18 August, 1984
It is hard to believe that I am here with my father. He never spoke about Greece. I think I understand now. I’ll start at the beginning so as to remember.
In May of 1941 people on Crete stared up at the sky as mushroom-like shapes floated to earth. The invasion of Crete by the Germans had begun. After the war my father immigrated to America and settled in Chicago. When I think of my father I think of his kindness and his gentle pride at being self-made. He never spoke of those days on Crete. He never spoke of anything that burdened him. My dreams took me to California but every Sunday we spoke. I was surprised one Wednesday when the heavy accented voice on the line said
“I’m going to Greece, would you like to come to see where I was born?”
So it was arranged. We would leave our cities, meet in New York and fly to Athens.
It had been nearly forty years since my father had seen his family. He had started a new life in America seemingly never looking back. It was as though he had exorcised something painful or useless from his history. So I was surprised, when on the plane he began to talk of what he remembered of his childhood. The trip seemed for my father a kind of mission or pilgrimage. I assumed there was some nervousness as well. It’s the same for all of us I suspect regardless of age. Going home reduces us to children. All of our achievements, experiences and futures pull us forward while our ‘homes’, the starting point, like the gravitational pull of a planet pulls us back to when we didn’t know the world except in dreams. Odd but I think we want to go in both directions but finally must choose before we’re torn apart. I thought my father had made his choices. I was wrong.
I do believe it’s true that you can never go home again but I think it’s equally true that you leave something of yourself back where you began. So it was for my father, who years before had sailed the sea to a new land. Now the past was pulling him back to where he began, back to where the secrets were kept.
After one week in Athens my father was happy and carefree. Greece can do that, I felt it too.
In Piraeus we booked passage for Crete. In Khania, we were met by my cousins. I sensed a change in my father. We drove up to my father’s village. The little town with its dirt streets and olive groves contained no more than fifty people. Almost all were relations.
From a white house with bright blue shudders a man appeared. He was about six feet tall and slender. He had a thick gray head of hair and a long, white handlebar mustache. Also, from the house came a woman dressed in Black. She was very old and small. Her black form in front of the stark white house made it appear as though she were painted on the wall by some ancient hands. Soon four people were standing outside the small house. In my life I saw my father cry twice. The first time was when my mother died. The second was on that day.
They all stood frozen and then they were together hugging and kissing. That night the entire village prepared food. People set up tables outside along the dirt road. They carried on until the next morning. My father’s little sister Mary sat next to me. She kept turning and smiling and under the table she held my hand. They laughed and argued but sometimes it got quiet and they just looked at one another trying to take it all in, remembering how each other had looked those many years ago. Everything had been perfect but something was not said between them all, it was felt.
The next morning my father and I went to a cemetery. It was odd walking through a cemetery in Greece that had stones with German names. The names were those of soldiers who had fought and died here. Many dates showed that they had been young, some no more than boys.
My father stepped in front of two stones. His face grew tight. The sadness was unbearable. Without a word my father betrayed his secret.
After a long time he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and looked out over the surrounding hills. Then again he looked at the stones.
“It’s like a garden,” he said.
But watching my father as his mind wandered through time opening the once locked doors of memory, I thought it to be a sad garden whose only harvest was regret.