A teenager dicovers her roots
It was a sticky, hot day in Nea Peramos, a small town on the southern tip of Greece. My family gathered boisterously around the table for lunch. I scanned the animated faces; my dad, laughing in that loud Greek way; my mom, feigning heat stroke as she fanned her face with a napkin; my grandpa, adamantly demanding wine from our lazy waiter; his wife (my step-grandma) politely smiling amidst a language she is unfamiliar with; my brother, trying desperately to educate our relatives about the foreign concept of Vegetarianism; my sister, caught in conversation about politics with our Greek, anti-American uncle; my aunt, flexing her well developed muscles for our young cousins; my uncle, gulping down a pint of water as if he would never have it again and myself, reclining back in my chair and soaking it all in. The sun baked my skin to that olive Mediterranean tone, and my hair was sticking to the sides of my face with the salt build-up from our boat trip earlier that day. This is my family, and we had come to this village where my dad grew up for a vacation and much needed acquaintance with what seemed like hundreds of distant relatives. They flung their arms and raised their voices in heated conversation, and their bottoms lifted from the chairs with their fervent momentum. Nobody noticed when a glass of wine was knocked over, and arms intertwined across the table serving one another heaping portions of stuffed bell peppers, tomato, cucumber and feta salads drenched in olive oil, whole fish with their eyes still glaring at you, macaronia, spanakopita and tiropita with cheap wine and ouzo, of course.
An hour later, when everyone’s bellies were stuffed to maximum capacity, we receded to our rooms for an afternoon nap.Businesses closed for three hours, and the boisterous banter was replaced with a hush over the entire village.This is ritual to the average Greek.
I sat on the porch of my uncle’s apartment and breathed in the salty air. I knew this would be our last lunch in Nea Peramos, and I took this opportunity to bask in the leisureliness of Greek, beach culture.
The next morning, unable to sleep past six with the sun’s intensity heating our rooms, we emerged from underneath our sheer sheets like popcorn kernels. Half asleep and half hung over, we piled into a rented, cherry-red mini-van. The family we had come to know and love in Nea Peramos placed flowers underneath our windshield wipers, and as we drove away, they all stood together waving, with tears running down their faces, as if we would never meet again.
We left one family that day, and it has been five years of their faces fading from my memory. After ten hours driving into the northern mountains of Greece, we found Kalavryta, my grandpa’s (form my mother’s side) hometown. We were greeted by about ten women in their seventies and eighties, all standing less than five feet tall. They became known simply as “the aunts.” As to their actual relation to me, I am not sure. They seemed to scurry everywhere in excitement; in fact, the display was quite reminiscent of an ant farm. There was a fuss for everyone to be accounted and accommodated for. I could tell Kalavryta didn’t have visitors’ everyday, probably in part due to its isolated location amidst a valley where two massive mountains converged into one another.
Our first night we enjoyed dinner with the mayor; apparently my grandpa still had strong connections to this town. We tipped our glasses up and Mayor Papadapoulos toasted to “Andreas (my grandpa and namesake) and his long awaited return as well as his beautiful family and wonderful life in America.” My grandpa nodded his head towards the mayor in earnest appreciation. I could sense a bond between the two men, and the next day I would discover the reason for this.
My grandpa has become a rich man in America, mainly through real estate exploits. I used to think he was the boss of the Greek mafia (provided it exists), because of his demanding nature, but mostly because he wears shirts with the top buttons undone, so that his chest hair is exposed and the gold chains inlay upon them. I have seen Scarface, and I was convinced. Now, as an adult, I have come to see that he won’t even cheat on his taxes let alone organize a crime regime. Nonetheless, it is telling to his personality. Judgments like these were all I had to run on concerning my grandpa. We had never taken a vested interest in really getting to know one another, and I think he regretted his distant relationships with his grandchildren and children. Perhaps that is why he took us to Greece with him, especially into the heart of his town, where he would reveal a part of his history that we had never seen.
The purpose of our trip to Kalavryta was a ceremony my grandpa had planned. He had organized it all across international waters, so as he settled last minute details, we dressed ourselves in what can best be described as church clothes. He summoned us, and we walked down a hill into the town cemetery. It wasn’t a morbid scene; the sun shone brightly on the headstones and flowers swathed the ground. A small church stood in the center, and a podium was set up in front of it.
Anxious, half from curiosity and half from the piercing sun, we waited as people began to gather in and around the cemetery enclosure. In a town numbering not much more than a thousand, a few hundred people were in attendance. A bishop wearing a wizard like hat and blessing the audience with this metal contraption that emits incense into the air when shook approached the podium, and silence fell. I was kind of stunned and had to look around to make sure time hadn’t frozen. The faces gazed intently upon the podium. A painstaking half hour later, when the bishop had finished a rather monotone speech entirely in Greek, I heard my grandpa’s name introduced, and he walked forward. He seemed especially unsure of himself. I thought I sensed a slight quiver in his walk. Nonetheless, he began to speak in his strong and deep voice and commanded the audience’s attention. He spoke some Greek, and then he turned his body in our direction. We quickly perked up our posture as he addressed us, his family. He said that everyone else knew why we were here today and that he felt it had come time that we, too, knew what had happened. This was a day dedicated to remembrance. He began very factually.
World War II descended upon the mountains of Greece in 1944 when he was ten years old. It was rumored that resistance to the Nazi regime was harbored among these isolated mountain villages. A guerilla who had shot two German officers was suspected to be from Kalavryta. When the citizens of the city adamantly refused to give up any names, these are the events that transpired: Every male ten and older was lined up and escorted to the top of a hill, where they were shot with a single bullet to the head. In a matter of minutes, fourteen hundred men died. The women and children were locked in the local schoolhouse. The windows were shut and flames set to the building. He paused at this point in the story and took a moment to stare us each intently in the eyes. Then he said that had he not been short for his age, he too would have been murdered along with his father. Amongst this horror, one miracle occurred. An Austrian soldier, hearing the screams from the women and children, deserted his troop and ran back to unlatch a window. He knew his fate would be death.
I’m unsure if my grandpa was baffled by this soldiers actions or if he was overwhelmed by recounting this story, but he slid his sunglasses from the top of his head onto his face. This soldier freed them from the flames, but they would never really be free, not from the memories of their dead husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, and Papous. They climbed up the hill to find genocide of their men and a torch of their town. The image of my grandfather’s mother dragging his father’s lifeless body across the ground, through the mud, and down the hill, while he and his sister looked on, is engraved in his mind. In order to honor this painful memory he had hired a sculptor to reconstruct this image. The unveiling of this statue was the primary purpose for our trip to Kalavryta. I had heard mention of this statue my grandfather would be dedicating to his hometown but I had never cared enough to ask why. I felt selfish and ignorant.
The people of the city seemed to have gathered closer to where the statue stood veiled. I distinctly remember a sea of faces masked with sunglasses, some clutching at the bars fenced around the cemetery, hanging onto his every word. Then my grandfather ripped the sheet from the statue, revealing its contents to the world. He placed his hand upon the statue, bowed his head, and uncontrollably began to sob. I almost gasped and had to catch my breath as I absorbed the statue’s intensity. It truly was his mother with anguish tormenting her face, laboring to drag her husband’s body to a proper burial ground. The little children seemed to be playing beside the body, oblivious to the situation. I heard gulps and gasps and felt quivers from all those around me who were trying so hard to contain their tears, but we were all crying. Mourning the day all their lives had been changed, my grandpa did not stand alone at that podium. The entire crowd, mostly town natives, mostly old women and their grown up children, mourned with him. And, we, his family, for the first time, were able to mourn with him as well.
I had never pictured my grandpa as vulnerable as he was in that moment, nor fifty years earlier with a murdered father, destroyed home and village. I am proud of his ability to put himself back into that vulnerable position, for I know it took courage to do so, and I am proud to say that we are a family that can stare misery in the face and overcome it. This was the first real act that brought us together as a family, and I can only hope that his strength has traveled down the generations so that this family will continue to grow closer. We seem to live in a culture where family is undervalued, at least on a comparative scale to what I witnessed in Greece. My grandpa needed to bring us there in order to capture that quality, and he needed to go back to remember what it meant to be in his Greek community. The Greek inside of me is enriched by this experience, an experience that has spurred a vested interest in my culture. With this, I feel truly connected to my roots and a prominent Greek value for the simpler pleasures that enrich life. Often you must lose everything in order to find this appreciation, but through my family’s losses, I find myself able to relish in a glass of wine, a slice of warm bread, a satisfying nap, an afternoon swim, a loving glance, a hug…
on 29 May 2007.
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