Neomy, to me, was not just a girl of whom one could take liberties of the boy and girl phenomenon, not even to the kissing, for she was something very special, a precious treasure I knew I would eventually lose, but for the moment, she was everything I had and if it were possible for me to put her in satin and cotton like a precious jewel, I would have but there we were, time after time, getting together, walking in the sun, knowing all the while that the dark clouds were gathering, as her cough became more severe, as medication and the occasional medical examination in most primitive circumstances, did not help her.
Time and time again, I thought how wonderful it would be if I could take her to my room, to arrange for her to spend her sleeping hours there, to get her away from that miserable place, but now in summer time atmosphere, how wonderful it would be if I could have my Neomy sleep in my room, always knowing that I would not even touch her other than to hold her tight, but this was a different era, I was naive, almost as naive as she was and this was not the thing to do.
I had gone to her this Sunday, the sun shone bright and very warm in Athens that day. She begged not to walk too far that day and we went just a little distance to the ancient stadium with its tiers and tiers of marble seats arranged in an oval shape and we climbed a few tiers to sit down and talk in the sun. Her cough now was often and severe and I asked her to save her throat until it got better. I would talk and tell her how wonderful it would be when my permit to go to America came, we could go there together, how wonderful that would be.
And we held hands and we told one another as so many times before, how much we loved one another and with that manner of the causal acquaintance of hugging one another with arms around each other, rather than the sweethearts we were, we kissed each other on the cheeks, both cheeks, as we both knew the measure of our love to be a treasure, we each thought would last forever. But she had misgivings as I did, but it did not matter, she was there now, perhaps something could help her in America.
June came and I saw Neomy every day, as she eventually went to bed. I brought more blankets and clean sheets and pillowcases to make her comfortable. She did not speak much but we talked of yet more walks to the Acropolis and the Cinema but I would notice that now and again, she would close her eyes but nod to something I said. As the sun nearly down, I would start to leave her, kissing her and her mother, to leave them there in the desolation of that refugee camp.
It was now June 8, 1923. Something told me to go to her early and I asked Miss Hastings if I could get away. She knew where I was going and told me to bring back good news of Neomy. I went to her shack…there were a few people standing outside. I elbowed passed these and her mother was crying. There lay my precious jewel, my Neomy, my sweetheart of alabaster, who joined the angels with her eyes closed and with the tiniest trace of a smile on her perfectly beautiful but pale lips. I had lost my Neomy.
The next day, I walked behind that rickety hearse, as a large crowd of her admirers, her soul mates of that miserable camp, walked behind that hearse as the Armenian priest intoned the traditional prayers, as we walked more than a mile to the cemetery where I buried Neomy. Glee Hastings had asked Zeki to pick up a large variety of flowers arranged in a wreath and as we returned my Neomy to Mother Earth from whence she came, I placed that wreath on the fresh earth and returned to the shack where her mother sat weeping, knowing I would return for women in the East, according to Armenian tradition, do not accompany their dead to the graveside.
There was not much I could do for that once imposing lady, now reduced to the poverty and insecurity of the refuge, in old age. I did visit her in short intervals, bringing her things she could use but little comfort for her loss, as she remained alone and very sad, an indescribably impossible position from which relief appeared so distant. Athens had now become the refuge of thousands of people who escaped from the tyranny of the Turk, now free from that tyranny, now in a hospitable land, quite unable to cope with the responsibility of a host country with problems of its own.
Not two months after I buried my Neomy on that hill in Athens, a neat little cemetery of the Greeks and undoubtedly a few other Armenians who are buried there, I received my permit to migrate to America and on August 11, 1923, I set sail on the old Aquitania to arrive at the 14th Street pier in New York City, alone, without my Neomy but not without the searing pain of it all. It was August 18, 1923.
America was new to me and alone, working here and working there, the memories of my love, never quite vanished from my mind but I was very young, inexperienced and in almost awe for anything that was America or American.
Note: This love story is just one of many involving the Armenian genocide where the Turkish government took it upon themselves to rid the country of a nation of people who were successful and enterprising but were getting in the way of progress as the Turks saw the situation. Also known as the Armenian Holocaust, the Ottoman government systematically exterminated 1.5 million Armenians, mostly Ottoman citizens within the Ottoman Empire and its successor state, the Republic of Turkey.
The starting date was April 24, 1915, the day the authorities rounded up, arrested and deported 235 to 279 intellectuals and community leaders from Constantinople to the region of Ankara, the majority eventually murdered. The genocide was carried out during World War I in two phases. One was to kill the able-bodied males and two, placing other males in the army at hard labor. Next was the deportation of women, children, the elderly and the infirm to the Syrian Desert where many died along the way as they were forced to walk without food or water. There were other indigenous and Christian ethnic groups such as the Assyrians and Ottoman Greeks who were similarly targeted for extermination by the Ottoman government.
The author of the love story was spared death during the Holocaust, having been sent to the desert with a family of 40 at a tender age of 11 only to be plucked out of there by his uncle’s connection with the Turkish government. He, his sisters and his Mom were sent to live with a married sister in Constantinople. There he met a few friends who were students at Robert College, although he was not allowed to even think of attending himself as it involved a trolley ride and after the experience of the desert, his mom was not about to let him ride it to school, even if he was accepted.
What never became clear was a scholarship to this prestigious American College. He enrolled as an academy student, becoming an engineer however he knew he had to leave Turkey, his home but his staying would only put him in jeopardy once more as the Turks were after the young Armenians again, this time to put them into the army as soldiers. He knew he had to become an American which called for a great deal of preparation…he had to learn English and learn it well.
As he stepped off the SS Aquitania on that 18th of August 1923, he set foot on American soil for the first time, he closed the past behind him.