Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Changing of the Guard: Goodbye Θωμά

On May 11, 2015, the patriarch of Margariti's Katsiotas Family, my father-in-law Tomas, passed away and left his children to carry on. In the days that follow, there may be patches of blue sky as the black clouds finally begin to part, but emotions other than those we had expected, may also surface.

Tomas was a bit of a prickly pear: difficult to get near or to touch, but whose tough outer skin quite possibly might have been protecting the sweetness inside. 

And with his death, I find myself wondering about his life.

While I was writing The Nifi, I tried to get his perspective on some of the events that Chevi was describing to me, but Tomas didn't seem to want to share the past. His answers were short and vague. There must have been a reason for his rough nature, but he offered very few clues as to what it might have been. I suspect though, there may be some pieces of his past that could support the memory of his life.

Tomas was a survivor.

When World War II ignited Greece, Tomas was only fourteen years old. Unlike the soldiers who were sent from foreign countries to defend democracy, he fought to defend his house, his village and to stay alive. When WWII ended, the rest of the world licked its wounds while Greece descended further into destruction with a civil war. 

In the mountains of Epirus, the civil war was billed as a struggle between communism and democracy, but for young Tomas, it was a struggle to live, to escape the death he saw around him, until the powers that be, decided that the war was over. And like every civil war, the Greek one was an opportunity for feuding neighbors or angry family members to rid themselves of those they believed to be an enemy, making it all the more perilous for the villagers. It was a time of starvation and great psychological trauma but it was also a time where Tomas was able to use his strength and intellect to survive.  

Tomas' home-village  is perched at the top of a mountain, hidden within a densely forested mountain range. His mother—by all accounts, a sharp-tongued, abusive woman—chose Tomas from among her other children to join the communist army when the communist party took over the village. And then when they were defeated and the Republicans took over, Tomas—again the expendable child—was sent to join the Republican army to show the party that they were loyal. Consequently, because of Tomas' military service with whichever party was ruling at any given time, he and his family were able to avoid imprisonment, torture or possibly death. Tomas did talk a bit about the war, but not much. I know that he did not always have a gun. He often fought with a knife and he did have to kill other men, rather than be killed.

When the war ended, he was a twenty-three-year-old young man whose adolescence and young adulthood had been defined by fighting to survive. I can only guess that he yearned for some peace and perhaps the love of a woman.

He arranged a marriage to Chevi, the same way a person might negotiate the purchase of wheat, but that was the common procedure for finding a wife at that time. He only did what the era dictated. And then he settled in Margariti, as it had a much more promising future than his own village.

Tomas liked to draw. He couldn't speak to his two American grandchildren, Nikki and Thomas, so in 1988 when he first met them as two small children, he would draw pictures. It was his way of connecting with them. He also showed them how to feed the chickens and he gave them rides on the donkey. No doubt he was proud to have a grandson carry his name. 

Tomas came to New York one time. He spent a month in our home, quietly observing his American daughter-in-law and grandchildren while his son worked. He didn't say much but he must have been proud. It's hard to know what he thought of his role as father and grandfather or how he felt as a parent.

The problem with being a parent in the first place, is that we are human and humans are imperfect. And if we're honest with each other, we'll admit that we had—and still have—no idea of what we are doing. For parents of adult children, the road ahead is still uncharted. It’s just the nature of life. It’s not until we've pass an event that we realize the best way of dealing with it. But there is no going back.

We all have ghosts that haunt us and I feel certain that Tomas carried around more than his own share. Unfortunately we sometimes don't recognize the reasons for our anger or our sadness, but it’s not our children’s burden to bear. As long as we still breath air on this earth, we have the chance to right any wrongs, simply by apologizing. It's nothing really, and yet for some, it's so much. We may not be able to get the apologies we want, but we certainly are in control of delivering them to those who are waiting. This is the lesson I learned from Tomas. Thank you Tomas and I hope your new journey is a sweet one. 

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