Once they are born, we fall in love. Irrevocably. The little toes, the little fingers, even the arch to the eyebrows we identify as our own, passed down from generations. The tiny ear is masterfully perfect, whorls to covet a mother’s whispers, the touch of my lips, sometimes electric, brings tears. I am humbled, and the child is baptized in a Greek Orthodox Church, though I am neither religious nor Greek Orthodox. I am angry and filled with fears.
I want nothing to do with anyone, just to be alone with my son, but putting on a false face I throw a big party after the christening, renting tables and chairs for the driveway of the house with the sunken living room and cathedral ceilings, the fireplace with a broken flue where each Christmas I tried to burn a Yule log, causing my husband to scream and tong it, still smoking, out to the snow, with the whole house filled with smoke. I so wanted to be happy for all the holidays I missed as a child. And though I knew nothing about flues or motherhood, I was certain I was capable of real tenderness. I had cooked for days: dolmathes (grape leaves stuffed with rice and hamburg), pastizio (macaroni and hamburg covered with a béchamel sauce), baklava ( filo, stuffed with crushed walnuts and honey)- and then came the iconic moment as I was putting the spinach pie back into the oven to crisp, when my mother spoke: “I didn’t know you could cook!”How could the spoiled child in me hate her for such an inane comment? Chalking the whole thing up to stress, because of the baby’s imperfections, I hid my feelings. I was not brought up to be disrespectful, but would I never stop feeling so breakable? We were not a hugging, back-slapping kind of family. Negativity is an inheritance of a kind. But I was 28, married for 5 years. What did she think we had been eating all that time, pizza?
I always felt my mother was scanning for faults and exaggerating my shortcomings. She insisted I fly to Florida on spring break when the kids I’d planned on going with by car never made it. The passenger in the back slid under the front seat with the force of the collision. It could have been me, hobbling about campus on wooden legs like the girl who invited me. I never even thanked my mother, let alone tell her she was right.
Then came my gimpy yiayia Sophie, a lifelong Jehovah’s Witness, leaning a bit to the left, off kilter, about a foot shorter than my mother, who was, at the time, a foot shorter than me. She had refused to attend the baptism, not respecting any religion but her own, but she wanted to give me what I assumed would be a blessing or some old-world advice I could profit from. A clove of garlic in the ear if he got an earache or maybe a cotton ball dipped in olive oil. My grandmother was so mean she made Cruella de Vil look like the Good Fairy. THA FAS XILO (you will eat wood), was a threat she made good daily with a wooden spoon when I was little, but I’d long since quit hating her.
“This boy,” she said, intuitively, “will leave you as soon as he’s grown to live with his father.”
I could hardly wait to call the taxi for the airport! And just to show how borderline psychotic they were making me, instead of Mexico as I’d wanted, because the pediatrician warned me about the water there, I was flying to Greece.
The baby was 3 months old and traveled well. I stocked up with plenty of formula and diapers, checked into a hotel in Athens for 15 dollars a day, which included a raisin breakfast cake and coffee, anxious to visit my grandmother’s sister. My mother’s first cousin, Lambros, who didn’t look a bit like her, with his long, craggy features and shifty eyes, lived with his family on the top of a building in Athens where there was an outside shower and a chicken running loose. They were very poor and when I pulled up in a taxi, I think they were embarrassed, worried maybe what the neighbors would think. The wife was squat and ugly and not very hospitable. I guessed the only reason Lambros would drive me to Pyrgos to visit his mother was to help their older daughter, Tina, a girl of about 17, as long-faced as her father, but with a much sweeter personality. Unfortunately, she reeked of B.O. and wore a hair net like Ruth Buzzee on Laugh-In, the then popular comedy show. The middle child, a boy of fifteen, resembled his mother in face and body type. He’d been diagnosed as having a case of hysterical paralysis so that Lambros had to carry him from room to room. He’d been walking fine for his first 10 years, but when the youngest daughter had arrived, now a darling Shirley Temple look-a-like, with curly black hair and long eyelashes, all the boy could do was sit.
To hear my grandmother tell it, she’d walked barefoot for 200 miles, to get to Piraeus, the seaport near Athens, escaping this tiny village of Pyrgos Ilia on the top of the Peloponnesus Mountains. The whole town came out to greet me, the granddaughter of the cause célèbre Sophie, the only one to have left for America in 50 years. The sister, Christina, dressed in widow’s black from head toe, as is the custom, was sitting with her knees spread plucking feathers from a chicken when we pulled up in a Renault. Considering she was in her 80’s, she was very sprightly, jumping up the minute she saw us, her face wreathed in toothless smiles. I was a little shocked to see how tiny she was compared to her sister.
When I gave her a loaf of store-bought white bread, as had been suggested to bring for a gift, she called it “cake.” She acted as excited as if she’d never seen a loaf of white bread in her life. Her living quarters had a dirt floor, no electric or inside plumbing. The toilet was a pipe in the ground outside. The first thing she showed me was an old chest, filled with used clothing my grandmother would send her to sell; a blue and white dress I had sewn in home economics, I hadn’t even missed.. Christina was described by a neighbor as the village beggar. She gave me so many hugs and kisses, nearly all my feelings of deprivation faded. My grandfather had owned a restaurant in a pretty chi-chi part of Boston, but the sisters’ relationship had been stormy ever since Christina’s husband murdered their beloved brother and my grandmother never forgave.
Close by lived Christina’s daughter in a one room house along with her husband and ten children. Another shockeroo for this spoiled brat of an Americanista! Where did they sleep? How did they have any privacy? The woman, in her thirties, took me aside, as soon as the introductions were over. The doctor had told her if she had any more children she would die and she didn’t know what to do. Her husband, she said, without any embarrassment, was always after sex. She’d never heard of the birth control pill nor any of the other methods of contraception. What could I do but explain? This news, along whatever communication lines they afforded, traveled from Pyrgos to the states to my grandmother’s ears like the old game of gossip we played in kindergarten. Not only was I, an unmarried woman, guilty of disseminating birth control pills, just discussing sex the way we had was an abomination. Instead of being one of the 144,000 going to heaven along with my grandmother who claimed her only two sexual experiences had been for the sole purpose of bearing children, I was destined for hell.
No, there had been no babies born like my own, that Christina knew of. If they had, they would have been left on a mountain-top for wolves.