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One Easter in Ohio
We lived in Chicago during the ‘60s and during the holidays we would often drive to visit our relatives in New York.
One Easter holiday my father and I drove from Chicago to New York (my mother was already in New York helping my sister with her pregnancy), but we stopped in Ohio to visit some relatives that I didn’t know, but were related to my father.
We piled our ’65 Mercury, powder-blue with whitewall tires, and we sailed out of Chicago at the crack of dawn on the multi-lane thoroughfare called the Eisenhower Expressway that my father never failed to be amazed at (as he was by everything big in car—he was an immigrant who had come to study in the ‘50s and had stayed).
I remember Frank Sinatra playing on the radio and singing “It Was A Very Good Year” as we sailed on the expressway out of Chicago and then climbed the trestles of the elevated highway that floated us over the factories of Gary, Indiana, shrouded in shadows, before the morning brought us to the farmlands of Indiana, with nothing but green fields of corn, before we finally reached Ohio.
We had lived in Montreal, in the suburbs, and later in Chicago, in the suburbs, but we were still in the throb of a big city. Ohio was something completely different, at least where we went: it was a sleepy, drowsy patch of Middle America, with a water tower looming over the whole town, like the water tower in a television show popular in those days set in a small town: Petticoat Junction.
And we sailed through the light and shadow created by the sun hovering through the trees, past vast houses with even vaster yards, and porches with rocking chairs, and hardly a car in the street, until we finally got to the house of a woman my dad described only as Thia Maria: another Thia Maria. Only this one, as he explained the complicated genealogy, was somehow related to an uncle of his who was a priest back in Greece, and she had gotten married and been brought to America.
“Okay, fine,” I told him, as we drove through big old houses with their big old porches and fuzzy sunlight, “but why do we have to see her?” (I was a Greek kid and I had seen enough old relatives of my own: I didn’t have to stop in Ohio to see more).
My father was distracted looking for the address and didn’t answer me.
And after meandering through the maze of streets with generically-small-town American names—Main, Maple, Clark—we finally got to a house with mint-green siding and an enormous porch trimmed in white, just across from a strip mall with a grocery store and a laundromat and families of Puerto Ricans doing their laundry.
My father got out and marched to the door and knocked, and the glass rattled on the door, and I hoped nobody would answer, but my father was relentless and kept knocking, so it sounded like somebody nailing something, and sure enough, the door opened and a lady poked her head out, who I assume was Thia Maria: hair dyed black, glasses like Mamie Eisenhower, a dress with beads on it.
Kisses, hugs, and my dad came trotting back and started unloading the trunk: we were staying with Thia Maria.
It was the weekend before Holy Week and my dad informed me that we would stay the weekend and then head to New York—stay with Thia Maria, in the big house, as big inside as outside: with endless rooms, carpets on the floor, creaky floors, family photos on the wall, white doilies on the couch, chairs with slipcovers, and a view from the kitchen of the yard, and the neighbors’ yards, full of rusted cars and trucks and tractors, and combines: Ohio seemed to be still emerging from farming.
Thia had two kids that I saw who were very nice, much older than me: the daughter took me upstairs to show me our room, past a corridor of creaking wood, and that smelled of the old wood in the house, old and parched, past all these family pictures, including some that featured a man with sculpted hair and jackets with square shoulders: a Greek dandy. I learned later that he had abandoned the family, a shocking thing for a Greek.
For now, as the daughter led me down the corridor to our room, past the family photos, all I could see was the man in the photos who stood front and center and looked a little vain with his sculpted hair and sculpted jackets.
The son came and made a brief appearance and he was very nice. I learned later (news travels fast in the Greek community) that he was gay and having a hard time living in Ohio.
But for now, Thia Maria and my father made calls and the relatives came to visit.
They came, they sat, we had table sweets, and koulourakia, and fraskomilia, and kasseri cheese, because Thia said the Greek store had run out of feta and kefalotiri, and they reminisced: an old Thia with a gold tooth and a frizzy bun (except she wasn’t that old) told rollicking stories about growing up in Greece in her village and having my father be the “daskalos” there: “And I told them all he was my cousin,” she said, swiping the air and tugging down her skirt. “And they told me does he give you any koulouria?” (Any zeros). “And I told them, the only koulouria we eat is when he comes over to my house and my mother feeds him!”
And she laughed and tugged down her skirt and her gold tooth flashed like a lighthouse beacon.
We were supposed to go to church that night, so I washed my face and behind my ears, and a relative (also on my father’s side from the lineage of priests), came to pick us up in his truck (he was in construction), and he smoked so much the smoke literally came out of his ears, as he drove us through the town, the trees now spectral-black and the big old houses looking like they were haunted.
The church was a welcome sight, all lit up for the night, and the doors open, so you could hear the psalmodia, and the priest with his uncertain voice. I was used to making entrances in churches, my father was principal of our Greek school back in Chicago and we had to attend church every Sunday, because he was a man in standing in our community: I could never get out of it. But I didn’t mind it too much: Sunday School you saw all your friends, the Presvytera was big and friendly, and Holy Week was colorful and somber, but then festive and full of good food.
And as a kid if you survived the marathon of services during Holy Week it was like running a marathon and coming out alive.
Somehow the word got out that my father was visiting, a “mousafiris,” and distinguished one with a PhD and a principal in Chicago, so the ushers, among them some of the relatives who had visited us at the Thia Maria’s, brought us to a seat of honor in the front pew, where the elite of the community usually sat, and the “thitses” and “yiayiades” who went to church every Sunday.
And we sat, and I listened to the psalmodia, which I always liked, and checked the bun on the priest, who also wore glasses, so he was a scholarly priest, and the service progressed, until the priest came out of the altar, and flounced his sleeves, and joined his hands in front of him, and began to talk.
“God is with us all,” he said. “God is the resurrection and the light, especially when our world seems to be crumbling.”
This was pretty depressing, but it was the usual sermon—scare you to death, and then tell you, it’s okay, God is looking after you.
But then he started telling us about the death of one of the parishioners, who had been killed in a car accident, and had left behind a wife and young kids.
“Whenever I used to call Niko,” he said, “he used to come down right away: and his wife is the head of our Epitafio Committee.”
And then he summoned the wife from the congregation, a young woman all in black, very pretty, leading two young kids by the hand like Jackie Kennedy. Chairs were brought for them, and they were seated by the altar, in front of the whole congregation, while the young widow kept the little girl on her lap and the little boy cradled up against her.
I looked at the cousin who was in construction, and he looked at me, and now I knew who Niko was and why the cousin was here tonight.
When we were going to Greece the summer before, the cousin in construction had come to Chicago to drive with us to New York, cause our Chevy Impala broke down more often than it ran.
“So if something happens we’ll be there,” he said, when he showed up, out of nowhere: cousins did things like that in those days.
Only he didn’t come in his car, he had nothing but trucks splashed with mud (he said), so he came in a big old Buick driven by his friend, Niko. And a Buick in those days was something special: a cut above our Chevy, and packed with a motor that could pull the Titanic.
They were going to escort us to New York, and we packed up our Chevy and started off, with the Buick following until, sure enough, in Ohio, the Chevy broke down and I remember leaving it at some gas station off the highway.
“Don’t worry,” said the cousin in construction, who smoked and didn’t worry about anything. “I know the guy and he’ll fix it for you.” He also knew everybody.
So we left the Chevy at this gas station in Ohio, and got in the old Buick, all four of us, plus Niko doing the driving, and the cousin doing the smoking, and we had room to spare, cause cars in those days had seats like your living room sofa.
And because I was a kid, I got to squeeze in between all three men in the front seat, like a real man, instead of sitting in the back with my mother and sister, and got to watch Niko driving that Buick, and tapping the ash from his cigarette in the ashtray, and swoop past lowly Chevys and Fords like we were a spaceship. While he told me to slide in all these 45 Greek records (lots of Yiota Lidia and Manolis Angelopoulos) into his very own record player attached to the dash.
“How’d you do that?” I told him, in awe.
“He’s my electrician,” said my cousin in construction.
And Niko, driving the Buick with one hand, glanced over at me and winked.
He also told me to pass around the Kraft caramels he had in a bag stashed in the glove compartment: the chocolate kind.
“I never had them in Greece so when I came to America I couldn’t get enough of them,” he told us. “Only it’s going to rot my teeth.”
We laughed, he winked at me, and nodded at the glove compartment, and I passed around the caramels, and we all chewed, while I picked the caramel out of my teeth, and for the first time I felt like a man, because I was sitting in the front seat with the men, and feeding Yiota Lidia and Manolis Angelopoulos into our very own record player.
Now Niko was gone, and his widow and children sat on display in their grief, while I imagined the old Buick was now a wreck, with the record player smashed, and the glove compartment still full of chocolate caramels.