Ellen Sarkisian Chesnut
Up until the age of sixteen years, I was very close to my brother, Arthur aka Art. He was born in Mosul, Iraq (1940) as I was (1939) and was eighteen months younger than me. My sisters, Jan (1943) and Lucy (1947) followed: both born in San Francisco. I was absolutely delighted at the birth of my youngest sister and have remained her life long friend.
Growing up in the Noe Valley near Castro Street in the 1940s and 1950s was never boring. On Saturday afternoons you could find Art and me and sometimes Jan at the Castro Movie Theater. We spent almost the entire afternoon there relishing the serials (I loved the one about the villainous but elegant Chinese woman), along with newsreels, animated cartoons and two feature length films.
After school we would put on our roller skates and zoom down the hill often to a crash landing. What was especially fun for Art, Jan and myself was to hunker down in the Model T Ford in the garage owned by the tenants who resided in the upper flat of our Victorian home. My parents purchased the Victorian after WW II with money my mother saved from Dad’s earnings as a chipper on ships in various naval shipyards where he worked during the war. When the tenants in the upper flat moved out, our family moved into the upper flat, which was much sunnier and made my mother very happy.
On Sundays, we children headed over to Trinity Methodist Church on Sixteenth and Market Streets. The church was totally destroyed by fire decades ago. All of us were active in the Methodist Youth Fellowship and we frequently attended the Friday night potluck dinners held in the church gymnasium.
Art and I were collectors and we had an enormous comic book collection. Boys would ring the doorbell and inquire whether we had comic books to trade–we sure did! I remember the garishly illustrated comic books called: WAR IS HELL!
On Sundays, after church, my father would drive the whole family in a truck to either the zoo to visit “our relatives” on Monkey Island or to PLAYLAND at THE BEACH, near Ocean Beach in the Richmond. Jan was the bravest one of all of us and loved the 200-foot indoor slide at Playland; Not to be missed was the Carousel, Ferris wheel, Dodg ‘Em bumper cars, the Diving Bell and especially the Fun House with Laughing Sal presiding at the entrance.
A solitary and peaceful activity I always enjoyed was designing clothes for my paper dolls. Oftentimes, I was invited by my friends to visit and play. We would act out elaborate story lines with our paper doll characters.
I’d visit the neighborhood library which was a beautiful Victorian era building located at 15th and Market Streets. It housed an extensive collection of fairy tales that I never tired of checking out over and over. I loved reading about brave and resourceful girls the same age as myself.
On the surface, we were a totally normal household of children growing up and enjoying what San Francisco had to offer children in the 1940s and 1950s. When we were older however something happened that changed the bucolic atmosphere. I was about ten years of age, Art was eight and Jan was six years old when my dad decided to let us know about our history. My father was a very charismatic storyteller with a powerful personality–so what he related stayed with us our entire lives. Armenians were almost obliterated from the face of the earth by the forces connected to the Turkish government. Among terrifying events he described how Turkish soldiers would forcibly grab babies out of the arms of their mothers and hurl them into the air while impaling them on their bayonets. We children were speechless. Our mother was beside herself, as she didn’t want to spoil our childhood and innocence with the horrors of the massacres and deportations of the Armenians. TOO LATE! It was then that the three of us realized we were different from our friends. We knew we had been a people marked for destruction.
My siblings absolutely never forgot the passion and heartbreak of my father’s tales. I really took what he said to heart and even wrote a “term paper” while a student at Everett Junior High School in Mr. Sturtevant’s history class. I wrote: THE ARMENIANS by Ellen Sarkisian, AN ARMENIAN. Mr. Sturtevant was my most memorable teacher: soft spoken, very interesting and supportive of all of his students.
Years later, I learned of his retirement from his counseling position at Lowell High School in San Francisco where he was revered by all of his students. I sent him a note and a gift, which was delivered to him by his sister, Barbara who worked at Hoover Jr. High with me (where I taught for nineteen memorable years).
Mr. Sturtevant replied to my gesture with this note dated: May 28, 1984:
I was very touched by your very sweet note (which was read at the dinner) and the gift. I remember you so well from Everett – shy, reserved, and very bright.
Barbara has told me over the years what a fine teacher you are and it pleased me so much that you had once been my student.
Thank you again, Ellen, and I wish you as happy and as rewarding a career as I feel I have had.
My teacher died almost two years after he retired on May 11, 1986. I was able to visit Duggan’s Mortuary and pay my last respects.
I went to San Francisco State following high school and never took any art classes but concentrated on my major, Social Studies and my minor, English. I loved reading and enjoyed writing papers. My professors liked the way I wrote and commended me on my writing, especially the essays I wrote on my final exams in both English and Social Studies.
The final class I had to take was a graduate class in history. When the professor asked me what I’d like as the focus of my final paper, I replied that I wanted to write about the Armenian Genocide. He said, “There’s too much written about that subject already!” This was l962. There was almost nothing written about it but back in the day, women and girls did not question authority or their professors. So I had to choose one of the subjects that he listed. I wrote a thoroughly lackluster paper, as I wasn’t at all interested in it. I regret that I didn’t stand my ground and write about the Armenian Genocide.
When I began teaching in 1963, I would oftentimes take art classes at night, which meant taking public transportation to the San Francisco Art Institute on Chestnut Street. I started out in painting and then switched over to printmaking: etching and dry point I loved drawing from the model as it helped me focus and draw better.
When I met my future husband, Glen in 1970 it turned out he took life drawing as seriously as I did. We even went to the same movie theaters before we even knew one another. We were married in 1972. I continued with my artistic activities at the Academy of Art College and City College in San Francisco. When we moved to Alameda in 2006, I started taking art classes at Laney College in Oakland, the College of Alameda, and at Kala Art Institute.
Glen and I shared many interests and we were married for forty-five eventful and happy years. It was a pleasure to be married to such a sensitive, creative man. He was a self taught, extraordinary painter and photographer who in later years received accolades for his poetry and prose as well.
My years with Glen were the best years of my life. It was a big adjustment for me losing him on July 6, 2017. But, I have helped myself grow by going to group therapy, individual therapy, continuing working out at Total Woman Gym and walking on alternative days. I am also enjoying the exercise class at the Mastick Senior Center and classes at Pro Balance, at Bay Farm Island in Alameda. I am also the volunteer librarian at the Alameda Naval Air Museum and have transformed its library through much hard work. I’m a member of St. Gregory Armenian Church in San Francisco as well as the First Presbyterian Church of Alameda.
My first major loss of a loved one, my mother in 1983, compelled me to think about interviewing my father and also all of my mother’s relatives about their lives. I even reached out to non-family members such as Zohrap Krikorian famous bicyclist and archived his history as well.
And so I had the pleasure of recording histories of both sides of my own family: the Sarkisians and the Shamlians as well as my dear friend and husband’s side of the family, the Chesnuts. Most family members are long gone but I hope by writing these books, I have brought them back to life.
Forward and onward!