Greece, memoir by Rachel Cann

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.

Rachel Cann has received awards  from the Bar­bara Dem­ing Memo­r­i­al Foun­da­tion and a Fel­low­ship to the Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter.  MFA Emer­son Col­lege 1989. Her sto­ries have been pub­lished in dozens of lit­er­ary mag­a­zines. Greece is part of a mem­oir-in-progress called Connected:Love in the Time of the Mafia.
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2 Responses to Greece, memoir by Rachel Cann

  1. Sandra says:

    It is so great to see you writ­ing and liv­ing again my friend!
    Much suc­cess in all that you do!

  2. Sandra says:

    Hey Rachel,
    Great pic­ture of you. What a sto­ry! Much food for thought for me about you and why. Your thoughts about your reala­tives are much to think about and digest. Not pos­tive but truth­ful as you lived it. This is how the sto­ry is told. Life is not always a fairy tale but it gave me much insite to you my friend..VERY Interesting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Love and Light in All you Think, Say and Do!
    Your friend,
    I look for­ward to your chil­drens book.

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