A 'Tough' Metzmama: Lasting Memories Of One Armenian Grandmother

Mar 24, 2017
Originally published on March 24, 2017 1:07 pm

Isabel Kouyoumjian was a tough metzmama — that's Armenian for grandmother.

Long before she was a grandmother though, Kouyoumjian was born in a refugee camp after her parents left the area now known as Turkey. They left around 1915, when they were fleeing the Armenian Genocide, which killed nearly a million and a half people.

Kouyoumjian eventually immigrated to the United States and raised two generations of her family. She died last March, but Joanne Nucho, one of her granddaughters, still remembers her.

"My grandmother was a large woman, but on the shorter side; she was just kind of round," Nucho says with a laugh. "She did not have much formal education, but [she] spoke and read five languages."

Nucho remembers her grandmother as sweet, warm and loving, "but she had this really tough streak."

When Nucho and her younger sister needed a hero, their metzmama was there.

"One incident I remember, we were kids and there was a lizard in the backyard. My younger sister saw it and screamed, so my grandmother picked it up and broke it in half with her bare hands. It was a mixture of being horrified but also really impressed," Nucho says. "I just thought that she was like a superhero."

Kouyoumjian didn't smile much, Nucho says. Instead, she had a bit of a permanent scowl. What caused the scowl is unclear, but Nucho says she heard stories about how her grandmother raised two kids by herself.

"So much of her ways of seeing the world were really bound up with knowing the ground could fall out from beneath you at any moment, and that she would weather whatever storm," Nucho says.

Nucho's husband, Jeff Ono says that Kouyoumjian wasn't just a grandmother.

"She was my best friend," Nucho says. "That last week when she was dying, I just kept telling her, 'It's okay to go. You've done your work. You don't have to fight this if you don't want to.'"

Though Kouyoumjian had her superhero moments, that's not all Nucho misses about her grandmother.

"I miss the little things, like speaking Armenian with somebody — not something I do very often anymore," Nucho says. "I miss feeling like there's this one person who really believes in me. It's something I'm trying to do for myself, but nobody else could convince me the way that she could. And there isn't really a replacement for that."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's Friday, which means it's time again for StoryCorps. Today, memories of a tough metzmama - that's Armenian for grandmother. Isabel Kouyoumjian was born in a refugee camp. Her parents fled the area we now know as Turkey around 1915. They were escaping the Armenian genocide, which killed nearly a million and a half people. Isabel eventually immigrated to the U.S. and raised two generations before she died a year ago.

One of her granddaughters, Joanne Nucho, came to StoryCorps with her husband to remember her grandmother.

JOANNE NUCHO: My grandmother was a large woman but on the shorter side. She just was kind of round (laughter). She did not have much formal education but spoke and read five languages. She was very sweet and loving to me, but she had this really tough streak.

JEFF ONO: What's one of the stories that conveyed her toughness to you?

NUCHO: One incident I remember - we were kids, and there was a lizard in the backyard. My younger sister saw it and screamed, so my grandmother picked it up and broke it in half with her bare hands. And it was a mixture of being horrified but also really impressed. I just thought she was, like, a superhero.

She didn't smile much. She kind of had a permanent scowl, and I didn't know where it came from. But I heard stories about how she raised two kids by herself. And, you know, so much of her ways of seeing the world were really bound up with knowing the ground could fall out from beneath you at any moment and that she would weather whatever storm.

ONO: You had a very close relationship with her that wasn't just grandmother and granddaughter.

NUCHO: Yeah. She was my best friend. You know, that last week when she was dying, I just kept telling her - it's OK to go. You've done your work. You don't have to fight this if you don't want to.

And I miss the little things like speaking Armenian with somebody - not something I do very often anymore. I miss feeling like there's this one person who really believes in me. It's something I'm trying to do for myself, but nobody else could convince me the way that she could. And there isn't really a replacement for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "STEP IN STEP OUT")

MARTIN: Joanne Nucho and her husband Jeff Ono remembering her grandmother Isabel Kouyoumjian at StoryCorps in Claremont, Calif. Their recording is archived along with thousands of others at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.