“Thank you Lord Jesus, that you will be our hiding place, whatever happens.” Corrie ten Boom
“Sweet flower” is what her name means. Grandma also told us it was the name of an ancient Armenian princess. Grandma’s first name was Siranouche. My wife’s middle name is Siranouche. My daughter’s middle name is Siranouche. “Sweet flower.” So appropriate in each life it adorns.
As my children encircled her feet, Grandma would tell the old stories. On one occasion, I taped an hour of those stories, and the harder questions were asked. “Grandma,” queried my daughter, “How did your mommy and daddy die?” I interrupted, telling Grandma she didn’t need to answer that question if she didn’t want to. Her response was matter-of-fact. “They must know, honey. They must know such things.”
At 95 years old, Siranouche was one of the last living survivors of the Armenian death marches under the Ottoman Turks at the turn of the 20th century. A mass genocide that the world ignored, Adolph Hitler is infamous for a statement made to a German commander: “Who remembers the Armenians; who will remember the Jews?”
Siranouche and her family lived in a small Armenian village called Orphah. She recalls the beauty that was once her family’s estate. “I remember playing among the fruit trees in the orchard,” she says with a smile. At 14, young Siranouche and her family were awakened in the middle of the night by Turkish soldiers. She, her mother and siblings stood and watched as the fathers and husbands were huddled into their small Armenian churches – which were then burned to the ground. The screams still haunted her now aged mind.
She remembers the death marches through the Syrian Desert. How her mother would spread her skirt over her five children in the desert’s cool, night air to keep them warm as they slept. She remembers the Syrian women lining the march, hoping to help save some of the children by taking them as their own. Though the youngest died along the march, Siranouche’s mother (my wife’s great grandmother) gave away the rest of her children in one day – such a horrible joy for her – to know they might live, but that she would die soon, far away from her precious jewels.
Her new Syrian family treated her well, though she was a servant. One night, she had a dream. In her dream, Jesus came to her with outstretched arms. Using no words, she could see in his eyes that everything would be alright. From that point on, she knew she worshipped a different God than those around her, and she knew that someone was taking care of her.
My children are squirming, as children do, but still listening intently. One blessed day, she saw a boy she thought she recognized from her Armenian village across the street in her Syrian village. Though men and women were not to cross the street to each other by custom, she took her chances and ran across the road. Not only was the boy indeed who she thought he was, but he knew where two of her brothers were! A connection was made by this newfound messenger, and an escape plan devised. One brother would feign illness, and request that his sister come to take care of him for a time. When they left the home, they would run for freedom, elusive and ethereal as it was.
The boys made their way to Siranouche’s home via the train, trying to hide the fact that they were Armenian (though the war was over, Armenians were still quite fearful for their lives). The conductor’s wife, a fellow Armenian, evoked a confession from them with her kindness, and after exchanging a few words with her husband, informed them that the train would stop behind the village they would abduct their sister from, and would wait for them to return. Siranouche remembers the gratefulness she felt toward her Syrian family, yet more vividly remembers the wild rush of freedom that flooded her soul as they raced down the hill behind the village to their waiting chariot of steel.
Years passed, and Siranouche and her brothers, now in their twenties, received a letter and photo. “I’m your brother” the note said, “and I’m coming to you tomorrow.” Raised as a soldier in the Turkish army, their youngest surviving brother fell into their waiting arms and told them his story. In a strange twist of events, they realized that while Siranouche was staying at an orphanage in Istanbul, she had actually met her youngest brother from afar! A small, white dog would frequent the fence of the orphanage to play with the smiling young girl. The dog’s young, male owner would stand at a distance and watch. That boy, that “Turkish boy,” was her youngest brother.
The stories continued, and miracle after miracle marking her journey to our living room flowed seamlessly from her memory. My children grew sleepy, but struggled to drink in all the details of Grandma’s fascinating story. Finally, my eldest daughter asked a question she had been holding for far too long. “Do you forgive the Turks?” she exclaimed. The room was silent.
“Oh, honey, of course I do,” came Grandma’s answer. “We must forgive. Unforgiveness does not hurt them; it only hurts us.”
Siranouche. “Sweet flower.” The perfume that came from Grandma changes my prayers daily. No longer do I expect God to show His presence by rescuing me from all that comes my way. Rather, I expect His highest gift – to be with us in our struggles, to comfort us through them, and to give us a legacy of faith worth passing on for generations. My children are learning how to pray as well. And for them, Grandma’s story will shape the way they talk to God, and talk to the broken world He loves.
“I’ll run the course you lay out for me, if you’ll just show me how.”
From Psalm 119:32 in The Message