The Legacy of Fatherhood
“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.