It's Personal: Thankful for Greece, and family ties that endure

Sitting next to a well at a relative's home in Asopos, Greece, in September, Maria Panaritis' son pokes a bag of dried figs harvested in the coastal farming village.
Sitting next to a well at a relative's home in Asopos, Greece, in September, Maria Panaritis' son pokes a bag of dried figs harvested in the coastal farming village. (I.J. HINES)
Posted: November 29, 2013

For a kid who grew up along the trolley tracks just outside of West Philadelphia, it's amazing how a few olive trees in Greece can always bring tears to my eyes.

It happened again in September, as I said goodbye to my mother's farmer-sister, set to walk across the village of Asopos, and turned that first corner where, eventually, she and all the others were no longer in view.

Because, for the last two decades, here is how it has gone down every time I've hit that corner: I realize the time with family is over. The next morning, I'm leaving for Athens, the start of a long, bittersweet journey back to Philadelphia.

This, after spending about two weeks, night after night, on wide-open patios talking with the elderly aunts I never knew as a kid, the cousins I never see enough, squeezing in essential exchanges that, back home, are enjoyed by friends any time they want - over a leisurely Sunday dinner, a lazy summer barbecue, a packed Thanksgiving dinner table.

Those olive trees? They are markers of the inevitable sadness of separation. Will I ever see these people again? Am I ready to make do without them for another few years? Is this really my day-to-day world - parents long dead, the whole brood this far away, all in their 80s, and only getting closer to the end?

Even this year, with a husband and newborn son by my side for the first time after countless trips there alone, even after splashing and swimming with the little guy in the same sea my mother loved as a child, the sadness struck as I turned that corner. And little did I know that this time, my fears would be justified.

Of course, there are lots of reasons to get sentimental when you venture through the history of your family's life. My mother was born in this place. My mother left this place. My mother died far away from this place. And I, as an adult, have made this place a second, if entirely inadequate, home. You don't breeze in, and you sure as heck don't breeze out.

The bell hanging atop the church next to my aunt's house still tolls in a minor key when someone dies. Roosters still wake you in the morning. And the summer sun is so hot you still sleep it off at midday before spending the evening outside. All of this is unchanged from that day in 1963 when my 22-year-old mother boarded a boat for a voyage of hope but isolation in America.

But here's what is not sentimental: The people she left behind - their love, their warm embrace, their memories of a beloved sister, aunt, and cousin - have endured, somehow immune to the ravages of time.

There were many examples. Austere octogenarian aunts and uncles melted into baby talk as they babbled with my effervescent little son. Weathered faces lit up at the sight of the crawling rascal. Calloused hands flew through the air delighting the youngster with palamakia - claps.

But the most poignant moment came that final night, in my mother's sister's house, right before we left.

Her husband, an always joyful if dignified sort who had been a favorite of my late father's and, truth be told, of mine, was seated in a room. He was attached to oxygen, as he had been for several years.

When we had first greeted him two weeks earlier, he appeared ghostly, his normally firecracker style subdued by a chronic lung condition that had confined the lifelong farmer indoors.

But after two weeks of being feted by us and his son, who had come down from Athens for an extended visit, my uncle was a different man - full of life, the crackle back in his eyes.

This was the man who had studied Greek army discharge papers I had found in my father's effects and deciphered them to reveal he had been a special-forces soldier in combat. This was the man who had kept my mother's sister laughing for six decades of an otherwise difficult life working the fields. This was an uncle through marriage whom I adored.

For the big goodbye, I offered him reassurance, first in Greek, and then translating for my husband. Stay upbeat, I said, almost issuing an order, as I made sure not to step on his oxygen tube.

My uncle took my hands and issued the longest speech we'd heard from him. The part I most remember involved him smiling wide as he urged my little family, "Na eiste agapimeni."

What it means: "Love each other."

His, too, was an order.

A month later, there was news. My uncle was in the hospital, and things looked grim. About a week later, he died.

And so, on this Thanksgiving, I treasure the Asopos olive trees, for they are symbols of familial love that sticks to you - no matter how far the distance between you and those who love you back.


mpanaritis@phillynews.com

215-854-2431

@Panaritism

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