Thursday, December 6, 2012

"Hardisan Maen, Pardisan Daen": A True Story By Bill Hill (My Dad)

When I was very young, my dad – who had started college years earlier before dropping out to join the military – went back to school and took some classes, one of which was a creative writing class. The story you're about to read was one of his assignments in that class. "Hardisan Maen, Pardisan Daen" is, in essence, a true story about my great-grandfather, who emigrated here from Greece in the early part of the 20th century. My dad changed some of the names of people and places involved and framed the story as though it were fiction, but at its heart this is the story of our Greek heritage. It's a little longer than most of the stories I've posted here, but it's well worth the read. Though I was tempted to change some things in places to match my style preferences, I resisted doing so. Because this is not my story; it's my dad's. He has his own style of writing, and I happen to like it. I hope you'll enjoy reading his story as much as I did while retyping it.

by Bill Hill

It was a cool, gusty spring morning in the little mountain village of Pavrammati. The Milatos family was about to lose another member. Pericles Milatos, next to the youngest of four brothers, was about to embark on a long journey to a distant land. His middle name was Stephanas; the first name of his father was the middle name of all male offspring, as was Greek custom. His oldest brother Christopher had drowned in a swimming accident. His brother, Speros, was serving in the Greek Army. Only Basilios was young enough to still be at home and still in school.

Proud of Greek tradition and family ties, the Milatos family had always been a happy family, though poor and without many of the conveniences of larger and more developed Greek cities. Stephanas Milatos, a simple man of little education, worked hard in the grape vineyards and supplemented his family income by hunting and trapping. Katerina Milatos was a woman of more significant social breeding. Well-educated in the best schools in Athens and nurtured in social grace and poise, Katerina would never have been mistaken for the wife of a man of such humble background. Nevertheless, the contrasting elements of their union had shaped the future for their four children as well as enriching their own relationship.

"Sit down, my son. You have two more hours before the village bus will stop by Pavrammati. We will miss you, son, but we want you to be happy and make a good living. Many of my friends and some relatives of your Mama and I have gone to America for more opportunity. Maybe this is right for you too. Your mind seems to be made up about it. It will be hard on your Mama and me, you know. Only Basilios will be here to help in the vineyards. Take this bottle of retsina with you, put it in your suitcase. Remember your papa and write to an old man sometimes."

"Remember your papa? How can I forget you and Mama, Pavrammati, and my brothers. And Basilia-Ki. She took off with that buffoon in the Greek Navy. I love her, but she didn't love me. I will try to forget the bad times and start a new life. I will write all of you and let you know how things are going."

"Goodbye, son. I love you and will miss you dearly. Take care of yourself, learn all that you can. You will do well, my son."

"Goodbye, Mama. Please don't cry. I will be fine. I am seventeen, you know.  I will work hard, and maybe someday I'll be rich like your father was, but I will never disown my family. He never gave Papa a chance to prove himself. His money never brought him the happiness our family has known though."

"Basilios, take care of my parents. Do your best in school. If things work out, maybe you can come to America, too. Until then, I am counting on you to look out for things here."

"Of course, brother. You know I can handle things here. You take care of yourself and don't let those Americans do you wrong."

"It is 3 o'clock now. I must go. The bus will be coming by our village soon. It is a long ride to Athens."

As he kissed his mother, father, and brother gently on each cheek, his heart seemed to drop to his feet. He hoped he was doing the right thing. He waved goodbye and quickly turned away. Not wanting to see the long, grim faces and streaming tears of his loved ones, he ran to the gate leading up to his home. It was a short walk to the bus station. Now he was out of sight from his family, about one-half kilometer from the station.

As he walked, he saw the rolling hills around the village. The scent of grapes from the vineyard and sound of the gusty Grecian wind blowing on his back made him sad. These were things he would have to learn to live without. He stopped for a few moments, grabbed the long green bottle of retsina from his suitcase  and began to sip it. For a brief moment he forgot he was drinking alone and imagined his Papa was there beside him.

He thought about the time his Papa had been hunting and was nearly overtaken by bitter, cold weather and a pack of wolves. Old Brave Papa. He sat firmly in the fork of a tree as the wolves gnarled their teeth upwards at him. There are teeth marks to this day where the wolves grabbed the barrel of the shotgun. Papa would take a sip of ouzo and pick another wolf off with this shotgun. The ouzo kept him warm from the bitter cold as the wolves tried to somehow detach him from the tree. He killed four wolves before the rest of the pack devoured the dead and went back into the forests. Papa made his way safely back into the village and soon became an unsung hero in the village.

There were not many people at the bus station. Waiting for the bus, he began to think about his family and his new life. He really hadn't wanted his family to come; they would have made a scene with their remorse. Yet in his mind he could see them there, their solemn expressions, their mechanical-like hands waving as if this was the last time they would ever see Pericles. He knew he would be back. Yet he felt that nothing would be exactly the same again. Making a new living would not be easy, but it was right for him.

"Come, son, it is time to board the bus. Where is your ticket?" the bus driver inquired.

"Here it is, sir. I am traveling to Athens," he said, returning his thoughts to the present.

His last visit to Athens was a school field trip during the summer of 1908, just two years ago. At the Acropolis ruins, he first saw Basilia-Ki. Her long black hair and deep brown eyes set in an olive-skinned complexion made her seem like a goddess. He watched as her sleek frame moved majestically as the soft breeze across the beautiful Aegean Sea. He wanted to meet her and get to know her.

"Excuse me, my name is Pericles Milatos. I am from Pavrammati. Do you know Athens very well?"

"Yes, I am a native. My name is Basilia-Ki Mylenas. I work for Hellenic Tours here in Athens. Would you like an escorted tour of the Parthenon?"

"That sounds good to me. I am always interested in the natural wonders of Greece," Pericles said with a half grin on his face.

His parents were not happy that Pericles had missed the bus and they had to send fare money for his trip back to Pavrammati. However, for Pericles the time he spent with Basilia-Ki had been worth the trouble it caused. He continued to correspond with Basilia-Ki until he received that dreadful letter, informing him of her love for another. It was a crushing blow for him. What he had mistaken for her true love had been merely friendship.

As Pericles stepped up to board the bus, he looked back very briefly, as if to say goodbye to what he was leaving behind. The countryside looked especially beautiful that day. Absorbed in the beauty of Greece, Pericles arrived in Athens quickly.

As he arrived at the Athens bus station, he looked around for a taxi. He would have to secure a ride to Medina International Transport Lines. He grabbed his suitcase and ran quickly to a taxi cab driver and told him where he was going. About twenty minutes later, he was aboard the Passenger Liner Krystas, on his way to America.

The liner moved slowly away from the Athenian port. Moving along the crystal blue Aegean Sea, Pericles enjoyed the view of his homeland. It was not long before the liner was traversing from the Aegean to the Mediterranean Sea. He caught last glimpses of Greece as he listened to the voices of passengers and heard the squawking of sea birds over the Mediterranean. It was a long voyage from Europe to America, but Pericles needed plenty of time to think. Actually, the time went by very quickly to him, and it seemed that he was out of his native Europe before he realized it. The gray liner, pulled by the current of the mighty Atlantic, surged forward.

As the liner neared the American shore, Pericles' attention was completely absorbed in the view of the Statue of Liberty overlooking Ellis Island. The monument was important to him, because Greeks were lovers of democracy and freedom. These ideals seemed to be embodied in the colossal monument to freedom of all mankind. Soon the liner was in port and passengers were directed to the port terminal where immigrants were to be processed. Fortunately for Pericles, there was an interpreter to help him overcome his limited knowledge of English. It seemed that he was writing his life history, filling out forms, waiting in lines, and taking examinations. After three days of processing and boarding in a government boarding house, Pericles was ready to look for work and a permanent dwelling place.

Finding work was not easy. He applied for work at a restaurant on the west  side of Manhattan. The only opening available was for a dishwasher. It was the same situation everywhere he went: no good jobs for immigrants. After an exhausting search for work, he decided to return to the restaurant on the west side that needed the dishwasher. At least it would be a start for him.

The Olympus Restaurant became his source of bred and butter for the next  year. The work was very boring at first and lasted for long hours. Fortunately for Pericles, however, some Greek-Americans owned and operated the Olympus. They treated him fairly. Other Greek friends who worked there helped him find a place to live and "showed him the ropes." One of the cooks, Mike Milafas, became a very close friend. He showed Pericles some skills in the art of fine cooking. Pericles, a fast learner, soon earned himself an apprenticeship in the kitchen.

"You are doing all right, boy," Mike kept telling him.

"It doesn't taste like my mother's cooking, but I am learning," Pericles would say.

"There is a little taverna on 32nd Street. What do you say we get a little retsina and ouzo and find ourselves a lonely Greek woman," Mike said as he and Pericles were leaving the restaurant.

"Sounds good to me. It seems like it has been longer than six months since I left Greece. She will always be in my soul. Maybe a little retsina will ease the pain."

The Marakos Taverna became a frequently visited attraction for Pericles and his friend Mike. It had the authentic charm of his old country. The music, the food, drinks, and people were pleasant and times were fun.

"Basilia-Ki, why did you marry that peasant? Come and let your lips meet mine. I know you love me," Pericles babbled in an intoxicated stupor.

"What are you carrying on about, Pericles? There is no Basilia-Ki here, you drunken fool!" Mike chuckled.

Mike was learning about his friend, Pericles. A sentimental sort, he thought. A smart boy, though – he learns fast and works hard. He was always talking about how hard his family worked in Greece to make a living. He had that indomitable spirit Greeks were endowed with.

The year passed by quickly. As close as the friendship had been, it was about to take a turn. Relatives of Pericles had offered him a better opportunity in Norfolk, Virginia. He had visited them on several occasions; they were friendly and supportive. He had no way of knowing what kind of people the Lanos family really were. His mother had spoken well of them before they moved from Athens to America. She grew up with Nick Lanos, her cousin. The goodbyes to his friends would be hard, but he decided he was doing the best thing.

"Goodbye, good friend. Come back for a visit when you can. Write an old Greek friend a letter sometimes, okay? You have my address," Mike told him.

So long, friend. I will write and visit when I can. Thanks for all you have taught me and for our friendship."

The time spent in Norfolk was not what Pericles had hoped for. The Lanos family acted differently to him when he began working for them. They were rude and inconsiderate to him and they didn't allow him to be much help in their family restaurant. They helped him find a place to stay, but his meager pay barely paid for his room and what little he ate at the restaurant. He had a friend who shared his interest in retsina and this made life more bearable. Her name was Joanna Cosmia. A college student who frequented the restaurant, she quickly became friends with Pericles. She was the daughter of immigrants who worked at the shipyard in Norfolk. She looked more American to Pericles than she did Greek, but her warm smile and friendliness made him forget there was a difference.

"Let's go to a movie tonight, Joanna. I need to get away from this restaurant and my relatives, if you know what I mean."

"Good idea. I need to chunk the books for a while, too," she said.

At the theater, he placed his arm around her. She lay her head on his shoulder, and he held her close. She whispered softly, "I think I could learn to love you, Pericles." It was the first time he had felt love and had someone return the feeling.

The months passed and their friendship grew into a genuine love. Pericles wrote to his parents often. They welcomed the news of his newfound love. He promised to bring Joanna there someday soon, as his wife. Unfortunately, his mother died before Pericles could make the journey back to his homeland. Pericles had written so much about Joanna to his mother that his mother said that she knew her very well. Pericles was at least glad for that.

It was a happy occasion for Pericles and Joanna when they were united in marriage. His parents were not able to come, because his mother had been sick and their finances were not enough to go. It was a traditional Greek Orthodox wedding and reception – a lot of ceremony and drunken Greeks living it up. Joanna and Pericles had planned a trip to Greece. Her parents had supplemented what she and Pericles had managed to save.

Pericles knew that his mother had been sick, but had not known of her death until he and Joanna arrived in the village of Pavrammati two days after her funeral.

"Papa, I'm so sorry. She was a good woman. I don't understand why she had to go."

"It is best, my son. She had suffered for a long time. Now she suffers no more."

"I am terribly sorry, Mr. Milatos. Pericles told me so much about his mother. He really loved her," Joanna lamented.

"Thank you, sweet girl," he said as he kissed Joanna on each cheek. "You truly have a Greek soul."

They remained in Pavrammati for a week. Joanna got a chance to meet relatives and old friends of Pericles. She really learned to love the little village and understood how hard it would be for Pericles to leave again.

"Papa, you can go back to America to live. We will take care of you."

"No, my son. My home is here. I do very well for an old man. Goodbye, and God bless you," he said as he kissed his son on each cheek and hugged him affectionately. Then he turned to Joanna and kissed her and held her for a brief moment. "Bless you, I love both of you. Goodbye." As they departed, they could still see his hand up, waving to them as they moved out of his sight.

The flight back to America was relatively quiet. Joanna knew Pericles had stirred emotions about leaving his father and Greece. She felt the hurt that he knew. She was glad to be there for him.

"Are you okay, honey?" she asked.

"Yes, I'm okay now. I'm not worried about Papa. He is a strong-willed man. I have been thinking about our future too."

"What do you mean?" Joanna asked.

"I want to move away from Norfolk. I do not want to have to depend on relatives anymore. My father used to say 'Hardisan maen, pardisan daen,' meaning 'Give me a place of my living and I will rule the world.' It is time for us to find our place."

"What language is that?" Joanna said.

"It is some form of ancient Greek handed down over the centuries, I think," Pericles replied.

Life took a lot of twists and turns for Pericles and Joanna. Shortly after they returned to America, Joanna's father and mother were killed in a head-on collision near the shipyard on their way to work. The shock of the event practically unnerved Joanna. It took her many months and she even sought professional help at one point to help her deal with the reality of what had happened.

Nearly a year later, Pericles was injured in an automobile accident, requiring several weeks of recuperation. During his period of recuperation, his father died in what had been termed as a tragic hunting accident. His brother Basilios wrote him a letter telling him about it. It was an overwhelming personal tragedy for Pericles.

"Joanna, why is our life crumbling apart?"

"Our life has been difficult, but we still have so much to live for, Pericles. We have each other. We must pick up the pieces."

"You sound like my parents, but they were very wise, too," Pericles remarked.

When Pericles got out of the hospital, he had a lot of pieces to pick up. Times were not easy, bills were piling up, and business was slow. He worked in the Pleasant View Café in Asheville, North Carolina, ten hours a day as one of the main cooks. He enjoyed the work, but not the meager pay and long hours. It was during this period that Pericles began working jobs on the side. He opened a shoe-shine stand in front of the courthouse. There he bowed the knee to all the dignitaries and social elite who had their shoes shined to perfection by a lowly immigrant boy who was now a man in a dog-eat-dog world. Joanna was at home caring for their one-year-old, Petros.
Eventually Pericles moved to Farmville, North Carolina, where he opened up a fruit stand and worked in a restaurant in nearby Greenville. Saving all the money that he could, he saved up enough to open his own restaurant. His success in these farm communities was nothing less than phenomenal. Eventually, he owned three restaurants in Greenville and was running another in Farmville.  He was making his living, spending a lot of money, and drinking a lot of booze, but was neglecting his family all the while.

Joanna didn't know what Pericles would do next. Once he had taken on a boxer in the ring, who was challenging all contenders for one hundred dollars. Pericles, spirited Greek and champion of a challenge, knocked the poor guy out cold. And then there was the mini-circus he brought home one night, complete with poodle dogs, cockatoos, chimpanzees, and all the props. Pericles was a strong man – he was reported to have lifted a bull off the ground when given the challenge on one occasion. But his strength got him involved in brawls and attracted women of low esteem. He was living a rambunctious life away from home and still demanding respect and loyalty at home.

The situation was becoming nearly intolerable for Joanna and her children. The Milatos family had three children now: two sons and one daughter. It was a lot of responsibility for Joanna to be housekeeper, mother and father, gardener, cook, and groundskeeper. Unfortunately, success for Pericles was not to last. In 1929, when the great stock-market crash occurred, large numbers of investors were wiped out. The trickling effect that came from it eventually affected everyone else in the business world. Pericles was no exception. In 1933, at the peak of the Depression, due partly to dishonest business associates and partly to loans to friends who never repaid, Pericles became bankrupt. His sudden financial upheaval, ironically, may have been his salvation. It shook him back to reality. Unfortunately, his family was so estranged that a closeness again seemed impossible.

"Well, Joanna, we have lost everything. We still have each other and our children. I will try to be what I have not been, a husband and father. Help me to recapture some of what has been lost."

"I will try. It hasn't been easy for us, you know. I still love you and believe we can make things work," Joanna said with a hopeful look.

There were yet sad times ahead. Pericles worked at a café and managed to keep his family clothed, fed, and in school. His boys got in trouble with the law and were sent to reform school for a short time. Lucille, his daughter, married at 16, and divorced a year later. Two years later, she died from spinal meningitis at Duke Medical Center. In time, his two sons went to college, graduated, and made a way for themselves. The good times were visiting grandchildren and spending valuable time with his wife and children.

I like to remember the good things about him, my friend Pericles. He loved life and lived it fully. He loved Greece and never left her in spirit. His newfound life in America was a mixture of hard work, disappointment, good times, and happiness. He lost some things, but he recaptured what he could from life. He made his living and ruled his world in his own way.

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