In the Greek civil war, my father’s family lived in Levidi, It’s a place you won’t have heard of. A village, a little town, in the slope of Mainalo mountain, that’s still bursting with life today. When I was shorter and scrawnier and with bangs that covered the wrong side of my face, my parents would drive my sister and myself there, and we’d eat the perfect Kontosouvli of the Kompouris tavern. We’d play with our neighbour’s horses in their fields and we’d greet our younger triplet cousins. We played make-believe. We didn’t know the significance this place had to our family. We didn’t understand the stories.
My grandmother Aristea lived through the Greek Civil War. Her father was the town constable, and one day during one of the bloodiest fights between the army and the communists, he was killed. Due to his high rank and status, his corpse was dragged around the town by his heels, in disgrace, for days.
His daughter was forced to watch.
At that time, there was no water in the village, so my grandmother would have to walk for hours, regardless of the weather, just to fetch some water and get back. Even the richest families of Levidi had to send their daughters to do that. My father told me that my great-great-grandmother was working in a field one day, started going into labour in the field, gave birth and then kept on working. She then held him and took him home, after she was done with her work. Later in her life, that great-grandmother, Elisabeth, was having intense bouts of pneumonia, and her husband forced her to bathe in scortching hot water. She complained about it being too hot, and he dipped his hand in the water. After working in the fields for many more years than her or anyone, his palms were completely desensitized to cold or hot; so he said, “No woman! It’s lukewarm!” She died.
Meanwhile, I cry when I think of dogs.
Do you know how she died? My grandmother Aristea? She died when my sister (also Aristea) was being born. An aneurism that randomly broke, and my father lost his mother but gained a dear daughter in the space of a few hours. My father, not wanting to upset my mother, lied to her and would sent her flowers in my grandmother’s place, and make up stories of how she was too busy to come and visit. Grandma was just 59.
And grandfather Dimitris died when he was 57; my dad was just 17. He died in his son’s arms. Papa tried to reiscutate him but it was too late.
They’ve had their share of pain.
My family consists of absolutely badass, strong people. In about 1907, one grandfather (William, Elisabeth’s son, actually!) went to America and worked in railways until he could afford to open up his own restaurant. His family was left behind, supported entirely by him. The quintessential American immigrant story, isn’t it? One day some headhunters approached him, not thinking he was a southern European (that’s what blue eyes and light hair will do to you) and asked him about some tan Italians. He thought they were African American. When William replied that they were just tan Italians, the headhunters seemed mad – it’s 5 dollars a head, 15 for two. But William’s Greek restaurant was quite successful, and he managed to support his family quite well.
When he returned to Greece, he got married to the mayor’s daughter (with the largest dowry in the entire village) Christina. She was ten years older than him: she was 40 (and unmarried) and he was 30 (and fresh from the states). They had my grandfather Dimitris, and William returned to the states to join his brother and other people from Daras & Levidi. My great-grandmother and grandfather were left behind. His restaurant flourished and so they moved to Norfolk, Virginia, just before the Great Depression.
One distant relative committed suicide during the Great Depression; he’s the one who cut off a random shepherd’s ear whilst the victim was sleeping, and he shot a donkey that kicked him in the back. Damn. Another uncle was involved with 1920s gangsters and was found dead on a moving train. Damn.
Funny to think that all these people lived through dozens of Greek pogroms, the Balkan war, two world wars, a civil war, the Greek military junta, the Axis occupation of Greece, the Smyrna genocide, unbelievable hardships and pain.