Jan 262011

Missing Dad

by Natalia Sarkissian

I can say I lost my father when I was six.

That was the year my parents separated. Although they weren’t divorced until a year or so later, I never spent long chunks of time with him after. I traveled from New York to Morgantown and later to Texas to visit him at Christmas and for two weeks every summer, but I was a kid. Instead of asking questions about his childhood (he grew up in Tehran, the son of well-to-do Russian émigrés) or his work (he was a professor of genetics), I roller skated in the driveway, swam in the pool at the complex or played Barbies in the bedroom with Rhonda, the girl next door. I didn’t know then that illness would cut his promising career and life short. And he never worried me with the fleeting nature of time.

(My father is the boy in the sailor suit, front and center.)

Maybe, if I’d had an inkling.

Maybe, if I’d been older.

I’d have sat next to his recliner in the den in Morgantown or the family room in Texas on at least one of those bi-annual visits and listened.

Dad died in 1978 when he was 45, from complications of multiple sclerosis.

Ever since I’ve lived with regret. What was it like growing up on well-heeled Jordan Avenue, Tehran, in the middle of an extended family of musicians, engineers and dentists? Did he ever go with my grandmother, Babi, when she taught piano to the Shah of Iran’s sister? Did he ever accompany my grandfather, Dida, on the civil works projects Dida oversaw for the Shah? What games did he play with General Norman Schwarzkopf (a classmate) before the General became a general? Who the first girl he ever loved? When did he know he wanted to be a scientist? Did he ever regret coming to live in America?

I will never know the answers.

(My father is center, back row with Norman behind him and to his right.

(My father is in the back row, center. Schwarzkopf is the blond boy to his right.)

But recently, through Numéro Cinq, I met Lynne Quarmby, a professor of cell biology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. We ‘friended’ each other on Facebook, and began to correspond. One day, on a whim, I asked Lynne if she’d ever heard of my father. I’d been thinking of childhood and essays for Numéro Cinq Magazine.

“His name was Igor V. Sarkissian,” I wrote. “Back in the 60s and 70s he was experimenting on hybrid corn and beans (which is about all I know of his work).”

(My father in his lab in the 1960s.)

Lynne said she’d look and see what she could find out. A few days later she sent me this gift:

Dear Natasha,

So far as I can tell, your father published 91 scientific papers (there may be others that my searching did not uncover). He produced a solid body of work, taking a biochemical approach to an important agricultural and intriguing physiological problem. There was a peak of interest in his work in the 70’s (during which time his work was cited 50 or more times per year in the published work of other researchers). As is typical of virtually all scientific papers, the citations tapered off over the years. However, and this is the remarkable thing, his work is still being cited today. The field of biology, including plant genetics is moving so incredibly quickly that the vast majority of papers drop out of sight within a few years. To be cited more than 30 years after publication is a significant accomplishment and your father achieved that with 5 of his papers. Because he worked in an area somewhat distant from my expertise, it is difficult for me to provide a synopsis of his body of work. In lieu of that, I choose to focus on his mostly highly cited work, a 1966 publication – which by the way, has already received a 2011 citation in a review paper (this means that a current expert in the field has commented on the impact of this particular piece of work by your father).   –Lynne

Lynne then reviews my father’s 1966 paper, about hybrid vigor, translating it into laymen’s terms. I won’t summarize the 1966 article here—a future post—but the crux of the matter is this:

I’d had an idea that my father’s work had been important, but I had no idea as to its scope or that it was still generating interest. My father would be proud to know he made an impact.

When he found out, at age 24, that he had multiple sclerosis, he became single-minded, hoping to have enough time to be able to make some kind of contribution. And the fact that he was able to partially do so lessens the sadness I feel for his short and somewhat unlucky life.

–Natalia Sarkissian

  35 Responses to “Missing Dad — Natalia Sarkissian”

  1. Okay, this is where the community growing beneath and around and above NC astounds me. Connections made on the page go elsewhere, become personal, deeply so, and revelatory. This makes it suddenly worth while. This makes the NC crowd special and grand. There’s beauty in what Natalia writes, more than just the beauty of the words.

  2. Very nicely done. So cool that the connections were made here too.

    N: Where was that picture taken of you dad and Gen. Schwarzkopf? (There’s a reason I’m asking.)

    • I believe (but am not 100% positive) that it was taken at the American School in Tehran where my Dad was a student and learned to speak English without a foreign accent. Here I think my Dad was about 12 or 13, but once again, I’m not sure. This is the only photo I have of the two of them together.

      • My uncle went to high school w/ Gen. S. but it was in Heidleburg Germany…probably in 1950 or so. I was thinking that there might be some weird overlap. Thanks for following up. I really enjoyed this piece!

  3. Natalia,

    This is a lovely tribute to your dad, and I think it’s wonderful you made the connections via NC. The photos and the writing create a terrific synergy between longing and justifiable pride.

    • Thanks Jeanne. The longing has always been there and thanks to Lynne–who was so incredibly generous with her time–now it’s coupled with pride.

  4. WOW! This is an amazing story. And, I am so happy for you Natalia. To have this “gift” from your father after all of the years of questions. I still have gooseflesh.

    • I know, the “gift” is amazing. Lynne did a huge amount of research for me and was exceedingly generous with her time.

  5. So much sadness here, but such wonderful material. I do hope you come back to this.

  6. Very sweet, and melancholy, too. Thank you so much for sharing this piece.

    An aside–Schwarzkopf married a woman from my town, Brenda Holsinger. (I was surprised to see the Schwarzkopf family Christmas letter a couple years ago at the home of my 89-year-old local friend. There was the General with his grandbaby and pet dog, looking like most people in their Christmas letters, just a little more distinguished.)

    Various threads are weaving together on NC, once again.

  7. The innocence of youth, the reflective guilt as an adult–so tender and tragic. I look forward to reading more.

  8. He was quite quiet about his work and never talked specifically about it. Don’t you wish we could get inside others’ heads?

  9. Your father was a remarkable man.

  10. Thanks Natalia and CG. Nice work and very thought provoking. You father was/is amazing. Great pictures.
    Makes me grateful to have my folks around and that I have a great relationship with them. (Wasn’t always the case!) I call them almost everyday and I love listening to them. But perhaps I should ask some more questions…I know I wish I had asked my grandmother some things.

  11. Fascinating what we can uncover about our family members when we blow the dust away. Your father’s history is amazing and might be a wonderful treasure for you to reveal in future writings. I hope you’ll write more about him Natalia. I so enjoyed this!

  12. I am so glad that this post caught my eye because I don’t get to peruse the treasures of Numero Cinq as often as I’d like. It brought so much richness to my day.

    Natalia, your father was obviously brilliant, just as you are. I feel your sadness for the loss of him both then and now. How serendipitous that DG connected you to LQ. How thrilling for you to learn more about his scientific passion. (6 degrees of separation or less. My husband “guarded” Norman Schwarzkopf some years ago- leave it at that).

    • Another Schwarzkopf connection here on NC! Amazing.

      • Somehow it seems fated. We’ll have to find him and get a comment. 🙂

        • I thought I’d be the last to contribute to the Schwarzkopf subthread, but I shared Natalia’s story with a good friend (a history prof) who made an interesting observation (although she qualifies it by saying she’s not sure if the dates add up): “Could it be that young Schwarzkopf was there [Tehran] because his dad, with Kermit Roosevelt, had just arranged to topple the democratically
          elected leader, Mossadeq, and arranged for the Shah to return: one of the covert actions the Eisenhower era preferred for running the world in US interest. As we know, democracy in Iran never recovered.”

  13. Beautiful, Natalia! I look forward to reading more!

  14. Wonderful coincidence that this all came about at NC. And this is a fine piece of writing about it.

  15. Your finding is an amazing tribute to your dad. I’m so happy for you that after al these years of quests, your quests have been answered. A Remarkable figure your dad was!

  16. Thanks Court, Georgia, Kim and Lynne.
    I do hope we can find General Schwarzkopf. Anna, any ideas????

  17. Did your father attend Michigan State Univ in 1953? I knew an Igor Sarkissian at that time but lost track of him after he married i believe in 1954. We were both freshmen, he was from Tehran and his picture looks quite familiar. Jim Auld

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