The Right Words by Cathy Salibian

Even before Covid, my city apartment was downright biblical with floods and pestilence. Burst pipes poured brown water over my bookshelves. Bats banged frantic circles against my walls. A squirrel peed in my toaster.

So, when Covid added plague to this roster of afflictions, I decided to move. I ordered packing boxes and started with the bookshelves.

My oldest book is a small red hardcover of David Copperfield. I was maybe twelve years old when my father reached to a shelf in his study, pulled down that book and said to me a little shyly, “I see that you like to read. Maybe you will like this. I read it when I was just a little older than you.”

A half century later, I sat amid half-packed boxes and reopened that volume of David Copperfield. The title page has a price stamped in Arabic, but the text is English. Who taught my father English? It’s too late to ask. I know he’d learned Armenian and Turkish as a child, then Arabic after his family escaped to Lebanon. The English might have come from his father, a doctor who’d studied in America. I imagined my father young, a Beirut street urchin who found books. Of course he would love Dickens and his battered boy-heroes. Of course he would offer me the things he loved most. I wrapped the book in packing paper and placed it carefully in a box.

The books in the living room were by writers I’d turned to over the past few years. Fatema Mernissi and Malika Oufkir helped me better understand the Morocco of my childhood. Jasmin Darznik is my friend; the day I met her, she wrote out a list of book recommendations that opened worlds of great writing, some of it now on that very shelf. Those books just needed dusting and packing.

But the books in the hallway were different. They were from older strata of my life. Over the years water pipes had broken over them, grime had settled on them, mold had ruined them.

And yet, they were a part of me. Frances FitzGerald woke me to immersion journalism. Jonathan Schell taught me the reporter’s power to illuminate. Studs Terkel made me want to capture people’s stories. Toni Morrison accompanied me all the way from high school to middle age. I had not read some of these books for years. But their mere presence was magic holding me together. This is who I was then. This is who I became. These books formed the bridge.

But most of them were too damaged to keep. I loaded them into paper bags for recycling. Dozens, hundreds of books. I didn’t think to take a photo of the shelves until there was just one left to go.

The books will be scattered and shredded, literal dust in the wind. What will connect me to myself now? Yesterday I spoke with my Uncle Zareh on the phone, my mother’s brother. He is the youngest Artinian of his generation. The eldest was Tsavag, with his Middle Eastern moustache and cigarettes. Next was my mother, Agnes, who left home after home carrying rose cuttings to replant. Aunt Maida brought her trunk of trousseau linens but never married. Aunt Matilda brought her upright piano and played Chopin in a little studio under my childhood bedroom, making every morning sublime. Then there was Uncle Harout, who called me at the end stage of leukemia to say goodbye, but I refused to listen.

I wish you’d known them. They were born in Ottoman Turkey and Beirut, Lebanon, saw empires collapse and worlds vanish. They saw death on a scale that dwarfs Covid—caused by human hate even more senseless than a mutating virus.
Cathy Salibian
The Right Words

“I am the last one,” Zareh said. He turned 82 that day. He expected his daughter and grandchildren who live upstairs to bring a cake from King Kullen.

“You’d better stay damn healthy,” I said. “You’re the only Artinian from the old days I’ve got left.”

I wish you’d known them. They were born in Ottoman Turkey and Beirut, Lebanon, saw empires collapse and worlds vanish. They saw death on a scale that dwarfs Covid—caused by human hate even more senseless than a mutating virus. Driven by war, the Artinians scattered across continents. Yet when they gathered, their connection pulsed with life. As a writer I’ve wanted to capture this, but the call seems always beyond my skill.

Packing up once more into the unknown, I say goodbye and thank you. Goodbye to the things that must pass. Thank you to the ones who made me, and to the writers who keep me reaching for the right words.

Photograph by Kate Kressmann-Kehoe
All audio, text and images are under copyright © Neelum Films LLC

Comments (2)

  1. Rose Ericson

    Wow, Cathy, this is just gorgeous! (OK, not the squirrel pee in the toaster.) I wish I’d known those people, too! Let’s get together soon!

  2. Michael Brisson

    I always enjoy your writing. You hold the memory of family and history close in it and invite us in to share in their pain and joy. It feels all so very real and intimate. Thank you for sharing it with us.