At 96 years old, Grace Gould lives alone, though her daughter, Gigi Uccello, and her son-in-law are always next door. Ms. Gould spends her days sewing dresses for her great-granddaughters, and, at times, driving herself into town to buy groceries. Her evenings are spent preparing her own meals and watching the game shows, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. Sundays are spent reading the Lifestyles section of the San Jose Mercury News, for as Ms. Gould said, she’s always been intrigued by peoples’ “experiences and what they've done and what they've been through.” On occasion, she’ll play the piano or saxophone, joining her grandson, a professional musician, in an impromptu home-concert.
Since 1946, Ms. Gould has called San Benito County home.
She was born in Fowler, Calif. on Sept. 17, 1918. Her parents, Andrew and Hranoush Bagdasarian, had immigrated with their families from eastern Anatolia in 1907 and married in 1908.
The circumstances surrounding their marriage were unusual, but not uncommon for the time. According to Ms. Gould, Hranoush’s parents were so desperate to come to the United States—where they were told “the streets were paved with gold”—that they agreed to marry off their daughter in exchange for a one-way ticket paid for by Andrew’s parents. The deal was made somewhat more palatable by the fact that Hranoush’s older sister was engaged to Andrew’s brother. Despite the quid pro quo nuptial arrangement, Hranoush and Andrew were married for more than 50 years.
Armenians, like other immigrant groups before them, soon discovered that America’s streets weren’t laden with riches. Instead, their fortunes would be made in places, like the arid San Joaquin Valley. Its arable land and climate attracted those accustomed to an agrarian lifestyle, including Armenians who began settling there in the 1880s. Fleeing the genocide, larger numbers arrived during the diaspora.
Ms. Gould grew up on her family’s Fowler ranch, where her father grew grapes and produced raisins. Among her earliest memories are the days spent after the harvest when she and her three, older siblings would turn the trays of grapes ripening in the sun.
Armenian culture permeated Ms. Gould’s childhood. At home, Armenian was spoken. All of her neighbors and many of her classmates were Armenian. Her parents sent her to an Armenian school on Saturdays, where she was taught how to read and write her mother tongue. But their precocious child decided it wasn’t her cup of tea and dropped out. On Sundays, the family attended the local Armenian church.
After high school, Ms. Gould attended Fresno State College. Her mother, who had been educated at a missionary school in Bulgaria, often said to relatives and friends, “ ‘all my children are going to go to college,’ “ according to Ms. Gould.
While in college, Ms. Gould majored in music and played in the school’s band, where she met fellow band-mate and accounting major, Frank Gould. Of her time in the band, she fondly recalled playing in San Francisco at the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937.
Her relationship with Frank eventually turned romantic, despite opposition from her parents who considered him an “odar,” the Armenian word for an outsider or foreigner.
After college, Frank enlisted in the U.S. Army and a marriage proposal followed. Ms. Gould accepted on the condition that he attend officer’s training school. Her parents were displeased by her decision, for as the youngest daughter she was expected to wed after her older sisters.
Ignoring her parents’ entreaties, she packed her bags and took a train bound for Virginia—the site of her wedding ceremony. Wearing the dress she had sewn for herself and standing beside two strangers who stood in as witnesses, Ms. Gould became a married woman in 1942.
A wedding reception of sorts followed at a local cafe, where the newlyweds “sat at the counter chased the flies with one hand and ate with the other,” Ms. Gould jokingly said.
Marital bliss didn’t last long, as Frank was called to war. He traversed the beaches of Normandy and then fought the Germans through France before suffering an injury that left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Back in the states, Ms. Gould was in Fowler caring for their infant daughter, Gigi.
Returning stateside, Frank was sent to Auburn, Calif., where he spent months in rehabilitation. Ms. Gould and Gigi joined him. It wasn’t long before the Goulds welcomed another daughter, Barbara.
Faced with a growing family and the lack of job prospects, the Goulds were elated when a family friend offered Frank a job at a Hollister car dealership. As Ms. Gould explained of her late-husband, “he was a parts man” then because of his accounting background began “keeping the books” for the company. Eventually, he ventured out on his own, establishing Frank Gould’s Accounting Service.
The family built a home at the corner of San Benito and Haydon streets and an office next door. Raising two daughters and assisting her husband, while at home or in the office, became Ms. Gould’s routine for years.
For a period of time, Ms. Gould was joined in Hollister by her sister, Stella, who had met a local teacher through a conversation over a fence. The two later married. Having her sister around provided Ms. Gould with support and a chance to speak Armenian, especially if she didn’t want her daughters to know what she was talking about.
In 1976, Frank passed away. During his time in Hollister, he ran a successful business and served for 12 years as city clerk. Ms. Gould never remarried. And still today, she recalls with admiration how her late husband “worked very hard…and never complained” despite his physical condition.
As Ms. Uccello said of her mother, she was always one to keep “looking forward.” Widowed with two adult daughters, Ms. Gould decided to join her sister, Sue, and brother-in-law on the first of two trips with the couple to Armenia. Sue’s husband was a dentist who made annual trips to his home country, delivering much needed medical supplies and equipment.
Soon after its independence in 1918, Armenia was swallowed up by the Soviet Union. Its people reaped the benefits of Bolshevism and later of Stalin’s totalitarian policies. Later, the Cold War intensified the frigid economic stagnation that plagued other Soviet republics. It was during this time that Ms. Gould traveled to Armenia.
She recalled walking the streets of Soviet Armenia and not a single-person was smiling. And she dared not speak Armenian because those in abject poverty would want the Americans to take them to the U.S.
On one of her visits, Ms. Gould traveled to Istanbul, Turkey. While shopping in the bazaar, she avoided identifying herself as Armenian and was careful not utter Armenian phrases, as anti-Armenian sentiments still ran high throughout the country.
As a young girl, Ms. Gould often overheard her mother make disparaging and virulent remarks about the Turks. Harnoush’s words carried weight, for her family had lived under the Bloody Sultan’s policies before their arrival to the U.S.
When the genocide began in 1915, Ms. Gould’s parents were raising their family and managing their farm in Fowler. The Bagdasarian’s immediate family were unaffected by the atrocities, but the life of one of Harnoush’s cousins was spared when he was taken out of Turkey on his mother’s back.
Ms. Gould admitted that the events of 1915 were never talked about while she was a child. She added that her marriage to Frank, an odar, increased the likelihood that she “wouldn’t hear about it.” Only later in life did she learn about the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Turks.
When asked about the Armenian Genocide centennial, Ms. Gould responded matter-of-factly: “At my age, I just live from day-to-day. I enjoy my family and I sew for my great-granddaughters. I do important things. I don’t worry about the genocide….There’s nothing I can do about it. No one is going ask me. [President] Obama is not going to ask me.”
What’s most important to Ms. Gould is her family and the precious time they spend together—something highly valued in Armenian culture. In addition, she’s takes great pride in referring to herself as “100% Armenian,” a rarity in the Armenian community where intermarriage with other ethnic groups is often the rule.
Hanging from her fireplace mantle is nearly a score of Christmas stockings Ms. Gould has made for members of her family, including one for her late daughter Barbara (Bishop) who died in 2013.
As Ms. Gould explained, the stockings serve as a reminder that “it’s Christmas every day” and one should “make the best of every day.” After a few minutes with her, it’s hard to disagree, for her effervescent spirit, infectious smile, and palatable zest for life are truly gifts to those she meets.
Remembrance and Recognition: An overview of the Armenian Genocide (first in a series)