“Heh. Are you here to write about me? And what is he doing? Is he going to take my pictures...But why?”
Rima Sahakyan, 81, was surprised when she learned I had come to write about her.
Rima, who locals call “Grandma Red,” lives in Bjni, a small village 44 km from Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where she works at the Holy Mother of God Church.
It's Sunday. A liturgy. Fasting will start Monday, so some locals have come to the church, to pray, listen to the liturgy and receive the communion. Grandma Red spends most of the time on her feet, walking here and there, helping the people of the church get prepared and providing locals with candles.
“You know, I am not a model? I am a grandma.” she noted, giggling as she works. “Just a grandma...that is not a big deal. We all get there. ”
But somehow, in the past decade, Grandma Red has become a big deal—well, at least well known. People as far away as Yerevan come to buy her candles, which they say bring luck.
To be honest, I had also come looking for a bit of luck. It has been a difficult year in Armenia, and I was feeling at a crossroads. A visit to meet the famous Grandma Red for this article sounded like a good way to get out of town and shake off my mood.
When I explain all this to Grandma Red, she looks pleased, albeit doubtful. “The mind can give people crazy ideas,” she says, adding “faith in God brings good luck. Everything else is more or less made up and can limit your possibilities.”
Grandma Red is no stranger to the power of faith, or the strange twists of fate that push us to look for faith. While she looks younger than her 81 years (she refers to herself as tngoz – active or cheerful), Grandma Red has lived a long, difficult life.
She started working when she was just 15. Grandma Red still remembers how much she loved school, but the fees were high and her family couldn’t afford to pay for both her and her brother to study. Plus, they needed the money she earned at a tobacco plant. Even now, over 60 years later, she can still see her mom throwing away her school bag, because she no longer would need it. But the memory doesn’t damper her mood.
“I started working and, luckily, met my husband. He loved me and it took him six months to date me and then, marry me. You know those times we were not dating like you. I was shy even to look him in the eyes,” she says, with a shy smile.
“It is so good you have your work. You look strong, free, bales (child). But it is not all you need. One day you will need to choose and stick with what you have chosen. Otherwise, you can spend your life choosing and, bales, life flies very fast.
“I know I look young, but I am 81 years old! Imagine how many stories have I seen! And I do understand all of you, trying to be stronger, show that you can achieve things, but honey, life can be tough, when you are all alone. We all will leave this world alone, why start while we`re alive? Everyone needs a family. Family is soil. Which plants can grow without soil?”
Grandma Red lost her husband when she was just 47, a few years after the family moved to Bjni to care for her grandfather. Today, she lives there with her son, his family and all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren—12 souls, as she says.
In addition to her pension, which is 35,000 drams (about 72 dollars), she makes a little at the church. It is not enough, but Grandma Red does not complain.
“You know what is typical for my age, bales? Complaining. Do you know why? We all see much. Good and bad. Sometimes we focus on bad. But it can't be just bad…I can tell you when I was born, in 1939. Try to count how many wars, earthquakes or things like that I have seen. You can figure out how many bad days did I have...but I don't remember them now. Why, if that won`t feed me,” she says.
“For example, I remember when we were kids we were going barefoot to school, almost a village away. But one day my uncle killed our cow, skinned it and processed the skin, so that it became wearable. This is how he made us shoes, we call them trekh, and we were no longer barefoot. See, I could remember how hard it was walking barefoot or how hurtful it was for my small feet, but instead I remember how great it was to have shoes! That was a nice day, I remember it. The more you live, the more stories you will have and you can't have only good ones. They all come together.”
She gave an instant smile, which hides her eyes and fills her face with light.
The rays of sunshine play on her face, her clothes and hands. During those moments, when the light falls on her, it is suddenly clear why some people drive 44 km from Yerevan just to see her or buy candles from her. She is a happy person. And happy people attract those who are in search of happiness.
Maybe she is right that thinking that someone brings you good or bad luck is limiting--but maybe it can also help.
What if you look at your “amulets” and see them as a possibility to get above your fears, an invitation to break free of the loops in your mind and try something different.
Faith is sometimes a choice and sometimes an exaggeration. Sometimes it represents an impasse--and sometimes it is just the only way we can move through this life. The only way we can handle its surprises, stories and experiences. The good and the bad. As Grandma Red says, they all come together in the end.
This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or Chai Khana.