“When you become frustrated with our world and yearn for your world, drink from this cup, it will take away your problems and life will become beautiful.”
The voice belonged to Armen-Dei and his words still ring in my ears. His wrinkled, ageless face is as vivid in my memory as if he were still sitting on his bench in the garden behind the Pioneers Palace in Yerevan, Armenia.
Made of obsidian, Armen-Dei’s cup was actually filled with wine, and the wine was an invitation to friendship. He called it a “Cup of Love.” Although I hesitated at first, Armen-Dei smiled and said, “Our children are born with wine in their blood. That is why they are so beautiful.”
In the days to come Armen-Dei would convince me that I, too, should have wine in my blood. Our friendship would last more than a decade.
Armen-Dei would never, ever reveal his age, but he laughed as he drank from the cup…and ate the lavash bread with cheese.
“I am older than…” he would start and then break into laughter, “Do you know that we Armenians are descendants of Noah’s son, Shem. In fact, I am named for one of Noah’s grandson’s, Armen.
What could I do but humor him? And then he would remind me that Noah lived to be over 900 years old.
“That’s a fact. You read the Bible, don’t you?”
A Bible! In an atheistic country! A Soviet citizen could be prosecuted as “an enemy of the state” if he possessed a Bible. All the churches had been closed and the believers sent off to Siberia.
And, then Armen-Dei went on, “We are supposed to be a free people. Our constitution says that we have the right to free speech, to a free press, and are guaranteed a job. Is that not so?”
The Soviet Constitution did do that and more, I agreed.
Armen-Dei had survived in the ungodly world of the Soviet Union and lived in a world surrounded by children, orchards, vineyards, and the mountains of the Caucasus. In his courtyard, filled with laughing children during the summer months, he would tell of the times that were and the times that would be. He would retell the story of Noah and the Ark and God’s Covenant. He would offer me a cup of love.
“The hatred within us – all of us – is the progeny of stupidity,” he would tell me. “It is nurtured and it grows with the help of its twin, prejudice…this government we all must serve, one day, will collapse. One day…as all governments which deceive and exploit their people will do….”
Armen-Dei would stop and hand me the cup and say to me, “Drink.”
And I learned to do so.
In a country whose citizens were restricted from owning land and producing anything outside the collective farm, Armen-Dei had created an acre of organic tapestry where mulberry and cherry trees, a vineyard, tomatoes, cucumbers and corn would flourish.
Armen Dei must have been over 100-years-old when I first met him in that courtyard. I was but 20, alone in a strange country, a repatriate living in my ancestral homeland in Soviet Armenia. His eyes had seen the rise and fall of Czar Nicholas II, World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the rise and decay of Stalin. He had also watched a young Armenian Republic struggle for independence and on the right road to democracy when the Soviets armies marched in and destroyed freedom in the guise of building a “workers’ paradise”.
The transformation from a capitalistic to a socialistic system proved deadly. Untold suffering for all was not what the Soviet citizens and the working class had expected. But that is what they got. Miraculously shutting out the rest of the Soviet world, Armen-Dei built his world with a panoply, created of his own hands – a rose wall made of Armenia’s natural stone, tuff. Ironically, on the other side of the wall, stood a foreboding three-story Gothic building, the office of the KGB (nee NKVD).
“Today our people are again in chains. But someday we will – and you will – again be free. Look, look to the mountain. It was there, atop Mt. Ararat, you will find the answers. God made his covenant with Noah there. With all of us. Remember His message, “Whoever sheds the blood of man… by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God has God made man…”
A few years ago, I returned to free Armenia. I visited the courtyard near where I had spent part of my youth teaching youngsters to play basketball. And stood at the spot where I had first met Armen-Dei. The trees are still standing, but the bench, the garden, and the vineyard were gone.
I stood there for awhile, dreaming of those days that were, and the desire to have just one more day with him, to tell him I’ll never forget. The sun glistened from some small objects in weeds. I strolled to the spot, and there I saw the pieces of the obsidian. His cup. I picked up the pieces, brushed them off and smiled. He has been here all these years. I glanced up at the towering mountain that stood in the West and for one brief moment I was sure that I saw him standing there on the deck of the Ark. I wanted to shout, “Come back…come back! Your orchards and your vineyard need you – I need you!” And I am certain that I heard his voice say, “Come, drink from the cup.”
Tom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess. Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!