Happy Father's Day
Celebrating the day with an excerpt from Ithaka on the Horizon: A Greek-American Journey
There is a sheer cliff at the end of the footpath of our lives,
But he whose soul possesses wings unfurls them and survives.
from a Cretan mantinada
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 problems 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, he 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. 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 moment I was hoping the earth would just open up and swallow me whole.
Dad was not the kind of guy who 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 hardscrabble youth in the horio (village). Other kids played catch with their dads; mine preferred to fix my Greek homework. Other kids went fishing with their dads; 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.
As a kid I saw my father every day. I was lucky. So many kids nowadays don't have a male figure in their lives to give them what only a father figure can. Boys, especially, need a man to serve as an example of how men should behave. Sometimes we men fall short and don't have the right stuff. Real men aren't loudmouthed, muscle-bound bullies, reeking of machismo. Nor are they effeminate, cringing, weak-kneed, narcissists focused on their appearance. Real men are strong, silent, humble, selfless, loving but not permissive, obstinate but willing to listen, and—above all—dutiful. You know—the Gary Cooper types. In the marines, we used to refer to these guys as the ones who would still be there when the smoke had cleared, no matter how dicey things got.
My own dad, like all humans who walk the earth, was not without blemish. He would be the first to admit that very thing. He was the kind of father who would hug us and kiss us on the cheek even as we grew into adulthood, yet he could be aloof and hard to understand. Like the men of his generation, he wasn't very good at hanging his feelings out on the clothesline for all to see. Baba was hardworking; however, he was not an ambitious person. For someone with the equivalent of an advanced degree when most of his peers never finished grade school, he seemed to have put ambition aside in order to concentrate on the really important things in his life, like raising his kids, caring for his family, and fulfilling his obligations to his church and his country. Ask any monk, and he will readily tell you that living a truly Christian life in the world with all of its trials and temptations is as difficult as living in an isolated, remote monastery.
In most group pictures he was ever in, Dad was always in the back of the crowd. He was never one to push his way to the front, unless, of course, he was in a queue, waiting his turn. He couldn't abide wasting precious time doing nothing. My father loved books and he loved his garden. When he wasn't reading, he was planting something, and what he planted usually produced something edible. My fondest memories of my father are those of the times we spent working together, doing hard manual labor, like mixing cement, laying bricks, or putting up fences. It was our special time together, the time in which we bonded. We ended up sweaty and filthy, talking and laughing about life or the future, then coming home exhausted but with a sense of supreme accomplishment.
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. But he realized that I had made my mind up and that 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 wristwatch at the base exchange. As I handed him the one I'd chosen 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 black saleswoman 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 it’s 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 give us a nudge in the right direction. Once that was done, he would back off and quit nitpicking. 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 woke from a sound sleep to fetch myself a glass of water and caught my father in front of the family icons, praying; 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 such a point that 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, one that 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 once been a vibrant and strong man waste away is difficult. What was harder was not being able to carry on a conversation and ask him the important questions that I'd never had the time or smarts to pose when he could have answered them. Toward the end it was the little things that gave us both pleasure: providing physical contact, feeding him my mother's homemade yogurt, or listening to the hymns he loved so much
His room in the nursing home was sparse, his belongings few. His icons and photographs of his parents, wife, children, and grandchildren were next to him. Some evenings when I'd worked 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 ever so slightly up and down. I'd often wonder what he was dreaming about. I used to imagine that in his dreamworld he was a boy again, back in his village. In this dream, he is walking down a dirt road, herding the family goats and sheep, the bells around their necks ringing as they move 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, and 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 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, and 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.