Many stories ago, I entitled one, “History is Where You Find it.” Well, I have found something I want to share with you as the most beautiful love story ever, set in a time when Armenians were being led off to concentration camps between 1915 and 1917 with 1.5 million citizens being slaughtered just as the Jewish citizens were incarcerated and put to death during WW II with 6 million Jews. It is entitled, Reflections at Sunset……Forbidden story. A historical vignette as originally written.
Her beautiful face framed in long, titian hair, with gentle, almost sad eyes of color that matched the hair, was the color of alabaster, with classic lines. She stood at the ramshackle door of an equally ramshackle lean-to, one of dozens in that refugee camp in Athens. It was cold, it was February 1923. She asked me in and I wiped the mud off of my feet and entered onto a barren floor of nondescript planks of wood. In the center of the floor, stood the proverbial mangal, an old brazier, in which glowed a few pieces of charcoal.
Her mother, an earlier imposing figure of a stately woman, appeared and sat on the edge of a neatly made bed, standing on a makeshift frame, next to an old table with a cloth which showed earlier, handmade designs of flowers and in the center of it was a plate, in the center of which a candle stood.
There was sunshine outside, but the lean-to was dismal and the face of alabaster, as I viewed at the door, so beautiful and so young, but eighteen now looked ashen and sad as I insisted I would stand and Neomy’s mother moved a little to make room for me to sit on the bed to talk to her. Neomy sat on a chair of some sort, very close by to the brazier.
I had come from the Near East Relief Organization, where a month previous I had been engaged as a secretary to Miss Glee Hastings, Athens director of N.E.R taking care of hundreds of orphans of the earlier Turkish massacre of the Armenian in 1915. I myself had come to Athens, a refugee from my home in Constantinople, as I had escaped from the Turk, the last month of my graduation at Robert College. (It is omitted here that the writer explained his flight from Turkey and his association with the N.E.R.)
He goes on… I was given a handful of Greek, ten Drachma pieces which I was to take to the refugee camp to dole out, one at a time, to the heads of the occupants of the shacks in that refugee camp, as I came upon the one, in front of which Neomy stood and invited me in to meet the mother. I explained my mission to the mother as she thanked me for it, promising me to eat a little better, as I promised I would come again to help a little.
But while I talked to Neomy’s mother, Neomy sat there in silence as her mother explained that they had lived in Smyrna, forever so long, as Neomy had attended the American school there and therefore spoke fluent English, although I spoke to her mother in Armenian. Neomy, now 18 was just a year younger than me and I wondered how it was that I had not met Neomy in Smyrna, since in 1915, I too attended that American institution in Smyrna for awhile. But here we were, me a refugee in tolerable circumstances in Athens and here were Neomy and her mother in intolerable conditions but almost cheerful to meet and talk and for me to hope I could come again, for there sat my Neomy, pale, now in the dank of the inside of the lean-to, she presented the picture of a Greek statue with a beautiful face.
I finished my chores of distribution of the ten Drachma pieces – I had not quite enough to go around but I would come back. I went back to Glee Hastings to ask for more the next time but I must have spoken enthusiastically about that one shack of Neomy’s as Glee, the ever jovial, well upholstered lady, my boss, winked at me and said, “ Why I do believe you have fallen in love with that girl.” “Her name is Neomy, Miss Hastings and with your permission we should do something to improve their status, but she is beautiful!”
Two days later, her chauffeur delivered a clean mattress and blankets to Neomy’s shack. I handed a wad of paper money to him to distribute to the camp while I dug into my pocket to add a five Drachma piece I had brought for Neomy and her mother. I sat to talk of familiar subjects, my own family I had left back in Turkey, their better times in Smyrna and the beauty of American atmosphere Neomy had enjoyed, as her mother made Turkish coffee and the atmosphere brightened up and we laughed. Neomy’s face looked more beautiful as she laughed, but remained alabaster like, in the shafts of sunshine, though in the cold of that February in Athens.
I hated to leave Neomy, as Zeki honked his truck horn for us to return but not before I held Neomy’s hand in both of mine and sort of asked both mother and Neomy if I could take Neomy to the Acropolis, come Sunday. I could see the glow of delight in Neomy’s beautiful eyes as her mother suggested I come to have lunch with them on Sunday and go to the Acropolis later. This was just fine and I left, with Neomy following me to the entrance of the shack, just a few steps and stood there as Zeki gunned his engine and we were on our way, as I looked back to see, Neomy, now, my Neomy waving at me.
And Sunday came. I went to that refugee camp with no more to do than be the lunch guest and later walk with Neomy to the top of the Acropolis, to the Parthenon in the bright sun, to sit and talk, to get better acquainted. It was a modest Armenian fare of vegetables and a little bit of lamb meat but tongue in cheek, I had brought a loaf of Greek bread with apologies which appeared to evince cheer, thought at this stage I did not know what else would be as useful.
Neomy put on a pink dress, primped up and we started out into the now almost dry ground of the camp toward the road which would eventually lead us to the road to the Acropolis, hand in hand swinging like we might have been on a campus we knew. The sun shone brightly in Athens that day but I noticed too that as we walked, Neomy coughed once in awhile, as I suggested we walk slowly, we had all day. It was a long walk and longer uphill it seemed, as we ever so slowly climbed the stone ground near the Parthenon. Neomy and I sat in the sun of Athens on that first Sunday of my love, we talked and talked, holding hands at the edge of the marble of the Parthenon and now and then munched from a little bag of filberts and raisins, popular carnival atmosphere fare of Greece I bought on the way up there.
The Athens sun began to descend in the west as the azure blue skies of Athens began to glow with the shafts of orange and blue and brilliant vermillion as the yellow turned dark and no more could be seen of the sun other than the shafts of yellow spearing the Athens sky as it was time for me to take my Neomy to her home and me to go on my way, promising to come the next day.
Almost everyday, I visited Neomy, often times to take her to show her off to Glee Hastings, whose side remark to me often was, “You lucky dog, she is a beauty, but is she well, Garo?” She too had noticed Neomy’s occasional coughing and eventually, she directed to take Neomy to the crowded clinic where some American medics would come to attend to the illnesses of the orphans under her care. There was no room for Neomy other than to give her medicines but I took here there, every week and she appeared to improve – some color came to her face after awhile but her miserable accommodations remained in that shack, at the edge of the Town of Athens.
March came, April and May and Neomy and I would enlarge our get togethers as we would go to modest restaurants to eat now and then and go to the cinema at night where a big orchestra would play the William Tell overture before the silent pictures began. Little by little I would bring Neomy’s mother things to make more nourishing food as I would stay to eat with them and the spirits were high in love of one another as I became fond of her mother, who with soft, now growing old cheeks were like that of my own mother as I would kiss her almost in fantasy of kissing my own.
To be continued……