“It takes a village to raise a child…”
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.