Our Special Christmas
When my father became principal of Plato School in Chicago during the 1960s we lived in a house on Lotus Avenue that was a short walk for me every morning past everybody’s front yard (a novelty to me coming from Greece) to get to Plato School—where I was the principal’s son. That was both a bane and a privilege—mostly a bane—because I was accused of getting every privilege as the principal’s son, but in fact I had very few: my father was evenhanded and never favored his son. The only “privilege” I had was that I got to eat my lunch with him in his office (a punishment-because someone had told him I was too busy talking to eat my lunch in the lunchroom) and I remember sitting in those throne-like brown leather office chairs and eating tuna fish sandwiches that dribbled on the wax paper the sandwiches were wrapped in while I stared out the big pull windows across W. Harrison at the Greek stores firing up for the afternoon scramble of parents who came to pick up their kids from school and also stopped in pick up their Greek delicacies: the cheeses in nets, the olives in tubs, the slices of the proverbial lamb turning on a spit and staring at everybody.
My father was a very social person and since he was prominent in the community we “knew” a lot of people. The enclave where we lived by Columbus Park was tree-lined and genteel and full of Greeks—all my schoolmates lived within blocks of each other. But we had no family in Chicago and also we came from the “islands” and most Greeks in Chicago in those days came from the Peloponnesus and Sparta. My mother was a shy person, my sister was sheltered, I had joined the family only a few years back from Greece, where I had been raised by my grandparents—we all felt a little displaced, particularly in Chicago, particularly around the holidays.
Except there was Kyria Sakellariou. She was the head of the Greeks teachers at Plato and she was a fulsome lady with a frosty perm and pearls and the tap of her heels in the halls of Plato was a welcome event because she was full of life and talk and perfume. She was our salvation in Chicago because she always invited us for Christmas and I remember the long drive to the Chicago suburbs past houses decorated for Christmas and the long avenue of stores huddled around Marshall Field all decked out with lights and wreaths for the holidays. Our destination was the long driveway of the Sakellariou home, where we parked our 1960 Chevy Impala with the fins and red stripe on the side in the line of other cars from other guests, and then the purl of the Christmas music at the door where Kyria Sakellariou greeted us in her holiday pearls and perfume and apron and the smell of her cooking and Pillsbury dinner rolls filled the air. Filling her living room in chairs with clear slipcovers were her guests and changing colors by the big picture window was her artificial Christmas tree with its mechanical wheel of colors revolving at its base.
We sometimes felt like temporary visitors in Chicago even though we lived there for over ten years, but the holidays were something special because of the kindness of Kyria Sakellariou, and her husband Vagelis (smoking elegantly his cigarette and wearing a patented gold tie) and her son “Niko,” with his ‘60s buzz cut and skinny tie and penny loafers with white socks, who made us feel we had a home away from home and a family to go to on the holidays and who made Christmas indeed something special. Thank you and bless you, Kyria Sakellariou and family.