Claire Hsu Accomando

Claire Hsu Accomando: Memoirs and Lessons from Armenian Nani and Her Sisters

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YEREVAN/ SAN DIEGO — American author Claire Hsu Accomando, born in 1937 in Switzerland to Chinese and French-Armenian parents, graduated from New York University with a degree in biology and chemistry. For many years she taught art history and English at California University, also worked at Sweetwater Union High School District. In 1993 Claire Hsu Accomando published her memoirs Love and Rutabaga: A Remembrance of the War (St. Martin’s Press), which has been published also in French translation in 2021. She published essays and poems in Women in World History, The Christian Science Monitor, American History Magazine. Ararat, Artweek, Promising Practices, City Works, Atlanta Review, San Diego Poetry Annual, etc.

Dear Claire, we have corresponded for many years, although we have never met in person. The initial interest in your book, Love and Rutabaga, was due to my admiration of Babaian sisters, the three Paris-based Armenian artists. One of them, pianist Shushanik (Suzanne) Laloy Babaian (1879-1952), is your Nani (granny in Armenian) — one of main characters of your book. And since our interview is going to be read by an Armenian audience, it will be focused mostly on the Armenian part of your heritage. Being born in a multicultural family you have richness of various background.

I feel enormously enriched by my Armenian ancestry. My grandmother, Shushanik Babaian, whom I knew as Nani, was my first best friend. My grandparents’ bedroom was mostly my grandmother’s domain. Grandpapa had his bureau on the third floor of the old ancestral home in the French village where we spent four years with them during World War II. Opening the door of the bedroom was like entering Ali Baba’s cave. Treasures of all kinds filled the room. The smell of lavender permeated the air.

At night, red, blue and purple shapes decorated the walls of the room. They shifted as the colored-glass lantern hanging from the ceiling swayed. Nani had a carved armoire with drawers filled with scarves that reminded me of dragonfly wings. Shelves held boxes crammed with jewelry she had brought from Tiflis [Tbilisi]. As I tried on the heavy silver necklaces and bracelets encrusted with shiny stones, she told me and my brother about Scheherazade and ferocious Cossacks who consumed food from their saddles so as not to waste time as they ravaged the countryside.

We loved to hear about her childhood. Our favorite story was the one in which, when she was a toddler, her parents feared she had fallen off a horse-drawn sleigh. After retracing their course and looking everywhere, they discovered she had been asleep under a heavy fur blanket.

Your grandmother was the first interpreter of one of most beautiful piano pieces, Shushiki by the iconic figure of Armenian people, Komitas Vardapet. He also has sent a congratulating card addressed to Luis and Shushanik Laloys on the occasion of the birth of their daughter — your mother, Nicolette Laloy Hsu (1906-1995). It has been included in collection of letters by Komitas, published in Yerevan. Is there any memory that your family kept from Komitas and which you can share with us?

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My aunt Marguerite Babaian never talked about Komitas Vardapet. Once I asked Mama why Tante Margit didn’t have a husband and children like everybody else. “She once had a great love and a great loss,” she answered, adding that was the reason she never married. My great-aunt lived all her life in a walk-up, cold-water apartment in Paris. Even when she was old and bent over, she played the piano, and when she sang, she had the incredible voice of a young girl. It is only after her death that I became aware of her relationship with Komitas Vardapet. The information did not come from the family.

Babaian sisters: Armenuhi-Arminia (Amo), Shushanik (Nani) and Marguerite. 1905

Your grandfather, Louis Laloy, was a notable French music critic and scholar, a close friend of Claude Debussy, who wrote the composer’s first French biography and who also appreciated Komitas Vardapet’s music. He was proficient in eight languages, including Chinese. What about Armenian?

I never heard my grandfather speak Armenian. I never saw books written in Armenian on the bookcases that seemed to hold up the ceiling of his bureau. 

Could you please share your personal memories on truly fantastic Babaian sisters?

In 1905, when their three daughters were on the verge of adulthood, Avetik and Sophie Babaian, decided to send them to Paris to finish their studies. Marguerite chose to be a singer and interpreter of Armenian songs. Armenuhi or Amo studied art and painted luminous, misty portraits. Nani became a concert pianist. The younger sisters married French men. Amo had announced there were two types of men she avoided: soldiers and doctors. She married Charles Carbonell, a naval doctor! Nani married Louis Laloy, a musicologist and scholar. My brother and I liked Oncle Charles better than Grandpapa. Oncle Charles helped us build castles with wooden blocks. Grandpapa didn’t know our names. He called us “la petite” and “le petit.”

During the war years, Nani and her sisters did not see each other often. France was divided in two and they lived in the occupied zone. In order to come to our little village, they needed permits from the Nazis and these “laissez-passers” were difficult to obtain. Their rare visits were festive occasions. They spoke fast, laughed, played music and sang. Nani, the youngest, had been forced to speak Russian in school, so she was not as fluent in Armenian as her sisters. Now and then to tease my grandmother the older two switched from French to Armenian. Nani pretended to be offended, but not for long. They soon reverted to French, peppered with words I didn’t understand but loved to hear.

Claire with Nani. 1944

Nani told you never to be afraid of having enemies. What more life lessons do did you receive from her?

My grandmother was a free spirit. She was very disciplined in certain ways, but was not awed by authority. Her piano time was sacred, and she took great care of her appearance. She came down for breakfast fully dressed, and wearing shoes. Her black hair formed neat waves around her face. All the buttons of her dress were properly matched with their button holes. At a time when color had been boiled out of our clothes due to lack of soap, she added a scarf to her black dress and looked like a grande dame. She taught me the importance of self-discipline.

On the other hand, she was whimsical and spontaneous and when at a loss for an answer was not afraid to invent one. At the time of the liberation when an American soldier gave me a stick of chewing gum, she told me to chew but not swallow. When my jaw started to ache, I asked her what I should do. Without hesitation she told me to wrap it in my hanky and save it for the next day.

Sometimes when my mother reprimanded me, Nani took my side and reminded her that I meant well. When it was evident, I didn’t mean well, she asked for clemency by mentioning that I probably had experienced a bad day at school. On walks she picked up pretty pebbles and we washed them when we came home. She took care of her pianist’s hands and her only domestic chore was washing tea cups. Mama placed two dish pans on the dining room table, one for scrubbing, the other for rinsing. Before doing the task, Nani read us our future from the pattern formed by the black tea leaves at the bottom of the white cup.

In catechism we learned that not telling the truth was a sin, so when I caught my mother lying to a Nazi soldier, I asked Nani if Mama had committed a sin. She answered that lying to the devil was not a sin, in fact it was the opposite. The answer was clear and satisfying.

Nani taught me to savor the moment and to care for things and people. She exemplified the importance of being passionate yet flexible, and indicated that rules were not absolute.

 It was a nice surprise to find among other interesting documents in the personal files of Marguerite Babaian at the Museum of Literature and Art of Armenia also a letter addressed to her by your father Fuyun Hsu (1905–2005). He worked for United Nations and was the founders of UNICEF, and also was a Tai Chi teacher. How did this gentleman feel as a part of your French-Armenian family?

My father came from China to France as a very young man. He had received a scholarship at the Sorbonne where he studied law. He arrived early for the lectures and sat in the front of the amphitheater so as to catch every French word. One day he noticed a young woman standing at the back of the room and offered her his seat. Although Nicolette Laloy never sat in front rows, to be polite she accepted. This is how my parents met. Because my grandfather was interested in Chinese music and had traveled to China, Fuyun Hsu was welcomed into the Laloy home. Papa was captivated by the Armenian side of the family and took voice lessons from Tante Margit.

First row : Ninette Laloy, Claire Hsu Accomando (baby), Fuyun Hsu, Nicolette Laloy Hsu. Back row: Karen Laloy (wife of Jean Laloy), Jean Laloy, Nani (Shushanik Babaian), Louis Laloy. 1937

Your extended family included various countries and ethnicities. In Paris and Yerevan, I met one of your cousins, actress and poet Marianne Auricoste Babaian and Helene Carbonelle and I was also in touch with one of your relatives, Jean-Sérène Laloy, who even used Armenian words. I felt that the Armenian identity is quite strong in them.

My son and his wife live in Los Angeles. They have a house in North Hollywood, but used to live in Glendale. Both places have a lively Armenian community. When he visits me, he brings wine and delicious baked goods from the Armenian stores and bakeries that thrive in his neighborhood.

I recently returned from a family reunion in France. My cousin Erik Laloy, son of my mother’s brother, Jean Laloy, generously invited over sixty family members to Normandy to celebrate his 80th birthday. I had not seen him in sixty-three years. I met many of my accomplished cousins for the first time at this lively gathering. There were slide presentations, readings and musical performances. Marianne Auricoste-Babaian spoke emotionally of her memorable visit to Yerevan a few years ago with Helene Carbonelle, her cousin. As the oldest I shared my childhood memories. This epic reunion made me immensely proud of being a member of this amazing family, that issued from Avetik and Sophia Babaian.

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