Flora Apkarian Yessaian, age 95, went to be with our Lord on June 22, 2022. The family will receive visitors on July 6, 2022, Wednesday from 10:30am until the time of the funeral service at 12:30pm in St. John Armenian Church, 22001 Northwestern Hwy, Southfield, MI 48075. Interment will follow in Pine Lake Cemetery, West Bloomfield, MI.
FLORA'S LIFE AS SEEN THROUGH THE EYES OF HER FAMILY
I want to tell you about my grandmother, Flora Yessaian. To us, she was Gagi. But, in order to give you a fair assessment of her story and her character, I need to take you back in time...
We begin with Aris Apkarian, Flora’s father, who was born and raised in Turkey. He was the youngest of six brothers and one sister. His siblings would eventually be killed off during the Armenian Genocide along with his mother and father… a village priest. 17-year-old Aris survived. You see, his family had earlier provided his passage to the United States before meeting their own demise. They believed he could make better money in the states... and then return back to Turkey with a profit. And so, he worked in the coal mines of North Dakota, earning a dollar a day for a full day’s work...still not knowing the others had been murdered. It was only when he returned back to Turkey that he learned his entire family was murdered by the Ottoman Turks.
In time, Aris would marry Nazle (or in English…Nancy) They had their first child, Helen. But, with the ongoing threats of discrimination against Armenians, they were chased out of Turkey and fled to Greece. That’s where Flora was born. Piraeus, Greece (the port city of Athens). It was 1926. She would be the middle child as her younger brother Mardy was born sometime later. However, their time in Greece did not last long as they had to move on to Lebanon. There were too many refugees in Greece, so they boarded a ship to Beirut.
Still, not totally satisfied with his circumstances, young Aris wanted more for his family. His earlier taste of America had him yearning for a return. As relatives of his were arriving in Argentina he had heard from them that his best bet in getting back to America was by way of Cuba. There he would find a bridge connecting Cuba to the United States. In fact, there were other Armenians who were equally misinformed. If you’ve read any history on Cuba, you’ll find there was a whole colony of Armenians who migrated to that island during the late 20s and early 30s…and some for the same reasons. They boarded the boat to Cuba, but it was only for woman and children. Men were not allowed, yet Aris managed to sneak on the boat to be with his family. My grandmother told us he was actually hit over the head and passed out on the ship for trespassing.
So, here they were…in Cuba…This would be Flora’s new home from the age of 2 till 16. This is where she found herself transitioning from the middle child to leader of the household. She felt she had no other choice. Her father was almost never home. He worked as a shoe maker from dawn ‘til dusk. Flora’s mother, Nazle, contracted Tuberculosis and died at age 30. The older sister, Helen, tried to help when possible but now, it was 8-year-old Flora who committed herself to managing the family’s affairs. She would take control in an effort to ease her father’s burden.
The money was scarce and so was the food. The family shuffled from one crowded tenement house to the next for cheaper rent. These places never had more than one bathroom for multiple families. If life wasn’t complicated enough, little brother Mardy was forever getting into mischief... antagonizing the Cuban kids in the neighborhood. When it looked like there would be a fist fight…Flora rushed to Mardy’s rescue even if he was the perpetrator…sometimes chasing down the aggressors with a broomstick.
This is the time when my grandmother began losing her childhood innocence. She appointed herself with a tremendous responsibility …to be self-sufficient…to become hardened…to be on the lookout for anything resembling evil. Not unlike her father, she layered herself with suspicion of anyone seemingly unfriendly to her cause. This is when she became judgmental...needing to insulate herself from those grey areas of indecision. Everything had to be black and white. You were either with her or against her…you were right or you were wrong.
During the Batista regime, Cuba was a relatively calm. It was a time when Americans were traveling over for the casinos, dancing and parties. These were also the days she was looking for food and money...stealing flour and meat from grocery stores…selling used up lottery tickets to unsuspecting customers. But, all that said, it’s ironic she found moments of relief to play a practical joke...like pulling a chair out from underneath her grandmother at the kitchen table. And in those days, it was not just a “time out” …more like a shoe to the head.
When Flora turned 12, the family was fortunate enough to move to Havana. They were offered a penthouse for free as long as they could maintain the upkeep. Aris's job was to turn off the many lights in the building during the evening. Flora’s job was to wash and dry off the five flights of marble stairways every morning and every night. She was responsible for two identical stair cases located in the front and rear entrances of the building. Sometimes she was solicited by male prostitutes to enter their rooms. But her early development of common sense demanded she avoid the dark sides of life.
When there were moments of solitude, Flora would find herself on the penthouse balcony listening to a pianist from across the way. He was performing classical music. She didn’t know till later she was listening to the compositions of the great Ernesto Lecuona, composer of that iconic piece, Malaguena. That’s when the music hit her. She wanted so desperately to play the piano. She asked for lessons. Her father, being very strict and protective, said no…that these things would lead nowhere. Instead, Aris sent all his children to a private Armenian school in Cuba where they would learn the basics and find a meaningful profession. Not music, not the arts, not sports…nothing fun…nothing that appeared to be lacking of respect. Aris’s suspicions, his dire outlook on life and feelings of being “done in” by the world had penetrated Flora's subconscious.
Sometimes, in wanting to repel those feelings, she searched for an escape. On one occasion she asked her father if she could go see a movie with a friend. That’s when it was customary for Aris to present an obstacle course. He would ask who she was going with ... how much would it cost… what was the movie about…on and on... Whatever her answers, they would lead to endless questions until Flora was finally worn down and decided to stay home. Besides, she figured the movie had probably begun without her.
Things took a real turn when during the revolution, Castro attempted to take control. As the revolution took hold, they found themselves in their apartment ducking from gunfire... running from one tenement house to the next ...with Flora carrying the family shoes... so they could have something to wear on their feet while making an escape.
During those final years in Cuba, Aris would eventually find another wife. Her name was Mary. Yet, it’s not known if they were actually married. And, sometime after, Flora’s sister, Helen, would leave the family and settle in the United States on what was an arranged marriage to Jack Torosian. Flora finally arrived in the United States with her family at the age of 16. So there they were… her father, her stepmother, Mary, and little brother Mardy. In what was yet, another pre-arranged marriage, she was betrothed to my grandfather, Harry Yessaian, at the age of 17. They had two sons, Dan and Mark, my father and uncle, whom she regarded with unconditional love.
Sometime later, needing to help support her family, she worked at Winkleman’s. She became a top salesperson there. And it was sometime after that we learned her marriage to my grandfather, Harry, began to deteriorate. They eventually divorced. Flora fell into depression and was despondent. My father suggested she might want to work within the live entertainment division of our family business. We knew she would be great at sales and, besides, this would give her something to do. Things seemed to work out quite well until we began noticing we couldn’t hold on to our employees. If Flora noticed any of the workers abusing time with idle chatter or deficient work habits, she would scold them or, worse yet, deliver hours of deadly looks. After all, this was her son’s business and he was not to be taken advantage of. The friction went on for some time until it was decided we should let the entertainment division go claiming… there were economic reasons. But we’re pretty sure she knew better. You couldn’t fool this woman.
Dan had apprised his longtime song writing partner, David Barrett, of the structural change to the company. A few weeks later, Barrett told my dad he had written a new song entitled: MOM I, LOVE YOU, BUT YOU’RE FIRED" You’ll find the song on the internet. It seems to be quite popular.
You may also want to know that Flora was a member of St John Armenian Church and insisted both her sons attend every Sunday without fail…or they would be in trouble. She sang in the church choir and taught Sunday School for many years. She retained her love for music and the opera. Her favorite artist was Pavarotti. But it was a performance she took me to of Andrea Bocelli where she really fell in love (not sure it was just the music).
She was a philanthropist. Her favorite charity was Children’s Hospital. She loved children for their innocence. She taught all of us the value of common sense, right from wrong, how to save money, how to buy land and deal in stocks. She was feisty, defiant and fought for the underdog. In fact, she took me to a bank - Manufacturers Bank of Detroit – where she helped me open my first savings account. She also started my first mutual fund with 20th Century Investments and taught me how to save and invest for the future. She would protect her children and grandchildren at all costs…but always gave them enough leash to explore life…something she resented her father for not doing.
She was multilingual, able to communicate in English, Armenian, Turkish and Spanish. When my dad and uncle were very young, she would swear at them in Spanish if they misbehaved, use Armenian so they would not understand and mostly speak to them in Turkish at a young age. However, when she was with her sister Helen, they would speak all 4 languages at the same time and NOBODY could understand them.
My grandmother’s life was still tough all the way around. When arriving to the U.S., she lost her brother Mardy to Tuberculosis when he was 23... then her father and step mother passed away sometime afterwards. Her sister Helen passed in 2004. But her extraordinary resilience prevented her from caving into self-pity. If you ask the caregivers at Westlake Nursing facility, they’ll tell you they’d never seen anyone with Flora’s strength. She resided there in the memory care unit for 8 years with Alzheimer’s.
Unfortunately, her recollection of us began fading away a couple of years ago. But the one thing we will never forget is her desire to sing ...right up until her last days. Her favorite song was Un Gato, a Spanish folk song about a cat falling off of a roof. We never quite understood the significance of the message but it did have a happy ending. She taught all her grandchildren and caregivers at the nursing facility both the melody and lyrics of that song. We sang that song every time we were at her house growing up.
Food! Besides all the amazing Armenian food she cooked, she was the best maker of oatmeal that had golden raisins in it (she always had golden raisins), great pancakes with Log Cabin Syrup only, and always a bowl filled with either gummy oranges, sesame candies or strawberry candies filled with jelly. We spent the night at her house A LOT. She helped us build boats that we attempted to float and ride on her pond, took us sledding (while she waited in the car for us). I may have even broken my arm on that trip but STILL stayed at her house. She really was involved in every aspect of our lives. My grandmother, Gagi as we lovingly called her, was 95 when she left us. She will be sorely missed but never forgotten. We love you Gagi and we know God will look after you. God Bless you.
Flora leaves behind her loving sons Dan (Kathy) Yessian and Mark (Cindy) Yessian. Known as “Gagi” to her precious grandchildren Brian (Maggie) Yessian, Michael (Maureen) Yessian, Matthew (Nina) Yessian, and Christy Yessian (Ryan) Johns, Flora was also blessed with 11 great-grandchildren – Landon, Gavin, Tyler, Lula, Felix, Isla, Grant, Gwen, Christian, Cameron, Isabella. She will be missed by many nieces and nephews and especially her dear friend Dalia Donikian, as well as her caretaker Bonnie and Westlake staff. Flora was predeceased by brother Mardy Apkarian and sister Helen Torosian.
The family suggests that donations in her memory be sent to either St. John Armenian Church, at the above address, or to the Children's Hospital of Michigan, 3950 Beaubien Blvd, Detroit, MI 48201
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