Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Searching for Your Roots

There seems to be a natural pull from the past for people to seek out information about their ancestors. I'd venture to say this is the reason for so many websites:,, my . . . They go on and on. For us Americans our heritage usually lies in another country, unless of course, you are a descendent of a Native American. This may be the reason I was so attracted to my Greek husband in the first place. His foreign status reminded me of my Italian heritage that had been washed clean in an American suburb. The Greekness was so concrete and defined and familiar . . . but it was his, not mine.

I wanted it.

There's nothing worse than a convert, right? And I think I've proven that. Once I securely harnessed the wild Greek with a marriage license, I dove head first into the Greek culture, dragging my Italian extended family with me. (Nick's family were all in Greece.) And I was so successful that my nephew, Steven, with my Italian brother as his father and a mother who came from the nicest Long Island Brooklyn-Italian stock, came home from kindergarten one day with a heritage project sporting a large Greek flag. My brother, Jim, had a talk with him but I'm not sure Steven accepted it completely. Twenty years later he went to Greece for his honeymoon. . . I'm just sayin'

Cousin Dina, Tom, Nikki and Cousin Marianna
But this seems to be true for others as well. In my visits to Margariti, Greece, I've come across many Brits and Australians looking for evidence of their past. Some are former vacationers who had a memorable summer in their youth with a local Greek while others are themselves Greeks--children or grandchildren looking for evidence of their past. One in particular stands out in my mind. She was a young woman from Australia. She'd come to find her heritage and I was there alone with my kids that year. It was a very difficult situation for us both and when we found each other it was like finding water in a desert.

Below is an excerpt from the memoir, THE NIFI.  It stands out in my mind as one of the highlights of that year, and yet, we never ran into each other after that.

        The reason I had been with Nikki and Thomas in Igoumenitsa that day was for some kind of celebration at the apartment of Christos and Vaso--a name day, a birthday, a national holiday--I don't remember. But the children had been allowed to go around the corner with an older niece of Christos' to visit his elderly mother. About an hour later, I was sitting on a sofa, the words in the crowded room flying by my ears, some of them understandable, yet without any clear meaning, and the five children filed noisily back into the apartment breathless and wet with sweat. Nikki came to me with red eyes.
        "Mommy they brought me to a witch's house."
        Thomas stood behind her, unperturbed, chocolate smeared from ear to ear.
        Nikki continued. "I wanted to come back but they closed the door."
        Little Marianna came near us. "Nikki," she sang her cousin's name, "it's okay, it's okay." She and her sister had picked up some English phrases while listening to their American cousins. "It's okay" was the most common, followed by a close second phrase: "Shut up stupid," which hit me with a rush of shame when I heard it in their sweet little Greek accents. But I couldn't seem to discourage it as Nikki and Thomas would giggle uncontrollably and the girls would enjoy the feedback.
        Again Marianna cooed, "It's okay, Nikki. It's okay."
        "Mommy, I tried to leave." She put her arm around my neck and sniffled, "but they kept giving me candy. I wanted to go so I had to cry and then they let me out." 
        Just then, the elderly woman made her way into the apartment with the help of the older niece. 
        Nikki cowered. "There's the witch!"
        From across the room, a young woman laughed. She had understood. And that is how I met Christos' Australian cousin.
        "That's no witch," she laughed and added in her distinct Aussie accent, "that's my aunt."
        Nikki was as tickled as I to hear English. This cousin had grown up with Greek parents in Australia and had gone to Greece alone to discover her roots. She spoke perfect Greek, but was experiencing much the same culture shock I had on my first visit. We latched onto each other, talking and laughing all day. My sisters-in-law watched with smiles. They had never heard me talk so much and perhaps they were wondering if there weren't a bit more to their quiet American nifi, than they had thought. 

No comments:

Post a Comment