When I was a kid and television was still the kind of entertainment suitable for a family, one of my favorite shows was "Father Knows Best." The actor who played the father in the series smoked a pipe, wore a smoking jacket and spoke flawless English. He had a study where he sat in a big leather chair and solved everyone's problem with unparalleled wisdom. Let's just say my Greek father did not fit this particular mold.
My Dad spoke English with a heavy accent, he never smoked, didn't own a smoking jacket or a leather chair, and his study consisted of the kitchen table. Dad owned tons of books, all in Greek, Euripides, Plato, Homer, Herodotus, the Church Fathers, and on and on. He read the Greek newspaper, carrying it home every night folded in his jacket pocket. He would cut out articles he liked for future reference. Dad had a rule: speak Greek. This was a guy who also spoke Albanian, Turkish and Italian fluently. I had no idea though how he was ever going to improve his English, so I wouldn't be embarrassed at parent-teacher meetings. If that wasn't bad enough, I had to go along to translate. Sometimes he didn't need translation, as in the case of one particular grade school teacher who insisted on calling me "Steve" instead of Stavros. She made me erase the name Stavros from my notebook. When Dad noticed it, he went to school with me the next day, marched up to my teacher and announced: "Please hees name is Stavros NOT Steve. Thees was hees papou's name. OK. It cannot be chan-ged." At that exact moment I was hoping the earth would just open up and swallow me whole.
Dad was not the kind of guy that spent lots of time playing with us. I really don't think he knew how, since he was never really given much of an opportunity to learn during his hard scrabble youth in the horio (village). Other kids played catch with their Dads, mine fixed my Greek homework. Other kids went fishing with their Dad, mine helped me memorize the poem of the month at Greek School. Despite all this, there was never any doubt that Dad loved me. There was never a shortage of hugs and kisses, interspersed with a rare attention gaining whack.
When I wanted to join the Marines at the ripe old age of nineteen, Dad tried to talk me out of it. The Vietnam War was killing American boys on a daily basis and he was scared. When he realized that I had made my mind up and for the first time in my life I was digging my heels in refusing to do what he told me to do. He put on his best suit and accompanied me to the recruiting office, to stand by my side. Years later, he came to visit me when I was a twenty-nine year old Captain stationed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina. During his visit I bought him a wrist watch at the base exchange. As I handed him the one I chose for him, despite his protestations, he admired it, putting it on his wrist. Teary eyed, he gave me a big hug and kissed me on the cheek. The saleslady behind the counter was startled. She quickly recovered her composure and said in a quiet southern drawl, "Down here men don't do that sort of thing," she smiled uncomfortably, "but honey, I think its sweet that yo daddy ain't afraid to show such affection to his son." That was one of the best days of my life.
My Dad was always there to gives us a nudge in the right direction. Once that was done, he would back off and quit nit picking. He understood that God is not finished with any of us yet and that each of us is still a work in progress. When it came to the Orthodox faith, which he loved, Dad always led by example. On more than one occasion I would wake up from a sound sleep to fetch myself a glass of water and catch my father in front of the family icons praying while the oil lamp flickered in the evening darkness. On Sundays and feast days he was at Church without fail, always on time to serve as a psalter. Dad understood that he could not give the gift of faith or God's grace to his children. All he could do was prepare us within the Church to receive it. And so he did.
My daily contact with him during my youth disappeared during my military career when we only saw each other a few times a year. When I finally moved my family to Maine, I was able to spend more time with him after a long absence. As luck would have it, his health began failing; first a heart attack and then a stroke a few years later. Dad lived at home with my mother until his mental and physical condition deteriorated to the point where it was impossible for us to take care of him properly. We watched him progressively weaken, from walking unassisted to using a walker to having to use a wheelchair, to being bedridden. Eventually we made a difficult, agonizing choice which many people have to make nowadays. Medical science can prolong life, however, it can't ensure a good quality of life. Dad spent the last year of his life in a nursing home. It was to be our longest and most difficult journey together.
Watching what had been a once vibrant and strong man waste away is always difficult. What was harder was not being able to carry on a conversation and ask him the important questions that I never had the time or smarts to pose when he could have answered them. You never get a second chance. It was the little things that gave us both pleasure toward the end: physical contact, feeding him my mother's homemade yogurt or listening to the hymns he loved so much as a psalter. His room in the nursing home was sparse, his belongings few. His icons, photographs of his parents, wife, children and grandchildren were next to him. Sometimes in the evening if I was working late and arrived after he had fallen asleep, I would sit next to his bed, watching him sleep while his slow respirations moved his chest every so slightly up and down. I’d often wonder what he was dreaming about. I used to imagine that in his dream world he was a boy again back in Epirus. In this dream he was walking down a dirt road herding the family goats and sheep, the bells around their necks ringing as they moved toward his home. In the fading light he sees the smoke of a cooking fire wafting up from the chimney of a simple stone house. His mother, a black shawl covering her head, stands at the doorway waving to him. He waves back. He is happy, he picks up his step, all is right with the world. Along the way he picks a succulent fig from a tree, peels it and savors it in his mouth, smiling.
My father never made the cover of Time magazine nor did he ever have his fifteen minutes of fame. In a hundred years will anyone even remember that he had walked the earth? Will his memory and the story of his life be just a collection of distant, fading shadows? Dad was a faithful husband, a loving father, a good Christian, and he lived his life as best he could. Can any of us ask for anything more?
Happy Father’s Day, Baba. May the soil that covers your grave, rest lightly upon you.