Christmas At Kyria Sakellariou’s
When we lived in Chicago back in the ‘60s, we spent most Christmas Days at Kyria Sakellariou’s house in the suburbs.
She was the formidable lady who ran the Greek program at my dad’s school where he was principal: Plato School of the Assumption Church. She had teased white hair, sometimes bluish, she wore shiny dresses, always with jewelry, sometimes with pearls, and when she walked down the hallway of the school we could hear the tap of her heels like a drumbeat; before she popped into our room, hugging her big notebook of Greek curricula and mimeographed sheets to her chest, and ready to address us with an enthusiastic speech, in her signature lisp.
“Paidakia mou, are you ready for Christmas?!”
Yes, we would say!
“Have you been good this year?!”
Yes, we would say!
“Ayios Vasilis wants you to be good!”
Yes, we would say!
“Christos, have you been good?” she would say to Chris, who was never good, and never did his homework, and talked in class, so he was always in my father’s office. “Were you nice to everybody this year?”
Yes, Chris would say, because he was an agreeable kid, despite never doing his homework, and talking in class all the time, and Kyria Sakellariou was satisfied and addressed us all.
“So now we’ll all have a Kala Xristougena—because Christos was good!” she would say, because she was always enthusiastic and positive.
With just about everybody, particularly the kids, so when she talked to you she usually ran out of breath, and had to pat her chest, with the big notebook of her Greek curricula and mimeographed sheets, amidst the pearls, and we always wanted to please her, because nothing was nicer than having Kyria Sakellariou gush over you.
Which she usually did, so I liked going to her house every Christmas, also we had no family in Chicago, so Kyria Sakellariou became our family, and I liked going through our Christmas ritual of getting ready to visit her: my dad putting on his suit from Hart Schaffner Marx, me putting on my suit from Robert Hall, my sister teasing her hair and hair-spraying it so she looked just like Shelley Fabares on The Donna Reed Show, a teen idol of the time, and my mother warming up the house on a Chicago winter and making it smell sweet as she baked for days whipping up her koulouria and kourambiedes and swaddling them on a plate with Saran Wrap, like a mummy.
Before we got in the Chevy Impala with the red vinyl seats, and red steering wheel that clicked with my father’s college ring, as we drove past Columbus Park near our house, usually blanketed in snow, while Johnny Mathis crooned Christmas carols on the radio, and we marveled at his high notes.
Until we cruised into the woods of the suburbs, where the grim brick apartment buildings where we lived switched into these sunny homes in white brick, with expansive lawns, and big picture windows showing their Christmas trees, many of them silver, and their tons of cars in the driveway, Buicks and Oldsmobiles and even Cadillacs, with fins like spaceships.
Until we got to the big, bustling street sparkling with stores, where the streetlights were hung with Christmas balls, past the fortress of Marshall Field, the department store, looking like a giant gingerbread house, only strung with lights; with Santas outside clanging their bells by their red buckets, Christmas carols blasting out of speakers, and crowds of people charging across the street with their Christmas packages like fullbacks.
Before we got into the peace and quiet of the outer suburbs, where all the houses twinkled with Christmas lights, all those ranch houses and split-levels, with lawns that looked just like the one on My Three Sons, with its Pontiac station wagon in the driveway, and its mailbox by the street, where Fred MacMurray would toddle out with his pipe and in his cardigan and pluck out his mail, while waving to his neighbors, including the ones with the pearls who looked just like Donna Reed.
Until we finally got to Kyria Sakellariou’s house, with its big picture window sparkling like a flare with her silver Christmas tree, only changing colors with the colors of the rotating wheel on the floor.
And I thought, wow, that’s classy.
Before we parked our Chevy in her driveway, at the tail end of all the Buicks and Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs of all the other guests, who might be doctors and lawyers and college professors, and then knocked on her door, and Kyria Sakellariou would bustle out chattering in her pearls and shiny dress and teased white hair, but wearing a frilly kitchen apron; or her husband Evan might come, Vangelis, she called him, who was a chemist, and talked as softly as she talked volubly, and always smoked a cigarette.
“Here they are!” Kyria Sakellariou would announce us to her guests, like they were all waiting for us.
All those people in her living room with the silver Christmas tree, all those doctors and lawyer and college professors in their Hart Schaffer Marx suits and horn-rimmed glasses, cupping their glass of Metaxa on their armrest, and their wives in their silk dresses and Donna Reed hair, cupping their glass of punch or eggnog on their silk laps.
She always announced my dad to the company as Dr. Michalakis! and always called him Dr. Michalakis herself, even though they worked together; she once introduced my sister as—The new Corinna Tsopei!—who had just won the Miss Universe Pageant; she took the plates of my mother’s koulouria and kourambiedes and showed them around like a Christmas miracle; and one year she introduced me as the president of the Official Plato School Girl Hater’s Club!
“Only Jimmy loves girls!” she teased me.
“No, I hate them!” I insisted.
But not too insistently, cause I meant it as a joke to make Kyria Sakellariou laugh, only she liked it, so I kept pretending to be the president of the non-existent Official Plato School Girl Hater’s Club (with Harry Michas as co-president).
And after my introduction, she would lead me to the kitchen to show me her famous Popping Fresh dinner rolls toasting in the oven, on the way to send me downstairs to the basement to “play with the other kids!”
So I would trudge down, a little nervous to meet some kids I didn’t even know, most of them cousins, down the stairs and through her laundry room, to the paneled walls of her finished basement, where the kids would be wandering around like shy deer and keeping to the paneling on the walls.
And her son Niko, the one with the flattop, would come down with my sister in tow, the two teenagers, and him being gallant by showing her his new Beach Boys album, a 33 LP, with the Beach Boys on the cover in their striped shirts, like Greek sailors; and all the rest of his new 33 LPs: Lesley Gore—“It’s My Party!”; Dusty Springfield, with her haystack blonde tease, Herman’s Hermits, with haircuts like those other mop tops, that annoying group all the girls kept screaming at and had their picture in their lockers, The Beatles.
While the girls in our basement wandered around together, attached at the hip, whispering behind their hands, smelling the plastic flowers on the shelves, a thing girls would do, we boys snickered; while we snuck around behind the bar and wowed ourselves looking at the sink back there, and turned on the water—so it actually worked!—and also stared in wonder at all the liquor bottles on the shelf in front of the smoked mirror: the Metaxa, the green bottle called Tanqueray, and the one with the Cutty Sark sailing ship, which was the same one we saw on the billboard every time we drove to the Loop.
And we also snapped on the colored party lights behind the bar so we could change colors and look just like the aliens on Star Trek!
But I also got respectful wandering to the shelf off the bar, this one with books, Kyria Sakellariou’s Greek language workbooks, Mr. Sakellariou’s fat chemistry books, and this fat tome of War and Peace, the greatest book in the world, someone said, so I was very impressed, and, naturally, it was in Kyria Sakellariou’s basement library.
Before we kids broke the ice and got goofy and familiar, so the boys ran around “like cowboys and Indians” in our Robert Hall suits, our ties flying behind us, the girls giggled at us, and also snuck whispering into the laundry room to peek into the spare refrigerator with the spare bottles of soda and beer and the Greek pastry for dessert, and Niko would play his more risqué Motown records, to show my sister that even though he was just another square Greek kid with a flattop, he was also hip.
Until it was time for dinner!
Kyria Sakellariou announced it down the stairs, and we kids all thundered upstairs, and then sat like angels around the dinner table, and peeled open Kyria Sakellariou’s Popping Fresh rolls and watched them steam in our face, while my dad told funny stories about the kids at school, and Kyria Sakellariou told funny stories about the kids at school, and sometimes they overlapped, while we kids chugged soda and tried not to burp, but we burped, anyway, and made each other laugh.
And then after dinner, the kids would sprawl on the floor and look rumpled and play board games, Parcheesi and Aggravation and Stratego, while the adults talked boring subjects like Greek politics over coffee and my mom’s koulouria, and the TV droned some Christmas movie, like the spooky English version of The Christmas Carol.
Until the kids started yawning, the adults started yawning and hiding it, and Kyria Sakellariou would bustle into the kitchen and chatter from there as she made doggie bags for everybody, while we took one last look at the silver Christmas tree sparkling and rotating and changing colors.
And then we saw it changing colors from the outside, as we drove away in our Chevy, through the hush of the streets, the houses with the blinking lights, and their silver trees in the window; past the looming walls of Marshall Field, now closed, but still garlanded with lights, and the Christmas music still playing on the speakers; while in the car we listened to more Johnny Mathis on the radio.
Till we finally got back to our apartment near Columbus Park, the park all dark now and the snow sparkling like sugar, and we kept hearing Kyria Sakellariou’s voice in our heads as she saw us off at the door in her frilly kitchen apron.
“Drive carefully now, and watch the snow—and Jimmy don’t hate girls and become a kallogeros!”