My father, a second-generation Greek American, has always been a magnificent raconteur of the past. He likes to tell stories about all manner of things, but about our family—who we are and where we come from—most of all. In this tradition, I offer a story to you.
It was the summer of 2019 and I took a trip to Greece, a place that meant a great deal to me and yet a place I’d never been. I went in pursuit of fact: to report on the refugee crisis and to research my family’s history. But in the process I often found myself slipping into the territory of mythmaking, as if via hole in the ground. For what is travel—and for that matter, what was my family’s migration story, or even my choice to become a journalist—if not the pursuit of some mythic idea?
My husband and I set out early that first morning in Athens with the hope of getting lost, but we were instantly sucked into the city’s feverish tourist din. Within just a few blocks of our hotel, we found ourselves accidentally at the gates of the Acropolis, unwittingly tourists at the most obvious stop there was, and among the very first in line. “In these classical lands,” wrote French author Théophile Gautier in 1877, “the past is so alive that it leaves hardly any space for the present to survive.” We decided to forgo aimlessness for the time being and pay our way inside.
We ascended the hill slowly, surveying the ancient, sun-bleached city as feral cats stole naps upon the rock. A less-traveled path—one generally closed to the public—wound us along the Acropolis’s eastern edge, where a spring fell from the limestone in small droplets and bloodred poppies bloomed. At the top of the hill stood the Parthenon, clanging with reconstruction, and from up there we could see all of Athens and far beyond. There were now hundreds of us on that hill steeped in mythology, spinning stories of the past and grasping at their meaning.
It is possible to narrate a story to death so that meaning itself gets wrung dry. That I’m Greek, for example. Though most in my living family members have never even been to Greece and don’t speak the language, this story is central to our identity. Its meaning is teleological: being Greek means something to us because it is important to us that it mean something. I had traveled to Greece, in part, because I was determined to break out of that insistent loop and get to the bottom of things.
We continued on from the Parthenon, following our instincts away from the hordes and into the whitewashed neighborhood of Anafiotika, where rounded, ancient-looking houses crowded the hillside like honeycomb. Though a tourist trap in its own right, Anafiotika seemed miraculously empty, a hushed world of slender passages where, from time to time, a view would reveal the city below: the rushing snarl of Monastiraki, its cramped stalls and waiting taxis.
But up there it was quiet and tranquil, difficult to discern public roadway from the entry to someone’s home. We were finally unmapped, happy and in awe within the maze, having broken through the city’s outermost husk and into a blissful disorientation in which we barely felt the need to speak.
After some minutes we rounded a bend where the hillside path opened to sky. There before us was an older gentleman seated on a low stool outside what we took to be his front door.
“Shh, shh!” the man hissed as we approached, waving a hand to demand our silence, though we hadn’t been speaking. He was a sturdy block of a fellow who wore a brimmed cap from under which patches of white hair caught the light. At his feet sat a small wooden stringed instrument and an empty espresso cup. His gaze was fixed on a blooming oleander that spilled over the pathway like a bridal arch. “Sit,” he ordered, and we obliged, settling onto one of the stone steps in the oleander’s shadow. A bird flitted through the dapple and the man grunted with delight, lifted his bouzouki, and began strumming, singing in Greek toward the trees.
“I speak bird,” he announced over his forlorn song. We sat still and listened for a while, watching the birds. Then, as if sensing we were about to take our leave, he spoke again.
“My name is Demetrios,” he said, still strumming, motioning for us to stay a bit longer. “I speak bird because every day one thousand people are coming to Greece. One thousand! Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Africa.” We hadn’t been in Greece twelve hours yet, but here it was already, talk of the refugees and what they were doing to the country’s future. Demetrios insisted that it was just a matter of time before there would be no Greeks anymore. If he didn’t speak bird, couldn’t we see, soon there would be no one else to talk to.For all the stories my family tells about itself, we don’t dwell on the tragedies, these casualties of migration and war and loss.
“You know, a big mafia runs this country,” Demetrios went on. “They want us to believe everything is okay. But it’s not okay!” He pulled a tattered wallet from his pocket. See how little money he had stored in its folds? A wallet like this had once cost just a few euros, and now went for nearly three times that amount. And the coffee he drank each day, he said, pointing to his empty cup: how could a person afford coffee at this price? He shook his head and resumed his music. Greece, his home—it was changing, he felt, falling apart, turning to ruin.
Another bird dropped into our low cover. “I must talk bird,” he repeated, “because soon there will be no Greek people anymore.”
The future is forever on its way to upend the past. “Modern nostalgia,” writes the theorist Svetlana Boym, “is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values.” No matter where you go on earth you’ll find someone pining for a homeland.
And perhaps throughout time there has always been some old man on a hillside, strumming an instrument and sipping from a small cup, certain that because new people are coming and another layer is unfurling across history—that accumulation of moments, that sedimentary rock—his world is coming to an end.
What Demetrios made plain was that the economic crisis that struck Greece after the global collapse in 2008 was far from over.
The crisis had devastated Greece and the Greeks. In the immediate aftermath, an epidemic of suicides began. The most infamous was the story of a seventy-seven-year-old man named Dimitris Christoulas, a retired pharmacist whose pension was cut and then cut again as a result of government austerity measures. He was forced to sell the pharmacy he owned; eventually he couldn’t even afford the medicine he needed to survive.
One April morning in 2012, Christoulas took to Athens’ busy Syntagma Square, walked to a spot beneath a tree, pulled out a gun, and announced, “I am not committing suicide, they are killing me.” He then shot himself in the head.
“I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life,” he wrote in the note he left behind, “so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.”
Greece’s suicide rate rose 35 percent between 2010 and 2012. Suicides hit working age men and retirees living off already meager pensions the hardest, particularly elders who, like Christoulas, were most likely to lose their jobs or have their salaries or pensions cut, had less ability to leave the country for greener pastures, and a shorter time horizon upon which things could once again turn right.
“Like all suicides,” Christoulas’s daughter said of her father’s death, “it was political murder.”
Following the economic collapse, the wealthier powers of Europe orchestrated a “bailout” that hitched Greece to an endless regime of debt. The Greek government, which had been rife with corruption and mismanagement that tended to insulate wealthy oligarchs, was forced to adopt austerity measures necessary to repay the debt. But it was clear that there was no sustainable path for this money to ever be repaid.
In 2010, for every $100 of income a Greek made, the state owed $146 to foreign banks. This is to say that Demetrios wasn’t wrong to blame outsiders for the fate of Greece and the Greeks, but he was pointing the finger in the wrong direction.
For while Acropolis-era Greece has long been celebrated as the birthplace of democracy, today Greeks are often cast as Western Europe’s lazy, corrupt, darker-skinned southern cousins—the underclass of the European project. “Our country’s fiscal waterboarding was celebrated as a sensible way of bringing lost people back into the fold,” wrote Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece.We hadn’t been in Greece twelve hours yet, but here it was already, talk of the refugees and what they were doing to the country’s future.
After the collapse, young Greeks began to leave the country in droves. Over 500,000 people migrated from Greece between 2008-2016—more in those eight years than in the great Greek migration of the early 20th century. Meanwhile, by 2015, hundreds of thousands and then millions of people from Africa and Asia and the Near East had fled their own battered homes in search of safety in Europe. Happenstance of geography meant that the majority of them ended up in Greece, washing, waterlogged and desperate and sometimes half dead, on Greece’s shores.
My family is a product of the great Greek out-migration of the 20th century. In January 1914, several months before WWI began, my sixteen-year-old great-grandmother Evanthia, along with her mother, Fotini, and her little brother, Yiannis, left their Cycladic island of Andros and traveled through Athens to the port city of Patras. It was about two hundred miles as the crow flies, a days-long journey back then. Patras faced westward—toward New York, where they were headed—the starting point from which my ancestors, and so many Greeks like them, would eventually become Greek Americans.
In Patras they boarded the S-S-Ultonia, a five-hundred-foot-long steel-hulled ship built in 1898 to transport cargo and cattle. As the market for voluntary transatlantic migration boomed, the Ultonia was converted into a passenger ship outfitted to carry up to 2,200 people. It was nothing fancy, in fact it looked a bit like a warship, its four masts trained toward heaven like bayonets. But it had been tested on the wintry Atlantic swell.
The ship held second-class berths for a hundred or so passengers; the other hundreds were crammed into third-class bunks where they worked to keep themselves from falling seasick or going mad. (The trick, my grandmother taught me years later, as if passing on an heirloom, is to train your eyes on the horizon.) My family traveled third class, of course. If they could afford otherwise, why leave?
They arrived in New York in just under a month, docking at Ellis Island for processing. In New York it was day fifteen of a three-week cold snap, this new-to-them world draped in two feet of unfamiliar snow.
They headed to Boston and began working. A few years later, my great-grandmother married and had four children—two boys, Theodore the eldest and Nicky the youngest, and two girls: my grandmother Penelope and her younger sister, Tula. The sisters were radiant, and so alike that they were often mistaken for twins.
Right after Nicky was born, Evanthia’s husband died. Now a single mother raising four kids alone, she found work managing a Greek diner in New Haven called the Belle Spa. She sent her children to school, saved her money under a mattress, counted the coins from the jukeboxes, and paid the people who flipped burgers behind the counter a fair wage.
But no matter what, she was always a foreigner. “A large percent of immigration,” wrote historian Frank Julian Warne in 1916, “is made up of outcasts, thieves, and offscourings of the earth, who are forced to leave their own lands and still are allowed to land upon American soil. Isn’t it time we begin to take measures to stop this inflow of foreign scum?”
Like most everything else in the United States, this racial caste system was likely somewhat confounding to my great-grandmother when she first arrived. Her skin was light enough; in spite of her dark eyes and olive skin (my inheritance), if she dressed right and stayed out of the sun and concealed her rough accent, she could pass. Eventually along with other southern Europeans, Greek Americans came to be considered white, as if by some hidden, silent consensus. There were other newcomers, by then, on whom to turn.
Evanthia raised her kids to resemble true US Americans, though at home they spoke Greek out of earshot of others. In the summer, when her daughters turned too tan after taking the bus to Connecticut’s beaches, she scolded them. And in her later years, she talked about the new people moving into her New Haven neighborhood, where she herself had once been considered a stranger—“them,” and “too many” of them. She meant Black people. This country had taught Evanthia its hierarchy, and she had assimilated and internalized that mythology in return.Nearly all the houses we passed were empty and possessing a sense of withered grandeur, the kind of houses that time and the elements were wresting from the human grip.
I remember Evanthia from when I was small. She was a wiry ram of a woman, with a broad smile, thick-rimmed black glasses and stiff, dowdy old-world clothing: smock-like skirts, stockings that bunched and bagged at her ankles. She spoke some English but not all that much. She believed in “America”—not the place, but the idea. It had worked for her.
It is an inherited truism in my family that, because of the determined grit of Evanthia, that teenage “domestic” who traveled here from faraway rocky shores, we all were able to become who we are. That alchemy of personal determination and the flashing promise of the USA—you could catch it, if you tried, and bottle it, watching, like one would a firefly, how it throbbed with light. And hadn’t she?
But then again, of her four children, only two managed to outlive her. They never spoke of what happened to John, the WWII veteran, always saying it was the war that killed him, and maybe in a roundabout way that was true, but the technical, if hushed, fact is that he died because he took a gun and shot himself in the head; or maybe he took pills? It depends who you ask.
Orthodox burials are prohibited to suicides, but my family had switched to an Anglican church to blend in, anyway. There is hardly anything in the archive of his life or death—not in the actual archive of the state, nor the oral archive of our family’s otherwise copious trove of stories. Tula, meanwhile, my grandmother’s more beautiful and vivacious sister, struggled with alcoholism and died a terrible early death. And that’s about all I know about that story, too.
For all the stories my family tells about itself, we don’t dwell on the tragedies, these casualties of migration and war and loss and of grasping toward ascension. Instead we boast of our heritage and the path it took to get here, for we are (we are determined to believe) a success story. And what am I if not sheer proof?
A few days after we arrived in Greece, Ben and I boarded a passenger ferry to Andros, the island where Evanthia was born.
The apartment I’d booked us wasn’t findable on a map so Stavros, our host, met our ferry to show us the way. The route hooked north from the small port into the hills via dirt road after dirt road and even one road made of pure sand. We were to stay in the bright, spare apartment above Stavros’s house that was built into the rocky hillside facing the sea.
But before we settled in, Stavros, a lean man in his sixties with tight grey curls and flashing eyes, insisted we join him for breakfast. He brewed us coffee, set out a feast on the terrace overlooking the rocky shore: bread, tahini, a jar of honey, boiled eggs, coffee, milk, nuts and yogurt, a few oranges he’d cut open into their glowing orbs.
The bread baked with cinnamon and currants was particularly delicious, and I said so. Stavros explained that his brother had brought it as a gift from a recent visit to Cyprus, where his family was originally from. They’d been raised in a small Cypriot town in a house surrounded by orange groves. In Cyprus, he explained, Greeks and Turks lived together as they had for a long time. But when Stavros was in his twenties that changed; the war began and many Greek Cypriots like Stavros’s family were forced to flee.
We listened to his story and continued to eat our breakfast, spreading tahini over the bread, peeling husk off the eggs. The wind picked up suddenly and we had to secure our napkins with our forks, tuck the eggshells into empty coffee cups. He’d had been in Athens studying, Stavros recounted, when things in Cyprus really took a turn, and had managed to bring his brother, his sister and his parents to join him in safety. They never lived in Cyprus again.
“War,” he said. “That’s how it is, this is how things happen.”
The wind began to whip again, to truly howl, and Stavros seemed either not to notice or to care. The coffee cup tipped and eggshells scattered off the table, the napkins took flight, but he kept on with his story. Years after the war had ended and it was safe to return, Stavros decided to see what was left of his home. The house was still there but it was practically unrecognizable. The orange groves had all been razed.
“Gone,” he said. He took an orange off his table and held it in his fist. “You cannot believe what these people have done. The most beautiful trees, can you imagine? Nothing, nothing. Gone.” When he returned from his trip he fell sick with fever for many days. Losing your home like that, he said, will make a person ill.My ancestors had left Greece; now, a hundred years later, millions were arriving to Greece or desperate to get here, this treacherous gateway to Europe.
Stavros wanted to show us the area and a small beach nearby so that evening we took a walk, continuing eastward on the lonely road. He pointed out the many wildflowers, the spectacular view across the sea toward the mainland. Nearly all the houses we passed were empty and possessing a sense of withered grandeur, the kind of houses that time and the elements were wresting from the human grip: the swimming pool filled with dirt and leaves, the paint cracking and eroding, the windows shattered, the small statue at the front door now toppled and bent, the gates unhinged, the garden now just sun-cracked earth.
Stavros peered over the walls of these compounds to assess the latest decay and tell us who had built the house, who had recently bought it, where these owners now lived, many of them once but no longer rich because, as you know, what has happened in this country. “These people do not take care of this house,” he said of one place, and “these people sold to a very rich man, but he never comes.”
Stavros was a grandfather now, and a formerly retired dentist; because his pension had been cut he’d had to go back to work. His kids didn’t visit the house on Andros much anymore. It was expensive to get there, expensive to maintain, too. He pointed out a development of small and unfinished houses up on the hillside, stalled from the economic collapse.
But once we’d scrambled down the path to a small and empty beach and entered the clear waters—“Paradise!” Stavros announced with a smile—the skeletons of half-built houses on the hillside above us were decorated by the waning sun, appearing majestic now rather than forlorn. He smiled happily has he swam, taking us so far out around a rocky protrusion of the island that I struggled to keep my breath. Something, someday, would turn around.
That night, dead tired and tucked into the bed in Stavros’s apartment, the wind howled so monstrously we could hardly sleep. It troubled Ben, but I was certain it would quell by daybreak. The next morning, Stavros was at our door with coffees, the wind making a mess of his hair and clothing. “Beautiful day!” he told us as the apartment whistled and shook. “Not so windy today. Today will be very good.”
He asked if we would like to go for a hike with him so he could show us the island’s stunning and intricate loops of trails. “It is not good to be in Paradise alone,” he had practically whispered to Ben through the wind the day before. We had hoped to spend the day just the two of us, but it was a kind offer, and he seemed lonely, so we agreed.
He opened the map to show us where our hike would take us.
“Where did your great grandmother live on this island?” Stavros asked me. I had no idea. It was disappointing to us both.
It was too bad, Stavros noted, that my family hadn’t taught me to speak Greek. I agreed. My grandmother had spoken Greek only when discussing something she didn’t want the rest of us to hear. Thus to me, the modern Greek language was and is a language of secrets: of closed doors, abandoned islands, muffled suicides, shadowy provenance.
We crossed the island and hiked all day in the sunshine, taking small pathways that looped among quiet houses and rushing springs. There were wild plumbs we could pluck off the trees on the hillside, apricot trees and mulberries, the right assortment of sun and shade, far less wind and spring water so clean and clear you could drink it. I tried to imagine my great grandmother on these paths as a girl, but could only picture her as an old woman, forever an immigrant in my mind and never fully at home.
It occurred to me that Stavros and I were mirrors of one another: me, determined to return to a homeland I’d never had, him, determined to recreate a home he’d lost. “Nostalgia is an ache of temporal distance and displacement,” writes Svetlana Boym. “Displacement is cured by a return home, preferably a collective one. Never mind if it’s not your home; by the time you reach it, you will already have forgotten the difference.”
Back on our side of the island that night, it felt as though the wind might dislodge our apartment from the top of Stavros’s house and lift us away. We wanted to leave this house, find somewhere else to stay, but how would we explain it to Stavros? He had fought so hard for this tiny empire, and he wanted us to love it as he did.
My ancestors had left Greece; now, a hundred years later, millions were arriving to Greece or desperate to get here, this treacherous gateway to Europe. After Andros, Ben boarded a plane back to the States while I hopped an overnight ferry to the island of Lesbos, a place with a local population of roughly 90,000 and where, due to its proximity to Turkey, nearly a million refugees had landed since 2015.
When the crisis began, nearly 1,000 people would arrive to the island in a single day, mostly in shoddy, inflatable boats that their smugglers had pushed from Turkey’s shore, wishing the passengers the best of luck. Generally the men sat on the outside while the women and children sat in the boat’s interior. But after hours at sea the waves often waterlogged the too-packed boat.From my bed, to distract myself from stories about the pandemic, I read about the rise of the Nazi party in Greece—its own deadly virus.
At least once, a mother arrived on shore and stood up only to find that her baby suffocated in her lap on the way. I spoke to a woman from Congo whose boat had recently capsized. Her friends drowned before the rescue fleet arrived. None of them had known how to swim and the life jackets the smugglers had provided were counterfeit.
“I can’t stop thinking about them,” she told me, the way they gulped their final breaths before disappearing beneath the husk of the sea.
Most often, the boats washed ashore on Lesbos’s northern rim, a part of the island settled by the so-called Asia Minor Greeks who had come to Lesbos in the 1922 population exchange between Greece and what is now Turkey. Like in Cyprus where Stavros was from, the Greek-speaking Orthodox had lived for generations in Asia Minor among their Turkish speaking Muslim neighbors; meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Turkish speakers had been living in what was now known as Greece—borders being, after all, somewhat of a recent concept in the scale of human experience, and also figment of the imagination. The two governments, long at odds, decided on a swap: the Greek speakers living in Asia Minor would come to Greece, and the Turks to Asia Minor.
This population swap, or what came to be known as “The Catastrophe,” sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing suddenly in both directions. Boatloads of Asia Minor Greeks arrived on Lesbos’s north shore, almost one hundred years before boatloads of Syrians and Afghans and Eritreans would do the same.
I met a Greek solidarity worker named Chloe, who invited me to her mother’s house in the northern town of Klio to meet some of her elderly neighbors whose family members had fled to Lesbos during the Catastrophe. We sat in a lush hillside garden overlooking the sea that stretched across to Turkey. The three elders appeared all at once, knocking on the gate and bearing sweets.
Petros was a gregarious goat farmer in his eighties with bright eyes and hands so broad and steady that, in spite of his stoop, felt as though they could build you a house. Lilika and Annula were best friends in their seventies who were both recently widowed. They still donned their mourning black: thick woolen skirts in spite of the heat and stockings with sandals, just like my great grandmother had worn.
Though they’d never set foot in Asia Minor, they had been raised on stories of this homeland and all that had been lost when they’d had to leave: the olive orchards, the tapestries, the bundles of money hidden around the estates. When Annula’s family left, they swaddled a newborn baby with coins pressed tightly against the baby’s body. One of the men swam with the baby out to sea to meet the boat so her cries wouldn’t be heard.
The baby lived but the money proved useless; they couldn’t exchange the coins once they got to Greece. As small children, their parents and grandparents sang them lullabies about their long-lost homes as they slid into sleep. Annula had grown up in Klio, this very town, where each day she would look across to Turkey: so close, so far away.
When the refugees starting arriving in 2015, a number of islanders held anti-immigrant protests nearby the town.
“Just as they are throwing rocks at the refugee boats today, they were throwing rocks at our grandparents,” Lilika said.
“My grandmother had suffered these same things as these people!” Petros said, pointing vaguely south toward the refugee camps down south.
Petros recalled that as his refugee father had grown old, he began to slip back and forth in time. His family had narrowly escaped a massacre and his father’s sister, Anastasia, was left behind. He never knew what became of her. In his sickbed, Petros’ father would sing the sad songs from Asia Minor and speak to his sister, Anastasia, across the narrow belt of water as if she were alive, as if he could summon her. One of his final days he opened his eyes. “Oh, Anastasia,” he said to the empty space before him, “There you are. I’ve been wondering for so long where you’d gone.”
When Petros’s story finished, the two widows practically hummed.
“We know our family is gone,” Lilika said, setting down her spoon, “but every now and then my cousins and I get to talking and think, what if someone from there showed up?” She stared out toward the sea, as if imagining it.
Dusk was setting in and it was time for everyone to head home. As we walked toward the front gate, Annula turned to me.
“Koukla,” she said lovingly, taking my face in her hands. It was the only Greek word I’d ever learned—a term of endearment, directly translating to doll, but meaning something like beautiful sweetheart. Evanthia had taught it to me. No one had taken my face in their hands and called me koukla since my grandmother had died.
“Come to my home next time, said Annula as I held back my silly tears. “I, too, have a garden, and a yard. I’ll make you coffee and tell you more stories.” I told her to count on it.
I drove south again, descending the mountainous hills of the north island into a broad valley until I came across a shuffling flock of flamingos making their way through the wetlands—hundreds upon hundreds of them, migrants stopping over on their way south to Africa. It was like a mirage. If you’d told me I would encounter these bright pink absurdities on this dry island in Greece, I would have thought you were spinning a tall tale, the kind those on the Greek side of family always liked to tell. But here they were, carpeting the marshy valley like an overnight bloom.
I left Greece a couple weeks later: back to my life. But I vowed to return, and soon, to take Annula up on her offer for coffee. I booked a ticket for late March of 2020. The plan was to travel overland through the Balkans and into Greece, passing over all those contested borders that I’d spent so much time staring at in maps.
But then came coronavirus, and my trip was canceled. It struck me that the virus was the opposite of a border wall; here the virus was all around us, in a way, connecting us all. I fell sick, a sickness I first confused with the grief of the moment. But then came the chills and the fever. My throat swelled as if full of ancient stones.
From my bed, to distract myself from stories about the pandemic, I read about the rise of the Nazi party in Greece—its own deadly virus. My phone pinged with calendar reminders of where I had planned to be: “Hungary.” “Serbia.” “Macedonia.” “Greece.” On the day I was meant to arrive on Lesbos, I read that a group of fascists had attacked the main refugee camp on the island, taking bludgeons to the cars of aid workers, setting refugees’ dwellings on fire.
I called my parents on Facetime. The night before, in burst of energy from my subsided fever, I had traveled through an internet wormhole related to our ancestry. I figured out that Evanthia had been born in a town called Korthio on Andros island. Ben and I hadn’t made it that far south. It struck me as sad, and then hilarious, to have traveled so far but missed it.
I explained all this to my father, but to him it didn’t much matter—Greece was Greece, where we were from. So he countered with a story of his own. “Have I ever told you the story about the land?”
We are a family of raconteurs, but my father is the emperor of fabulists and the best storyteller I know. By now, I’ve heard most of his tales by the dozens. That a new story would appear now out of the ether was somewhat of a marvel.
“The land?” I asked.
He told me that his Aunt Tula, my grandmother’s beloved sister who died too young, had once come upon an old, dusty trunk in her mother Evanthia’s attic. She opened the trunk (who wouldn’t?) and found it full of papers. There was one particularly tattered document that stood out to her, official-looking and written in Greek, that language of secrets. Though Tula spoke Greek well enough she couldn’t read it, so she asked her mother what it was.
“Oh,” my great grandmother said. “That?” She hunched over to read it. “That is a will.”
My dad was a bad kid growing up—stealing cars, jumping out the window in the middle of class to skip school, filching cigarettes and once even turning the school bell upside down and filling it with water so that, by the next morning, it had frozen solid and no one made it to class on time.
His father, having risen from poverty, chastised him often. “You’ll end up shining shoes in Trenton!” He would bellow. My grandmother, a first generation kid who finally blended, didn’t know what to do with him, either. But Tula adored my dad, and he saw his aunt as his only true champion. Thus, every time Tula shows up in my father’s stories it’s a signal that we’re veering from the territory of biography and into improvisational legend—that is to say, into myth.
“A will!” Tula exclaimed. “What does it say?”
According to my father’s story, my great grandmother read on to learn she had inherited two acres of land on an island in Greece.
“This is great!” Tula exclaimed. Where there was land there was money—or at the very least possibility.
“Wait, wait,” my great grandmother said. There was a catch. In order to redeem this inheritance she would have to present herself in person within twenty years of the letter’s issuance. She and Tula did the math: exactly twenty-one years had passed. It was too late; the land was gone.
“Wow,” I said, when my father was finished with his story.
“Two acres on Greece’s primo island!” He said. “We’d be rich!”
I countered that Andros wasn’t exactly one of Greece’s “primo” islands but that it was, indeed, beautiful.
“No, no, it wasn’t Andros—it was Mykonos!” he said. The party-goers paradise, where land could be spun into gold.
But our ancestors were peasants, I insisted, farmers, and from a completely different island (though, to be fair, Mykonos was nearby). This whole thing just smacked of fairytale: the buried treasure, the hidden message, the allure of transformation, the thwarted dreams. “It’s a great story, dad, but it’s not true.”
“It is true!” He insisted. “It’s absolutely true!” He hated when my brother and I fact checked his stories, and that he had such spoil-sports for kids. “All I know,” he said, “is that that is what the lore of our family was, and so that is what the letter said.” In other words, a story’s survival through the generations is the very thing that makes it true.
If my great grandmother dreamed us all into being in this new country, my father’s mythology looks backward, imagining a past into existence that not only makes us more rich and powerful, but that makes us more deeply belong. Who knows what might have been?
We could have been goat herders, local royalty, intellectuals, shipping tycoons. All our people might have lived. We could have been political radicals, aristocrats, berry hawkers, bondsmen to the wind. But time moves forward—“home” being, in technical terms stripped of myth and magic, merely the place where you now live. Through story, we could have been so many things in that gilded past we’ve incarnated in arrears with our longing. Instead, we’re just us.