“There’s something like a line of gold thread running through a man’s words when he talks to his daughter, and gradually over the years it gets to be long enough for you to pick up in your hands and weave into a cloth that feels like love itself.” – John Gregory Brown, Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, 1994
My father, Anastasios Arianoutsos, was a natural-born storyteller, following in the footsteps of his ancestors who had a Greek word, and a story for everything. He did not have a formal education, never attended a storytelling workshop and was never “coached” on “how to tell a story.” He learned the stories from his parents, grandparents and all the village folks who lived in our hometown of Naoussa, on the Aegean Island of Paros
Anastasios was a quiet man. During the hours he spent at home, away from his job as co-owner of the “BEVERLY” restaurant he rarely engaged in idle chitchat or small talk. He never raised his voice in anger and never lost his temper! At home he spoke “Gringlish” – a combination of Greek and English or, as we kids called it, “Broken English.”
The BEVERLY, located on the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Beverly Road, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, NY, was about a mile from the house where this 42-year old widow lived with his four young children, Yianni, Calypso, Barbara (yours truly) and baby Margarita. The one-family, brick attached house was owned by my uncle, our mother’s first cousin, Peter Caparis and his new bride, Irene (nee Lymberopoulos).
The unique thing about this quiet man: he was never at a loss for words when it came to teaching his children about the nature of things and a lesson or two about the ways of the world. He never raised his voice in anger, and never scolded us. It was Daddy’s style to discipline us by telling stories. He’d reach into his memory bank and tell us a story from his Greek Island Home or a tale he might have heard while traveling around the world as a member of the Greek Merchant Marines.
His style of storytelling was simple and direct. He rarely described the landscape, nor did he give us details about the characters. He left that to our imaginations. Depending on his mood, or if the situation required it, he might embellish a fable a little, but most of the time he’d deliver it, short and often bittersweet. More than likely he’d begin by saying “I once knew a boy/girl/family…”
I always demanded to know where a particular story came from – especially if the lesson tucked inside hit home. Daddy would arc his right hand up towards the sky and tell me, in “broken” English, “Mee varyese paidi mou [my child don’t weigh yourself down with that thought]…important thing is mathema [lesson] in story. Peeyeneh [go] think about what means the story I tell you!”
Each morning, at the crack of dawn, this quiet, gentle man went to work at the BEVERLY leaving his soft-spoken demeanor at home. When he arrived at work, Anastasios transformed into “Tom,” a proud new-American, proprietor of a Greek Coffee Shop – American Style! He’d joke unabashedly with the customers in his broken English and serve up the “blue plate specials” with a big smile on his face, steady banter and amusing repartee! The customers loved him!
If I close my eyes I still see him joking around with the customers. I can almost smell and taste those “blue plate specials”: THURSDAY: corned beef and cabbage; FRIDAY: fried fish with freshly prepared tartar sauce; SATURDAY: fresh ham, mashed potatoes, gravy and carrots and peas; SUNDAY: Roast Turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings, etc. As for Daddy’s coleslaw, potato salad, rice pudding, homemade apple pie or toasted pound cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream? Out of this world.
Somewhere around the age of 13, I learned to type on a small portable typewriter. Calypso and I were required to type the daily menu inserts. While I’d like to forget that particular chore, the sensory memories linger on. The smell of the purple stencil menu paper intermingle, in my mind’s eye with the aromas from the daily specials, and images of my father standing behind the counter of the BEVERLY having a “grand ole time” with his customers. One of his favorite expressions was “God Bless America.”
In the far corner of the Beverly was a small corner booth, designated for “the family.” It was from this booth I’d sit with Calypso and Margarita, and watch in amazement as our father transformed into a cheerful, chatty Greek restaurateur – not the quiet man Anastasios, who sat at the head of the kitchen table with few words to say to Uncle Pete, Irene, and his children. The contrast in his work persona and his persona at home was extraordinary.
Each night when Daddy came home from work we’d greet him by saying, “Kali Spera Baba” (Good Evening Daddy). Then I’d run upstairs to his bedroom and bring him his slippers, Calpyso would get a small basin so he could soak his tired, aching feet in Epsom Salts, while little Margarita looked on, amused by the entire operation.
There came a time in my childhood, as I watched Daddy’s daily transformations, that my father seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, like Atlas himself.
I distinctly remember my father’s response when my older brother, John, took on the role of disciplinarian and yelled at his three younger sisters. My father, who always had a “story remedy” on the tip of his tongue and knew when to administer a dose or two, would intercede on our behalf. He’d say, first in Greek, and then in Broken English:
“No get angry…Yianni, no raise your voice…no lectures…I tell you story…meybe (maybe) you dun’t (don’t) understand…believe you me, some day you understand.” He would often say: “I know, I know, like BROken record I am, but I teach you right from wrong. It my job!”
When we were teenagers we often tried to negotiate curfews and dating privileges. There was very little discussion. When denying what he thought was an unreasonable request, he’d sit us down and tell his version of the Aesop fable I call the “The Hanging Tree,” or perhaps he’d tell us the story of “The SAPLING.” He’d tell the story, deny our request and close by saying: “I dun’t (don’t) care what other people do their children! Better you cry now, than me later!”
There was no discussion: we listened to the stories, heard what he had to say and the subject was closed. It was as simple as that!
As a storyteller myself, I take great pleasure each time I step center stage, to share my father’s gift of story.
This blog entry is dedicated to Sophie Anastasia-Collins who showed me how to tell stories with a twinkle in my eye, and her mother Efthemia who started each day with a smile and a song, regardless of the workload she was facing as the proprietor and chief cook and bottle washer of the New Riverside Hotel.
The minute I stepped out of Uncle Pete’s shiny new Chrysler Sedan, smelled sea air mingling with the familiar aroma of Greek cooking, heard cawing sea gulls, the distant sound of a speeding motorboat and everyone speaking Greek, I felt at home for the first time since leaving Paros…
I was born in a fishing village on a Greek Island in the Aegean. At the age of two and a half I was taken to America – against my will – leaving the loving arms of my yiayias, papous and village folk. I’ll never forget that day I left with my mother Margarita, my older siblings, Calypso and Yianni. I was anxious and worried. I had no idea why everyone in the village was waving goodbye and crying, or where we were going…I vividly recall feeling bewildered when, a few weeks later, I found myself in a place called Brooklyn. Yes there were many Jewish and a few Italian and Irish grandmothers, but where were my Greek yiayias, papous and village folk? What language were they speaking? Little could I know that in less than five years I’d rediscover a replica of my little village, albeit a vertical one called The New Riverside Hotel, in Highlands, N.J., situated on the picturesque Shrewsbury River.The New Riverside Hotel situated directly on the picturesque Shrewsbury River where ocean, river and mountain meet; private rooms for families, with dining room and kitchen privileges. Reasonable Rates; open from June 20 to September15. Call Highlands 3-1253.
The first time I laid eyes on the New Riverside Hotel I was a six year old motherless child. My father, Anastasios wearing a black armband, my siblings, seven year old Calypso, twelve year old Yianni and me were squished together in the back seat of Uncle Pete’s Chrysler sedan (sans seat belts). Our baby sister Margarita, was sitting on Aunt Irene’s lap in the front seat with Uncle Pete, who was driving. We were heading to the Jersey shore to spend the summer at a “Greek” hotel in Highlands, N.J. Aunt Irene and Uncle Pete talked about the fun we were going to have playing in the sand, swimming in the Shrewsbury River, and making new friends. We kept asking, “Are we there yet?” After the long drive from Flatbush, Brooklyn via the Garden State Parkway, it was a relief to scramble out of the car.
The proprietors of the hotel, Andrea and Efthemia Anastasia, their sixteen year old son Louie and three adult children, Marika, Frances and Sophie welcomed us – with open arms – four orphans whose mother died two years earlier giving birth to our baby sister, Margarita. Little did we know our two families would bond over that first summer in 1943 and develop into a lifelong relationship that continues to this day.
From day one, I was inexplicably drawn to Kyria Efthemia. I loved her melodic speaking voice, marveled at the way she walked – it was as though she were dancing – her joy was infectious. Thus, that first summer and many summers thereafter, my day began at the crack of dawn. I’d leave Calypso sound asleep in the room we shared on the second floor, make a mad dash down the hall to the bathroom, race down a flight of stairs, go out the back door of the hotel, cross the screened porch overlooking the avlee/courtyard between the hotel and the pavilion, down a wooden staircase, take a quick left down concrete steps that led into the large communal dining room and kitchen. Making a beeline thru the dining room to find Kyria Efthemia, already busy at work, I’d skip along the left side of the room, giving my family’s table a whack and a quick tap on Mr. & Mrs. Fleri’s table, both located just outside the door leading into the largest kitchen I’d ever seen. Small oak refrigerators with shiny brass handles lined the walls, tall narrow white cabinets here and there, stoves and sinks placed in strategic locations, a long wide marble table, a few butcher block tables and work stations everywhere. Kyria Efthemia, wearing a ruffled white halter, Bermuda shorts and an apron, would greet me with a cheerful, “Kalee mera koritsakee mou (good morning my little girl), are you ready to help me, yes?” She’d give me something to drink, then up went her arms swaying to some invisible music in her head, breaking into song as the spirit moved her, and off we’d go, at 5 AM making the “rounds” to be sure the hotel was shipshape and ready for the guests!
Each summer thereafter until I was eighteen, we spent our entire summer in this vertical village. While many of my Brooklyn classmates spent their summers playing on the stoops and concrete streets of my Flatbush neighborhood, others at sleep-away summer camps, my Greek-American immigrant childhood unfolded under the watchful eyes of the Anastasia family, and all the loving residents of this remarkable community on the Jersey Shore.
I treasure the summers I spent at the New Riverside Hotel. I’m grateful to the Anastasia family for taking four orphaned children under their wing. It was from them, and all the other loving families in my virtual village, that I learned the loss of my mother, when I was three and a half years old, did not permanently disfigure my life; I learned to listen, to watch life carefully and to place enormous value on love and kindness. And as I post this blog, all these years later, I embrace and acknowledge that old saying, “it takes a village to raise a child.”
On December 25, 1943, six months after our first summer at the New Riverside Hotel, this photos was taken in my Flatbush home: the Caparis, Arianoutsos, Anastasia families, our beloved Jewish neighbors, William and Blanche Crystal, with their three children, celebrating Christmas and Chanukah. Four years after my first summer at the New Riverside Hotel, Frances Anastasia, one of Efthemia and Andreas daughters, married my Uncle John Caparis and they were blessed with three children, my dear cousins, Grace, Anthony and Peter.
Years later Louie Anastasia’s son Orestes married my late sister Margarita’s daughter Kate. Orestes and Kate are blessed with three beautiful children, Rita, 8, Alexa, 5 and Lukas, 2. There are no words to express the joy I feel when I’m with them, playing, singing or telling stories. Whether in my Flushing living room or via SKYPE, I feel the strong presence of their great grandmother, Kyria Efthemia and my heart is filled with unexplainable joy.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” ~ Pablo Picasso
It pleases me to acknowledge that I did not have a problem remaining an artist – perhaps because I haven’t grown up yet. Just kidding. The truth be told, I was born with the ability to draw pictures, the gift of gab, and an innate, quirky sense of humor. These gifts surfaced early in my childhood and have served me well on my Greek-American storytelling odyssey. Picasso also said, “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary,” which inspires me to share some of my works of art. Of course there is a story that goes with each one, the question is when will I write them down. Alas, it continues to be a challenge for me to place my stories on paper – I much prefer to set the stage with a painting or two and TELL my stories. Maybe I’ll get to it one day, stay tuned for the stories…meanwhile forgive the hodge-podge format of this my 4th blog (the best I can do at the moment). Before I hit publish: “Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” ~Henry Ward Beecher
1. India ink drawing (1st grade); 2. Oil on canvas: “Vietnam, 1971 – A child waits and thinks…”3. Oil on canvas: “Lady of Paros: the quintessential yiayia of my memory painted in 1968 who continues to inspire me and sets the stage for my programs when I talk about “A Greek Grows in Brooklyn…”
I was born with an innate sense of humor, the gift of gab and the ability to see in my mind’s eye and place images on paper. These gifts surfaced early in my childhood and continue to serve me well as I continue my Greek-American storytelling odyssey…
“When a mother dies, she takes her stories with her, leaving a daughter to reconstruct them whatever way she can…” – Hope Edelman, Author, Motherless Daughters: THE LEGACY OF LOSS
WHERE WERE WE GOING THAT SNOWY DAY?
The snow had stopped falling that cold winter day.
It was the end of January.
The long, narrow driveway was covered with ice.
We were walking with mother, my sister and I,
Holding hands, we walked side by side.
She was heavy with child and it was hard to walk,
On that cold icy driveway we walked and talked.
Mother lost her footing and she slipped and fell.
She slipped and she fell on that cold icy day
And as hard as we tried to help her, she just slipped away.
I remember everything about that day,
But I can’t remember what people said.
Did anyone tell me “Barbara, your mother is dead”!
Did my father talk to us? What did he say?
Did he tell us why our mother had gone away?
Childhood sorrow opened the door to a lifetime of learning invaluable lessons about life and death. Early on I learned that the loss of my mother when I was 3-1/2 years old did not permanently disfigure my life. I learned to listen, to watch life carefully and to place enormous value on love and kindness and, armed with the gift of gab, by telling my family’s story – when the spirit moves me – helps me gracefully navigate states of grieving as they come up.
Grief counseling has become an industry. A quick search on the Internet reveals thousands of grief counseling websites, certified bereavement facilitators, and hundreds of advice-filled books. For the most part they all talk about “stages” of grieving as though we pass through the stages and come out the other end with CLOSURE! The stages to which they refer include: denial, anger, bargaining, closure, acceptance – there may be other stages but none come to mind.
Many years ago, while working as the resident storyteller at St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf, I had the good fortune to attend a staff development workshop offered by Grief Counselor Dr. Ken Moses. Something Dr. Moses talked about had a powerful impact on me. He said all we humans have going for us are “feeling states of grieving.” As I remember it, Dr. Moses said he did not believe people go through stages of grieving, “all we have going for us are states of grieving.”
For as long as I can remember, I find myself yanked in and out of a state of grieving – oftentimes for days on end. Rarely and I mean rarely does anyone around me know about the “state” I am in. Do I continue to function, succeed in my daily life coping whilst in a state of grieving and other trying moments when they surface? “YES!” Born with a quirky sense of humor, I try to face each day doing what I learned to do as a youngster. I tap into the restorative power of memory, navigating life-shattering events when they surface, listening and telling my family stories with a cheerful, open heart.
Where is the “CLOSURE?” Hmmm…I wonder…Closing this blog entry with the last five lines of a poem by American poet, Linda Pastan, THE FIVE STAGES OF GRIEVING:
“Acceptance. I finally
But something is wrong.
Grief is a circular staircase.
I have lost you.”
“Language is sometimes the only thing that grieves our losses with us.”
– Lisel Mueller, Poet/Author
“It is the image in the mind that links us to our lost treasures, but it is the loss that shapes the image, gathers the flowers, weaves the garland.”
– Colette, MY MOTHER’S HOUSE
Here I sit, back home in Flushing, fighting with myself. Where to start, where to begin my second entry? A tune from The Sound of Music pops into my head, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…” Born with the ability to see in my mind’s eye, an image comes into view, and so begins my Greek-American Odyssey…
I wrote LASTING IMAGE in a 1998 poetry workshop. Through a visualization exercise, the facilitator asked us to search for an image that inspires us to put pen to paper. In an instant I found myself in the two-room house where I was born on the Island of Paros. My mother is standing by the stove. She rolls up her sleeve, and gently places her right elbow into a large pot of milk to test the temperature. She is making yogurt…
A large pot filled with smooth white yogurt,
Placed with love on a chair, sits and sets.
Hanging from a wooden beam on the ceiling,
A small yellow bird sits silently in its cage.
Framed in her icon home on the wall,
Panayia, the Virgin Mary, sees all and stares into space.
A bird floundering in her nest,
A silent spirit lost at sea,
On an island of dreams,
Makes yogurt for the last time in her Greek island home.