Leo was more pussycat than lion

When I was a child, my grandfather, Leo Bohjalian, would sit me on his lap, grab the massive throw pillow that was my stomach, and bounce me on his knee cooing, “Big belly, big belly, big belly.” This was meant as an affectionate, grandfatherly gesture, not his subtle way of suggesting that if I didn’t lose weight, I was going to wind up a Jenny Craig testimonial. Just for the record, there is also a chance that when I was being bounced on his lap, I was wearing a white turtleneck and red velvet knickers. This is the outfit my mother had me wear when we visited my grandparents, because this was the get-up that in her opinion made me look most British – and I had to look British since she was going to make me sing the 1964 Herman’s Hermits pop hit, “I’m Henry the VIII, I am.”

Yup, a fat kid in red velvet knickers. How is it that no one beat me up?

Last month my aunt sent me copies of old family photos, including a whole batch of her father: Leo Bohjalian. Leo was an Armenian immigrant who, like many immigrants in the early part of the twentieth century, never quite mastered the art of wasp casual cool. To wit, in almost every snapshot my aunt sent me, he is wearing a suit and tie and a vest. There is even a series of him on vacation at a bungalow by a lake in upstate New York, and he is wearing a three-piece suit around a picnic table. This is a guy who never owned a v-neck tennis sweater – and if he did, he probably wore it with a necktie and wing tips.

There are also a half-dozen images of him strumming his beloved oud. An oud is a pear-shaped Middle Eastern lute and, apparently, you need to be wearing a vest to play one (but not always a suit jacket). Yes, there is actually a photo of grandpa playing the oud in (cover your children’s ears if you are reading this aloud) only his vest. In one of the images, he is sitting around that picnic table in the country with other men in suits, and there is a series of closed violin and oud cases before them. They look like Prohibition era mobsters on the lam.

And it is interesting to note that even in 1928, when he was building the elegant brick house in a New York City suburb that may have been my favorite of all the houses anyone in my extended Armenian and Swedish family ever lived in when I was growing up, he was as bald as the old guy I got to know in the 1960s. Apparently, he was born looking like an old man. He may have been Scott Fitzgerald’s inspiration for Benjamin Button.

In any case, I loved poring over these photos. I asked my father if his father ever wore anything other than suits with vests, and my dad assured me that he did. “Some days he wore suits without vests,” my dad said. (In an e-mail, my aunt added, “Dear Lord, even when he was cleaning the oil burner pipes in the basement, he had on his white dress shirt!”

The thing is, Leo Bohjalian never struck me as a particularly stern guy, despite the fact he was always dressed for a meeting of the Federal Reserve. (Just for the record, he was a jewler, not a banker.) But I know from my father’s stories that he was: He was driven and demanding and, in fact, very stern. You didn’t mess with Leo Bohjalian if you were his children, especially if you were either of his two sons. My father enlisted in the Army as soon as he could, and not simply because he was patriotic: He thought it would be easier to be an Army private in World War II than live up to Leo Bohjalian’s expectations.

But the Leo I knew? A pussycat in a necktie. And in some families, that just may be the difference between a father and a grandfather. 

Happy Father’s Day.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on June 20, 2010.)


Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

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