Mary Vartanian (photo Aram Arkun)

Mary Vartanian Continues to Inspire at 108 Years Old

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By Raffi V. Arkun and Aram Arkun

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

JAMAICA PLAIN, Mass. — While there may seem to be more and more people living to their 90s, and even 100, anything over that is still considered uncommon. A study in 2015 by the Gerontology Research Group, for example, only validated the claims of 782 people in the entire United States to be 110 or over. Mary Vartanian, born in August 1914, recently celebrated her 108th birthday and is approaching that rare category of supercentenarian. Despite a life full of change, moving several times to different countries before ending up in the United States, and enduring various hardships, she remains steadfast in her faith, industrious and sociable. Living now at the Armenian Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Jamaica Plain, she recently reflected on her experiences over many decades.

Four generations of Vartanians: Mary Vartanian in front, and behind her, from left, her granddaughter Jeanine Shememian, daughter Lisa Darian, and great-granddaughter Lianna Shememian (photo Aram Arkun)

Childhood and Family Life

She was born as Mary Ouzghoushian in Aintab in what then was the Ottoman Empire just before the outbreak of World War I. Her family was not deported during the Armenian Genocide, in part because of the protection of a paternal cousin, Garabed Yesayan, who was a doctor. The same family also helped the Vartanians escape to Aleppo sometime in the early 1920s. They had to leave behind their home and most of their belongings.

Aintab after World War I was temporarily occupied by British and then French troops, but Turkish Nationalist forces began fighting to expel the French, and though they initially were defeated, they obtained control of the city in 1921 and local Armenians fled.

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Mary was too young when she left Aintab to remember much about life there, but she did know that her father was a miller who made cracked wheat. She had two sisters and one brother, and they all made it to Aleppo. She went to the Grtasirats [“Education-Lovers”] Armenian School in Aintab, which was founded in 1924, through sixth grade, and recalled that she liked it a lot. In fact, she said this was the best time in her life.

She studied Armenian in school, knew the Turkish language from Aintab (where many Armenians also spoke Turkish), and learned Arabic because her family eventually rented a house from Arabs. She said that the Arabs were good people.

When asked what she would do for fun as a child, she said she did not dance or sing, but would crochet. She also learned rug weaving and would make Aintab-style rugs later for a living while in Aleppo. There were notebooks with popular designs of the rugs which she would copy. She also sewed the clothing of children who were going to be baptized.

Decades later, samples of her handiwork were placed on display at the museum of the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon.

Mary and Hovhannes Vartanian’s wedding portrait

Mary was introduced by her doctor cousin to Hovhannes Vartanian, also born in Aintab (in 1905), whose family was protected from the deportations there because his father was a violinist beloved by the Turks. They married in 1935. Hovhannes was a violinist like his father but was also a composer. He performed for the Armenian Radio of Aleppo and eventually received the Syrian National Medal of Recognition for his talent.

Mary Vartanian with baby son Sarkis and her little brother Kevork at right, in Aleppo, circa 1938-9

He would travel all over the Middle East to perform. Together Mary and Hovhannes had four sons and two daughters. While her husband did not know much Armenian when they got married, and primarily spoke Turkish, Mary eventually taught him.

Mary Vartanian with her Ouzghoushian siblings in Aleppo, circa 1953: Kevork, standing at rear, with his hands on sister Alice, then to the right, Mary and Ani, with Mary’s daughter Lisa at far right

Topics: longevity

In Aleppo, Mary explained, she never rode horses or learned to drive a car, but she did use horse-driven carriages to go places too distant to walk. Her husband eventually began driving a car in Aleppo to go to his concerts.

Frontispiece to the song Hovhannes Vartanian composed and wrote, Yerk Gars ev Ardahani, published in Aleppo

Mary’s parents had a telephone for important matters, and then her husband got one too. She said he needed it for his work, to book performances for special occasions such as weddings, engagements and baptisms.

Moving to the United States

In 1965, the Vartanians moved to Beirut, Lebanon in order to avoid compulsory military service in the Syrian army for their four sons.  Four years later, Hovhannes passed away, when Mary was 55 years old. She never remarried. One of their sons, Zaven, soon emigrated to the United States and settled in Watertown, Mass., and Mary and another son decided to join him in 1972. Over the next few years, the rest of her children also came to the US, with the exception of one daughter and her family, who remained in Beirut, but in the United States her children soon became scattered.

Mary Vartanian at far left in the St. James Armenian Church kitchen, with Fr. Arsen Barsamian blessing the food to be cooked, sometime in the 1990s

She said that she was sad and always sought the past because her children lived in different places. The same was true of her siblings, as her brother emigrated to Venezuela, a sister to Armenia, and one remained in Beirut.

In Watertown, she worked for a year at a factory assembling parts for an electrical company, and afterwards only did babysitting occasionally. She lived close to St. James Armenian Church and became an active member of its Ladies Guild. She cooked for all the luncheons as well as for the annual church bazaar. She was recognized by the Ladies Guild in June 1997 as “Mother of the Year.”

Mary Vartanian, third from left, pictured during her recognition by the St. James Ladies Guild as mother of the year

She also was involved in the Armenian General Benevolent Union and had many friends. She would always go to commemorations of the Armenian Genocide, and said that the one thing she does not want people to forget is April 24.

Mary Vartanian, at the St. James Armenian Genocide commemoration, far right, April 1996

Aside from moving several times in her long life, Mary traveled a lot to see her scattered family. In the 1960s, she visited her sister Alice in Soviet Armenia. She went twice to Venezuela, to visit her brother Kevork. Age did not hamper her. She traveled through Europe in her 90s on a group tour, and when she was 100 years old, she went to Beirut.

Always active, she lived independently in an apartment until she was 101. She fell, broke her hip and had to go to a rehabilitation center. This led to her moving when she was 102 years old to the Armenian Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Jamaica Plain, where she continues to live today.

She has managed to survive the Covid pandemic so far, though she declared that she was initially scared because there were many deaths in her nursing home.

Secrets to a Long Life?

It’s hard not to wonder whether there is anything special she did to be able to live so long or whether it largely is genetic destiny. There is at least some aspect of the latter, since while her own mother died in her upper 80s, she related that her grandmother reached at least 100 years of age. The latter was very industrious and always remained active.

Mary said that she did not ever smoke or drink alcohol – although when her husband would drink oghi [a licorice flavored strong alcoholic drink] every once in a while for a celebration, she would drink “a drop or two.”

Her mother taught her to cook traditional Armenian meals and she did not eat a lot of meat. She ate legumes and vegetables and loved foods made with olive oil, she said. She also liked lahmajun (Armenian meat pizza) and drank coffee once a day until she moved to the nursing home, which for some reason does not offer it.

She said if there was a secret to her long life, it was that she always did two things: work and read the bible. She never exercised but always was a hard worker, cleaning, cooking and helping her sisters with their children along with raising her own. Whenever she encountered difficulties in life, she would deal with the emotions by working harder. She would read anything in Armenian, but primarily the bible. She is very religious, prays every day, and used to go to church often.

Mary Vartanian at her 108th birthday celebration in August, 2022

She stressed that it was her prayers and religious beliefs which sustained her through many tough periods of life, such as having malaria when she was 18 years old, being widowed with six children, or later, her daughters marrying and moving.

She enjoys Armenian music, and her favorite song is Eem Yerevan. With 13 grandchildren and even more great-grandchildren, Mary advised parents not to be harsh with their children but treat them with love and sweetness.

Mary Vartanian’s counsel to readers is “to strengthen the Armenian nation, not emulate foreigners and always read the bible.”

Four generations of Vartanians: Mary Vartanian being kissed by her granddaughter Jeanine Shememian at left and great-granddaughter Lianna Shememian at right, with daughter Lisa Darian standing behind her (photo Aram Arkun)

With her warmth and humility, Vartanian continues to inspire those around her and give hope that it is indeed possible to lead a life with meaning decades past what is considered the norm.

(Raffi V. Arkun is a sophomore at Lynnfield High School in Lynnfield, MA.)

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