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Preservation of American Hellenic History
Lily was a life force. From her commanding voice to her assertive, high-heeled walk she dominated her environment until she suffered her first heart attack. Even after that when she felt well she was Lily. Only when angina pain reminded her of her illness and she sensed her mortality was she vulnerable. At these times everyone feared for her, yet denied the possibility of her death.
I remember my mother as a human dynamo. Her energy was boundless and her ability to organize her activities astounding: shopping, cooking, cleaning, spending time with friends on the phone and in person, writing two hundred or more Christmas Cards, preparing holiday banquets for fifteen or twenty, meeting with her bridge club, sewing dresses and blouses for herself and for Nitsa, and being the guiding force that made and kept together family marriages.
Mom was demanding and firm mother. We knew that we were loved, but we also knew that under most circumstances we were "to be seen and not heard," "speak only when spoken to," and obey. I do not know where my mother, the little immigrant girl, learned manners but I was taught everything from elevator behavior to how to use a finger bowl by the time I was six. My lessons included opening doors for ladies, walking on the street side, taking off my hat in the presence of women, reply with "sir" and "madam," standing when a woman came to or left a table, or entered a room, etc., etc., etc.
Lily's nails were long and red - she had them and her hair 'done' every Thursday morning at a beauty parlor on Third Avenue. Her hair turned salt and pepper when she was in her early forties, and she put on a few pounds, but remained a handsome woman.
Lily laughed. She laughed loudly, deeply - without restraint. She had a wonderful sense of humor and loved good times.
Lily was earthy. She delighted in naughty jokes and spicy stories.
Lily loved to dance. If she heard Greek music she would be on her feet and to the embarrassment of my father she sometimes performed solo dances usually reserved for men, the zeibekiko (zembekiko) for example. She and Dad did an amazing tango together.
Lily adored men, men of every age. Her attraction to men was innocent. She wanted to do for men, to cook for them, serve them and cherish them. And men idolized her for it.
Lily was generous. She gave at every opportunity of herself and of her resources. At Christmas she would send me out anonymously with packages of food and gifts for poor Greek families. When I was seven and eight she loaded me with two huge shopping bags every two or three weeks and sent me out to walk a mile or more to the Staten Island Ferry, travel across the bay, take a train, and deliver food to an old couple that were half blind and lived on a small farm in the middle of the Island.
Lily had an open heart and home. She welcomed all the friends that Nitsa and I brought home. She fed them, entertained them, counseled them and comforted them. There was never a time that my friends were not welcome - friends from Christ Church, from school, girlfriends who were from outside of New York and in school or in show business, and army buddies and their wives, even if I were not home. She treated them as her own children.
As much of a disciplinarian as Mom was when I was a child, she let go of me when I reached twelve and began my journey to manhood under the guidance of my father, godfather and Uncle Louie. The transition was almost magical: one day I was a child, the next a young man.
Lily was a leader. At Carelas' farm she served the role of nurse, counselor, party organizer, trip director, and child psychologist. Women came to her with their problems and she felt perfectly at ease cornering their husbands to give them forceful advice about being better spouses. When my cousin Diamond Papadiskos' wife, Clara, suffered terrible injuries in an automobile accident Lily watched over her during her recovery. Diamond took Mom's direction about everything.
The day that my cousin Helen Psaltis arrived in the United States with her two young children, Aliki and Deno, Mom went into action. One look at the children, who had suffered great hardships in Greece, and she had them in the car and on the way to Dr. De Tata, who prescribed vitamins and food.
Our home was full of male cousins on holidays: Nick and Thanasi Mavrovitis, Gus Mavrovitis, Tom Papanas, Elias Dimitriades, and on. At first they did not know quite what to make of this outgoing, commanding and unfettered woman. She was unlike anyone they had known among the women in their Greek experience. But once past the initial shock of her extrovert personality they quickly took to her and loved her. She became their second mother.
Between 1945 and 1950, my mother suffered three heart attacks. She had regular, frightening episodes of angina pectoralis(1) that mimicked the onset of an attack. To relieve these she took countless tablets of nitroglycerin, a therapeutic that improved oxygen supply to her coronary artery and relieved the pain. And she came to rely on Teacher's Scotch Whiskey as her emotional crutch. Nitroglycerin tablets and drinks of Scotch became co-therapeutics.
Her heart condition was the result of years of extremely high blood pressure, often 240/140. Somehow her body overcame the initial onslaught of heart attacks. From the early 1950's through the early 1960's her health seemed improved.
She never gave in to her illness and continued to live actively doing virtually everything she had ever done. My fear of inducing a heart attack by causing her emotional or physical stress was constant and influenced how I conducted myself and led my life.
I remember that often when I looked at Mom I saw sad eyes, eyes that had a longing in them. Perhaps I saw something that was not there. I do not think so. I wish I knew, and if she did have this sadness, I wish she had shared it with me.(•*)
My sister, Eleni, was born on 13 September 1931. Her namesake grandmother still lived so little Eleni was called Elenitsa, -nitsa being a diminutive suffix. We called her Nitsa. Her "American" name was Helene.(•**)
Nitsa was two and one half years older than I. While I have warm feelings about our early childhood together, I have only vague recollections of our daily relationship.
One memory results from the fact that we shared a room until I was five or six. When we were sent to bed we would climb half way up the stairs to the second floor, lean over the banister and say in unison "Kali nichta sas kai avrio mai aegia," to Mom and Dad and whomever was in the kitchen with them. (Translated: "Good night and tomorrow good health.")
A few minutes after we were in bed, Mom would come upstairs to tuck us in. The second Mom was out of hearing Nitsa would turn on the radio that sat on the table between our beds and tune at very low volume to "I Love a Mystery" or some other scary show. Sometimes, to my relief, she found a comedy hour. Unfortunately for me, Mom's hearing was excellent. When she arrived on the scene to scold us, she ended up scolding me and slapping my behind. I could not pretend sleep and giggled, while Nitsa was the consummate actress, not moving a finger and breathing deeply. I never told on her.
After Papou(2) remarried in 1940 and left 260 Ovington Avenue, Nitsa moved into his bedroom and gained her privacy.
Nitsa and I spent many hours at the kitchen table with Mom while she taught us to mark a pattern on material and to cut, baste, and sew by hand and at the professional Singer Sewing Machine. Making dresses, skirts and blouses was a game for us, one that filled many rainy Saturday afternoons.
Nitsa was gifted. She earned "A" grades from her first school year through college, but for a "C" in fencing. She was "skipped" twice in elementary school, leapfrogging past two full years and graduating at twelve. She was barely thirteen when she entered the prestigious Hunter College High School on Park Avenue in Manhattan, and just seventeen when she crossed the street to enter Hunter College for Women (now co-ed).
When our mother had her first heart attack, Nitsa took over management of the home. In fact, it was her determination to keep the family together that prevented Dad from moving us to live with relatives and putting Mom into a convalescent home until she was better. I was a willing subordinate and followed Nitsa's orders about my assignments each day. She prepared and I served Mom her breakfast before seven o'clock in the morning. Then Nitsa left for her one hour trip to Hunter College High School.
I was still at the local K-8, P.S. 102, so was home until eight o'clock when our Thea Anastasia arrived to take care of her koumbara, Lily. I was home at lunch and performed whatever chores Thea Anastasia assigned. Then after school I shopped for the items Nitsa had on the list for me. By four-thirty or so Nitsa was home cooking dinner for us all.
Helene attended Hunter College where she made many friends among her sorority sisters. Her major was linguistics. She studied several languages including Latin, Spanish, French and Greek.
In her senior year, Helene attended the national convention of her sorority representing her chapter as its president. The convention was at Banff, Canada. Nitsa (we still called her that from time to time) was the first in the family to travel by air making the trip in a sequence of hops in DC-3's. I was in awe of her courage.
Helene's college graduation photograph shows her wearing her Phi Beta Kappa Key, which she won in her junior year, a significant accomplishment.
After college she attended a secretarial school; then entered the workforce. In today's world she could have become an executive.
As a teenager Helene stayed closer to the Orthodox Church than I, even though she was socially involved at Christ Church. I remember her carrying the Orthodox Service Book to church during Easter Week, and reading the prayers in Greek.
Helene, who I often called "Sis," was sometimes frustrated with me. I was less serious than she and according to her, girl crazy. But we got along well and I listened to her when she offered unsolicited advice.
We attended all the Greek (read "Macedonian," read "Kastorian") dances together even after Mom and Dad stopped attending. It was my duty as brother to escort my sister to all social functions where there were eligible young men. Those who were eligible were great for partying and dancing, which Helene enjoyed, but few were educated or had anything in common with her.
The Second World War (WW II) will always be "The War" for me. I served in the Army during the Korean Conflict (or "Police Action" . . . it was rarely called a "war") and for a time, supported the Vietnam War. Fortunately for me, I neither served in Korea nor fought in a war.
Except for concerned talk around our kitchen table about Italy, Germany, armies, and war in Greece, I remember nothing of events that led to the Second World War. I learned later of "OXI" (NO), the response Greek Prime Minister Metaxas gave to Mussolini when on 28 October 1940, the Italian government requested that Greece allow Italian occupation of its country. The Greek army pushed back the Italians who attacked from Albania through the mountains of Epirus. Greece's defeat of Italy caused the Germans to divert their attention from Russia to the conquest of Greece. A photo is a grim reminder of German bombers flying over the Acropolis in Athens.(•‡) The German Army soon followed, occupying the city. Relatives and friends became hostage to the Nazis and suffered years of oppression and hunger.
President Roosevelt's broadcasted speech just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor when he asked for a Declaration of War is still vivid in my memory. I was seven, playing on our kitchen floor in the sunlight that came through the window and heard his historic "Day of Infamy" address to a joint session of the Congress of the United States. I understood only that it was a very grave and serious time.
Dad had turned forty-one the previous September so had little worry of military service. Bobby (Robert) Capidaglis, son of Chris "Capi" Capidaglis and grandson of Constantinos, lived on the third floor of our home with his mother, Marion. He was already in the Army and scheduled for discharge in January of 1942. He served through 1946, the duration of the war, and returned to Brooklyn with his British bride, Edith.
Twenty-six sons of relatives and close friends of our family were in the war. Of these, all but two went overseas. Some, like Bill Fotiades, a neighbor on Ovington Avenue, received terrible wounds. A Marine lieutenant, he lost several ribs on one side of his body when machine-gunned on Iwo Jima. Others served in the Philippines, Britain, France, Italy, and Germany. The only young man that did not come home was Guy Capidaglis, grandson of Constantinos by his first wife, and an only child. As luck would have it, he died in an automobile accident hitchhiking back to his base from a Thanksgiving leave at home.
Dad"s immediate contribution to the war effort was the sale of our automobile. He would not use for pleasure gasoline that his nephews and family friends needed to fight the war.
For me, the war was sirens and blackouts at night, and bomb drills at school where windows had thin, cloth mesh strips glued on them to prevent glass from shattering in the event of bombings. War Bond drives, patriotic songs, preservation of scarce lemons in sand-filled boxes in the basement, men in uniform coming to our home on Sundays after church, Thea Anastasia in her Red Cross uniform, and Christmas gift packages we made up at school for servicemen were all part of the experience.
High wood fences installed along the bay made it difficult to see ships. (One could see what they wanted from the roofs of the apartment houses along Shore Road.) Convoys of men and war materials left at night to make their way to the battlefronts of Europe. Sometimes in the east we saw a bright red glow in the night sky from fire and explosions on a ship torpedoed by waiting German U-boats (submarines).
Each month, my consciousness of the war grew. Motion pictures made to spur the will of the American people sensitized me as I watched John Wayne and other movie idols fight the evils of Japan and Germany.
Dad took me to the Newsreel Theater in Manhattan with my Nouno and Uncle Louie. This was the CNN of the 1940s that provided extensive war coverage. I listened to the radio to hear about the war and remember being excited about news of a massive bombing raid over Germany while I sat safely in my bed, eating grapes on a hot summer night.
Nitsa and I helped Mom and Dad pack War Relief packages to send to Mavrovo and Kastoria. Preparing these made me conscious for the first time of relatives who lived far away. Dad started to tell me stories about his childhood and Mavrovo. We filled boxes with rice, pasta, wool socks, sweaters, and other necessities. No one knew how many of the packages arrived to help our relatives in Greece. They suffered greatly during the Nazi occupation and the Greek Civil War. It was a constant worry for Dad.
V-E Day (Victory in Europe) in May of 1945 did not leave any impression on me. I do not know why. V-J Day (Victory over Japan) was memorable. Mom, Nitsa, and I were at Carelas' farm in the Catskill Mountains. A few days before Japan's surrender, the headlines and photographs on the front page of The New York Daily News were about the atomic bomb and its enormous power: "Equal to Twenty Thousand Tons of TNT." That summer, the government first released photographs of the B-29, a plane whose size was beyond our comprehension.
Cheering and loud car horns at Carelas' greeted news of the war's end. That night, Mom took Nitsa and me with a group of her friends and their children to the Blue Mountain Inn, a restaurant and bar that was strictly off-limits for us until that night. I remember the band playing, streamers flying, and people laughing, drinking, and dancing.
In 1944, immediately after the Nazi occupation ended, Greece entered into a dark period of civil war. Armed guerrilla groups representing communist, monarchist, and republican factions battled over control of the future of Greece. Our relatives in Macedonia fought the communists in the mountains surrounding Kastoria. Fifty thousand or more Greeks killed each other in the horror that Nicholas Gage documented in his novel Eleni.(3) In it he tells the story of fratricide in Greece and of his mother's murder.
At the end of the Second World War, Russian troops occupied Bulgaria, installed a communist government, and secured the country as part of the Russian bloc. Sozopol was behind the Iron Curtain.
Mom had her first heart attack late in the summer of 1945, just a few days after we returned home to Brooklyn from the Catskills. Our lives changed.
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