball as a boy (though he would never confirm or deny the family myth that he was so profoundly ambidextrous as a high school pitcher that he could throw curveballs with both his left and right arm), or his lifelong friendship with the man who would become my godfather. He would talk about movies. But, like the children of so many immigrants—the Swedes or the Irish or the Germans who had preceded the Armenians—he would downplay the transformation. The goal was to fit in, to be American, and the tribal ties and traditions that may have mattered to his parents and grandparents were irrelevant.
But then at my father’s memorial service, my older (and, yes, wiser) brother, Andy, described our father’s reinvention with an adjective that had not previously crossed my mind: Brave.
Andy followed our father into advertising, and he observed eloquently in his eulogy that advertising in the 1950’s and 1960’s had not been especially welcoming of exotics with names as unpronounceable as Bohjalian. Our father’s full name, he said, was in fact deemed so alien that it was commandeered once for a foreign character on a soap opera.
And yet our father had thrived. That little boy with the short pants was, in his own small way, a pioneer. He never lost his taste for dolma and his love for boregs. But when I look at that 1933 portrait now—and I do often, because I keep the image on my iPhone—I see in the bold eyes of that child the groundbreaking mad man who raised me.