October 19, 2017

HAGOPIAN | I’m Not Saying I Don’t Know the Meaning of Life

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Personally, I plan to save Mt. Olympus and receive the gift of immortality from Zeus himself. But the rest of you yahoos better start figuring out the meaning of life. You ain’t getting any younger, sweetheart. Luckily I have a story that just might help you out.

I went to a family wedding in San Diego this summer. The bride was a second cousin of mine; the daughter of my grandfather’s brother. Even though Grandpa passed away ten years ago, my widowed grandmother still came to California with us to attend the nuptials of her favorite niece. The situation sounds rather sad, but she never made it so. At 74 years old, Grandma was still the life of the party. She drank wine, she made wisecracks about all the wine she was drinking and at one point she remarked that the groom looked virile. Funniest of all was her irreverent nationality-based humor. She lampooned her Armenian in-laws with Armenia jokes too esoteric to recount here, but she made jokes about her own Greek heritage as well. It was almost Godfather-like the way people lined up for a chance to speak to her.

After the ceremony, my father and I travelled to Los Angeles with my grandma and my aunt. We were going to visit a relation from the seldom-seen Greek side of the family; a cousin of my grandmother’s around the same age that she was. Their neighborhood, a suburb outside of the city, was as high-class as it gets. It was a neighborhood of rich people who imitated poor people because they were so rich that they didn’t have to prove it. The houses were small and made to look like simple pueblos. Or rather, they were made to look like simple pueblos with immaculate gated lawns and in-ground pools. I had a sneaking suspicion that I wouldn’t get another chance to hear Grandma’s favorite ribald Greek joke. (“How do you separate the men from the boys in the Greek navy?”)

We pulled up the long driveway and saw an older woman for us outside the front door. She was the relative we had come to see; I did the math after the fact, and I think we’re third cousins once removed or some such thing. I’d been expecting an old stooped yia-yia, but her form-fitting dress and heavy makeup made her look like an aged beauty queen. She took us inside and introduced us to her husband Pete, a good-looking man with white hair and white stubble. Pete had Parkinson’s; he shook when he walked, he teetered when he stood still, and his voice was soft and slurred. “I normally can’t talk, “he said, as my family and I strained to hear, “the pills make me feel better, but they stop me from talking. I got to pick.” Plainly he had chosen not to take the pills because of our visit. I told myself that I would not mentally check out of the conversation no matter how boring it was.

I soon found out that my vow would not be difficult to keep. Pete was a real-life version of the most interesting man in the world. Entrepreneurship was his trade; he’d become a millionaire many times over by creating, growing and selling off companies. He described his most recent venture, isolated cabins in Montana marketed to wealthy people looking for an escape. I listened raptly to every word.

Before Pete was a businessman, he was a hippie. He travelled the world with his guitar, acquiring food and shelter with friendliness and charisma. In the 60s, he lived with a farmer in Morocco. Pete helped with the chores and played music in exchange for room and board, and he and the farmer became close friends. Eventually Pete had to leave. The farmer was very poor, but he wanted to give his friend something to remember him by. All he had were a few small wooden beads, old and worn. “They’re magic,” he jokingly told Pete, “use them well.”

Years later, Pete and his first wife were down on their luck in Germany. They had no money and no place to sleep. Pete knocked on the door of a hostel and spoke to the proprietor. “I don’t have any money,” he admitted, “but I do have these beads.” He explained that the beads had belonged to his good friend, that they were given as a gift by someone who had nothing else to give, that they were his most prized possession. The woman in charge of the hostel was moved to tears. She took the beads, and she let Pete and his wife stay for as long as they needed to.

I’m pretty sure the meaning of life is in that story somewhere. If I had to put it into words, I’d say that we make our own magic.
Ara Hagopian is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at ahagopian@cornellsun.com. The Whiny Liberal appears alternate Fridays this semester.