GREEK GIRLS and THEIR YIAYIÁS

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For Suzanne who graced me with a delightful story about her Yiayiá

This story really has two titles: “Greek Girls and their Yiayiás” or “How to Love America by Two Greek Women who Emigrated to America.” Either title fits the nostalgic stories told by two granddaughters, me and my life-long friend Suzanne. I hope you find in our tales a touch of wisdom for your life, a reminder of the spirit of love, and a portrait of sacrifice and resilience.

It was a gift of grace to be a young Greek girl and have your Yiayiá (grandmother) close by, although at times being trapped in an endless, one-sided conversation could be annoying. In my teenage years there were “from her lips to God’s ears” conversations that were aimed directly at me — endless rules for good Greek girls, how to behave in church and wearing the proper church attire, old Greek sayings that sort of made sense to me, very long stories about the “old country” (which was a small Greek island), diatribes about how other families’ allowed their Greek daughters to be “loose,” and best of all, reciting to me stanza after stanza of stunningly poignant Greek poetry.

The problem was that I had to memorize those poems and dutifully stand before our house guests reciting them — for every visitor, even the ones who didn’t care at all about Greek poems. I think Yiayiá probably made me recite Greek poetry to some visitors who knew no Greek at all and had no idea what I was saying! The poems, though, remain a lovely part of my memories of her. To this very day — with a seventy year old memory — I can recite them word for word, especially my favorite one about the Greek revolutionaries who fought for nine years (1821-1830) against the Ottoman Empire for independence. Every time I recited it, my Yiayiá’s eyes filled with tears. Today, I cannot recite it without tears.

There was always a political side of my Yiayiá, although those around her ignored it. I cherish the fact that I saw parts her that others never saw, and one significant part of her was her keen interest in all things political. She always entered the voting booth with knowledge about candidates and issues that she had learned from devouring The Birmingham News every day. It’s safe to say that my Yiayiá was an “old country” style political junkie.

After she immigrated from Karpathos with a two year old (my mother) and a baby boy, she resolved to make America her home. Adjusting wasn’t easy for her, and many times at night, I would hear her weeping. Hearing her long, intricate stories of her homeland, it seemed obvious that she missed her home. Leaving one’s homeland can be a sacrifice. It was for my Yiayiá.

She was so young when she left her island and boarded a ship for a very long ocean voyage, only to end up in a land that must have seemed so different and unfamiliar to her. Ellis Island processing was grueling, especially for one who did not know a word of English. Just a glance at early portraits of Yiayiá would tell anyone of the grief and loss she experienced during her early days in America. Still, she moved forward in her new life because of her grit and her resilience, and maybe because she was among the early “dreamers” who made their home in the land of Lady Liberty bringing just a suitcase and a dream.

What uncommon resilience and perseverance Yiayiá had! She taught herself to read and speak English. Every morning without fail, she sat at the kitchen table near the radiator to read the newspaper while she drank her coffee. She knew the local and national news, the weather forecast and the latest scoop about every politician. She enjoyed election seasons and, with her own specialized vetting process, she chose the candidates she would vote for.

Voting day for her was a big deal. During election seasons, I always have Yiayiá memories that inspire me. So on election day, she would put on her finest dress, make-up, jewelry and always a hat — maybe even a hat with an exotic-looking black veil that I admired and coveted for myself. Then she would dress me in a frilly dress accessorized with my gold cross, white socks trimmed with lace and black patent leather shoes. With a quick brush of my black curls, we were off to the polls, walking down the hill from our house hand in hand.

She always took me into the polling booth with her. When she pulled the red privacy drape around us. I was just tall enough for the bottom of it to brush my face, but my head was inside that private place. When Yiayiá finished voting, she looked down at me and gave me a stern and irrevocable political mandate: “Kalliope, remember you are a Democrat! Never vote for a Republican!” I never have!

I could always see in my Yiayiá a deep love for her adopted country. She was a true and loyal American, to her bones. And she cared deeply about what this country stood for in the world. When I see the way immigrants are treated in these troubled days, I always think of my Yiayiá — what she would think about our America, what forcefully spoken diatribe she might offer to this day’s politicians, how she would grieve over the state of our nation. I had no doubt at all — my Yiayiá loved America!

I was talking this week with my dearest childhood friend, Suzanne. It was common for us to talk about our Yiayiás as we often do when we visit. I told my “excursion to the polls” story and Suzanne told a delightful story about the time when she and her Yiayiá took an extended trip to Greece. One caveat: the story is much more delightful in Greek. Anyway, they stayed in Greece long enough that they began to miss America. When they landed at the airport in Birmingham, Alabama, they walked down the airplane’s stairs onto the concrete. As soon as their feet hit the ground, Yiayiá said in Greek, “My America! I love you so much that I will kiss the ground (in Greek — “soil”).” Suzanne adamantly replied, “No, Yiayiá! You will not kiss the ground!”

I just must add this translation for my Greek friends:

Η Αμερική μου! Σε αγαπώ τόσο πολύ. Θα το φιλήσω το χώμα. 

Όχι Γιαγιά, δεν θα φιλήσεις το χώμα.

Suzanne’s sweet Yiayiá dropped to her knees and kissed the ground! 

There’s something about that enchanting story that has “love” written all over it. Suzanne’s Yiayiá loved America. My Yiayiá loved America. Probably more than their granddaughters ever did! To honor their memory, Suzanne and I vote, every time there’s an election. In fact, we both have already voted in this important 2020 election.

Suzanne’s beautiful Yiayiá said, “My America! I love you so much that I will kiss the soil!”

May it be so for us, even in these politically troublesome days. 

Growing Up Inspired: My Granddaughter and The Little Rock Nine

28332D92-A50E-4817-9663-6D13F00790D5June 16, 2012 . . . My three-year-old granddaughter standing among the bronze sculptures of The Little Rock Nine.

Her parents had told her the poignant story of The Little Rock Nine, but at age three she had no idea of the many ways their lives would impact hers. Because they crossed an invisible, but very real, line that divided black children from white children, they opened the door to educational equality in a racially divided state. Because their parents were brave enough to let their children breach the three stately doors of Little Rock Central High School, their world changed in unimaginable ways. And with that change, my granddaughter inherited the highly cherished right to equal education and all the opportunities that would follow. Because of that change, my granddaughter would grow up inspired.

In case you do not know about The Little Rock Nine, here is some background. 

On September 3, 1957, nine African American students — The Little Rock Nine — arrived to enter Little Rock Central High School only to be turned away by the Arkansas National Guard. Governor Orval Faubus had called out the Arkansas National Guard the night before to, as he put it, “maintain and restore order…” The soldiers barred the African American students from entering.

On September 24, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered units of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division — the “Screaming Eagles”— into Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas National Guard. In a televised speech delivered to the nation, President Eisenhower stated, “Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts.”

On September 25, 1957, under federal troop escort, The Little Rock Nine made it inside for their first full day of school. The 101st Airborne left in October and the federalized Arkansas National Guard troops remained throughout the year.

They were nine solemn figures, nine teenagers just trying to do what every child up to age 18 had been mandated to do: go to school. Nine figures who entered the annals of American history the day they passed through the front door of Little Rock Central High School.

These nine African American students — Melba Pattillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray, Carlotta Walls, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown and Thelma Mothershed — are now immortalized in a striking memorial located on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock. The life-size bronze statues, entitled “Testament,” were designed and sculpted by Little Rock artist John Deering, assisted by his wife Kathy, also an artist. A comment from each of The Nine is found on individual bronze plaques identifying each student. Across the street sits the State Department of Education, just a few hundred yards from “Testament.” This Arkansas State Agency has been embroiled in this same desegregation lawsuit for over 50 years. 

Nine young students walked bravely, defiantly, yet filled with fear, in an act against prejudice and ignorance. These nine are heroes of every grueling story of segregation and racism in American history, every story we have heard and the millions of stories we will never hear.

So I am deeply moved by these photos of my granddaughter because there is deep meaning in each one. She seems to be looking up at the sculpture of Melba Pattillo (Beals) with what seems like admiration and awe. Dr. Beals grew up surrounded by family members who knew the importance of education. Her mother, Lois, was one of the first African Americans to graduate from the University of Arkansas in 1954. While attending all-black Horace Mann High School, Melba knew that her educational opportunities were not equal to her white counterparts at Central High. And so she became a part of the effort to integrate Central.

B3083DBA-2BEB-4137-B162-B8CB19B4AD64And my granddaughter stands in front of Little Rock Central High, a school she may choose to attend someday, a school she will be able to attend because The Little Rock Nine took a dangerous risk to make it possible.

 

 

CCBDA845-BD2D-42E4-85B2-28749F2EA762Finally, my granddaughter stands playfully on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol. I know that it is possible that she may one day proudly walk through its golden doors as a state senator or representative. That is possible because nine Little Rock students were brave enough to be a part of changing history.

 

At three years old, my granddaughter probably was not very inspired by Central High School, the Little Rock Nine Memorial, or the Arkansas Capitol. But her parents took her there to see and to learn so that she would grow up inspired. When she is older she will remember what she saw and what she learned from that seemingly insignificant sightseeing trip, and she will realize that it wasn’t insignificant at all. It may just be what motivates and inspires her to follow her dreams, because now she knows that all of her dreams are possible. It’s all about growing up inspired. It’s what we want for every child.

Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals, Minniejean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Dr. Carlotta Walls LaNier, Mrs. Thelma Mothershed Wair, Dr. Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Dr. Jefferson Thomas, Dr. Terrence J. Roberts, you made sure that every child can grow up inspired. when you were just young teenagers. When you walked through the doors of segregated Little Rock Central High School, you did so much more . . . for every student who came after you and for my granddaughter 

 

Dreamers and Misfits

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In my younger years, I was a dreamer of dreams, big dreams, impossible dreams, dreams that I had to fight for. Without a fight, the dreams would not have become reality. I was brave and fearless. I would stand my ground in front of any person trying to thwart my dream. I would face off against any obstacle.

Where did all that bravery go? When did I stop taking risks? When did I give up on dreams? When did I lose my strong resolve to help create a better world?

Aging had a role, as did illness. Yet, I cannot help but believe that somewhere beneath this exterior reality, the old dreamer and misfit still lives. I cannot help but believe that I still care about justice and hope, hope for a better future. I am convicted and inspired by the words of Bishop Steven Charleston:

It may seem odd, in this age of doubt and disillusionment, that some of us still believe in a hopeful future, a time of justice, and the power of love to overcome every evil. It may seem odd, in this epoch of technology and consumerism, that we still believe in God, in a conscious and living presence that cares for us and helps us to care for one another. It may seem odd, but there is a perfectly reasonable explanation: we believe these things because we are odd. We are the odd ones out, the misfits and dreamers, the mystics and advocates. We do not follow the party line, but step over it, together, every chance we get. – Steven Charleston

The Bible calls us pilgrims and strangers, a royal priesthood, a peculiar people. Yes, misfits as Steven Charleston says, misfits that go against the grain of the status quo. Misfits that still dream in spite of those who want to maintain the world as it is.

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that you should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.

Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.

So I want to spend my remaining years stepping over the line, taking risks in the name of love, living out of a compassionate heart, challenging the world’s evil ways, dreaming of justice, being a maker of peace, and not counting the cost. I hope you will do the same, sisters and brothers. This world needs all the misfits who still care and all the dreamers who won’t give up.