My mother’s sister, Luiz morak (morak is Armenian slang for “mother’s sister”), was a fiercely proud woman. Once she made a choice about something, she stood by it. She would wait on you hand and foot out of pride for her home and her cooking, and so that no one could ever say she didn’t take care of her family. When we opted to stay in a hotel rather than in her apartment in 2011, so that we wouldn’t make more work for her while she recovered from her cancer treatments, she was pretty mad at us.
It soon became clear we had made the right decision. Even days after receiving chemotherapy, she laid out elaborate tables of food and tea for us at our visits. She would have bathed us all by hand if she’d had the strength, but we pretended it was because we didn’t want her too. (Well, it is kind of an odd custom.) She was frustrated that she couldn’t show us around the city, like she had in 1988 on our first visit. It was, to her, like admitting defeat to the disease that claimed her life this morning.
She wasn’t well enough to leave her apartment much, but thanks to the fantastic Turkish window basket system, her fresh bread and various sundries could be elevated to her flat. For Lucine’s sake, she lowered the basket so that Barbie could get that same VIP treatment and Lucine could have a memory of my aunt and Istanbul that went beyond post-cards and souvenirs.
As a young girl, she married the handsome Migirditch and moved in with his family in the Armenian neighbourhood of Samatya. My aunt Luiz never spoke much of that time to me, but my mother would tell stories of how far away it was from the other more central Armenian neighbourhoods of the old city—like Feriköy, Şişli and Beşiktaş—back in the day. Very young and with no great wealth for anything fancy, Luiz spent her wedding night in the same apartment as her mother-in-law. They had two sons, whom she was devoted to, while Migir worked at his shop in the Grand Bazaar. I remember passing Samatya on the train to Bakirköy ,where my paternal grandmother lived, and seeing flats with giant peppers drying on balconies in the sun. It seemed like another world (Armenians have lived there since the mid 1400s), but perhaps it was made so in my mind by my mother’s portrayal of it as a backwater district.
In August of 1988, she did actually give me a bath. It was awkward to say the least, because I was 14 and my small, pert breasts were the source of many giggles for my aunts. I recall that there were water shortages so everyone took conservation very seriously. You had to sit in the empty tub and have water poured over you with a bowl, but she insisted and so I sat while she cooed “Yavrum!”and washed my hair with joy.
On that same trip, we travelled to a small seaside resort in Turkey and my sister and I fought over who would share a room with Luiz morak. (I think we each got a night.) On my night with her, I remember laying awake in the dark, having a very grown-up heart-to-heart. To a 14-year-old it seemed that all the adults were talking in hushed tones about how her eldest son had just had a cute baby with a Turkish woman. Would the baby be baptized? Taught Armenian?
“I know what people are saying,” she said to me in the dark, “But sometimes it’s better to go through life playing dumb.” I have no idea how I replied. “He’s my son! What am I supposed to do?” she continued, “Stop loving him? So I just say nothing. Remember that, you can know better and keep it to yourself. Just smile and nod.” (I wish I took that lesson to heart a bit more.)
It’s funny, the things we remember, when we try to piece together a life, what someone meant to ours. What I remember vividly is that 1988 was the year I lost my innocence, and that in a time of great confusion in my personal life, my aunt was there for me with love in her heart and truth in her eyes. When I saw her on our last trip in 2011, she welcomed my daughter and I with warm arms and her incredible laugh. The world lost a great woman today. RIP Luiz morak. May you be reunited with your dear Migir in heaven and watch over us all.