Mrs Ajemian lived in a giant old house across the street from the apartment building where my mom and I lived in our decayed beach town. Through my nine-year-old eyes, she looked not just old, but ancient, like something out of a history book; this was possibly because she dressed like a character out of a Dickens novel. I went over there quite a bit until we moved because I didn’t have any friends— I had what my mother called fair-weather friends. My mother would say “why don’t you go over and help Mrs. Ajemian.”
She’d open her big wooden door and I could never tell if she was happy to see me or annoyed that I was there again. She wore slippers with big socks that sunk down around her ankles. Her legs had lots of brown spots on them. She had on a dress with small flowers all over it; I don’t remember her wearing anything else. On top of that was a sweater and on top of that was an apron with ruffled sleeves and a pocket that didn’t match. She had her glasses around her neck, but when they were on her nose, they sat there crookedly because she had what looked like bits of tissue wrapped around the nose pads. Everything in her house was worn-out and threadbare: paint worn off every corner, a bare path through every carpet.
Some days she would be sewing. Most of this was really mending now, but she told me she used to sew all her clothes. I can’t even imagine this. She had this kind of round muslin ball thing that she would use to mend socks. If she would have used the same thread color, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the sock had ever had a hole in it, but she had a whole shoe box full of odd threads and when she found one long enough, whatever color it was, that was the one. When something was finally too worn out, the buttons where put into a jar and everything else into a basket— these were ‘spare parts.’ If it was too worn out to be a spare, the last stop was a cleaning rag. Once, we cleaned windows with newspaper and vinegar. I tried this one time when I was all grown up, but all I got were two extremely black hands. Newspapers must have been different then.
The most amazing thing was how she could turn one chicken into a week’s worth of food. First, she would roast it in a pan with carrots, celery, onions, potatoes, and some other stuff that I didn’t recognize. Turnips, maybe? She would cover it with foil that she had washed and saved. She never threw out foil until it completely fell apart. Dinner would be the roast chicken with the vegetables. Then she would take almost all meat off. This would become chicken salad. She made a chicken salad sandwich for me once, but I didn’t like it at all— the bread was slathered with butter and the salad had raisins in it which I thought was super weird. I told her I was full, so she packed up what I hadn’t eaten in one of the bread bags with twisty ties she saved. She probably never had to buy a plastic bag. The rest of the chicken carcass went back into a big pot with some more stuff and boiled away until it became soup. She even rolled out her own soup noodles and cut them haphazardly; these would be rustic artisanal noodles now.
The only beautiful thing she had was a lace tablecloth. It had a few stains on it and some tears, but I remember it because she said her mother had made it and I couldn’t believe that someone could make something so intricate. She came from Armenia, and, as my mother pointed out, she and her husband arrived in America at the worst possible time: the dawn of the Great Depression. All she would say was “hard times, hard times.” I asked her about Armenia all the time. I probably don’t remember everything she told me, but I do remember three things: she didn’t have indoor plumbing, so they had to fetch water and use an outhouse, they didn’t have electricity, and their ‘car’ was a donkey and a cart. I didn’t realize until I grew up how ingenious (and of course eco-friendly) a life of scarcity had made her.
Everyone I have ever told this story to says they wish they could be like her but she was shaped by experiences I hope I’ll never have.
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