I let the flame die

Sue Miller

September 09, 1993|By Sue Miller

IN GREECE, they said I was a "bad girl" and that I "deserved a licking." When I heard that oft-repeated criticism the first time, I laughed. Suddenly, I was back in the '20s and '30s and could hear my exasperated mother uttering those identical words to a head strong and defiant child and teen-ager.

Now, a lifetime later and a tad more subdued, I was talking with Greeks in Athens and on the beautiful and historic islands of Hydra, Mykonos and Rhodes.

What had I, a first-generation Greek-American, done that was so disturbing? Wasn't it enough that I had returned to my parents' homeland and was conversing with natives in their own tongue? How had I failed them?

Alas, the years had dimmed my memory somewhat. I had committed the unforgivable: I had forgotten how passionate Greeks are about preserving a heritage that dates back to the 5th century B.C.

It was wonderful, my critics said, that I spoke Greek so fluently. How had that happened, and more specifically, why had I not taught my 47-year-old daughter, who toured Greece with me in May, to communicate in Greek? Actually, I have two daughters in their 40s, and neither speaks Greek. And so I truly was a kako kori-tsi (bad girl) who needed a ksi-lo (licking).

Greeks are very inquisitive, and they bombard you with questions. In five minutes flat, they can worm out your deepest secrets. And they can discuss the most delicate matters with strangers with perfect aplomb. My new-found acquaintances pressed for details in true reportorial style: What was my excuse? Why had I not passed on the Greek language?

In the early 1900s, many young Greek men and women left their homeland in pursuit of the American Dream across the Atlantic. They were among 26 million people who arrived in the United States in the peak European immigration years between 1880 and 1924. This movement from many countries to one country is said to have been the largest migration of people in world history.

By 1920, about 50 Greek families, including mine, had settled in Gloucester, Mass., on Cape Ann, an island connected by a drawbridge to a road that leads about 30 miles north to Boston. Gloucester was the perfect choice for these people who, despite prosperity and happy lives in America, remained forever bound to their Greek culture and heritage.

By 1928, the pioneering Greek immigrants had hired a Greek teacher and obtained a public school room for an after-hours "Greek school." For two hours after public school, Monday through Friday, the pupils came from all parts of that small city. I attended for about five years, starting when I was 8.

We learned to spell, to read, to write and to speak in Greek. The language skills were reinforced at home where, initially, Greek was the only means of verbal communication. At Greek school, we also celebrated Greek Independence Day, sang the Greek national anthem and other patriotic songs and put on plays wearing Greek costumes made by our parents. And we learned about mythology and theology, too.

Greek schools sprang up across the country in big cities like Detroit, Boston and Baltimore and in smaller cities like Hagerstown and Annapolis. And, today, wherever waves of Greek immigrants have continued to pour in, Greek schools are still going strong.

For example, the golden promise of opportunity still attracts Mediterranean Greeks to Baltimore's Highlandtown, keeping the old-country customs and language alive. As a result, Greek school is open five days a week at St. Nicholas Church on South Ponca Street.

So, why didn't I do the same for my daughters? the natives demanded. I gulped hard and told the truth. I did not marry a man with the same heritage, and there was no Greek colony or Greek school in northern Anne Arundel County, where my daughters were raised.

Yes, I do have regrets. I should have run my own little Greek school at home. But it didn't seem important then. And it was a time when many young Greek-Americans were more interested in assimilation and the "melting pot" concept. We had felt the sting of being called "Greasy Greeks" by New England Yankees and were eager for a new, more acceptable image.

Now, after a second trip to Greece in 25 years, it seems that, despite assimilation, I'm more like my parents and ancestors than I ever suspected. Apparently, I'm not alone. Other first-generation and even second-generation Greek-Americans agree that it is very possible to assimilate and still be bound to ancestral culture. We can't get rid of it, they say. It's part of us.

To her credit, the daughter traveling with me began Greek studies on her own several years ago after locating a Greek teacher in Norfolk, Va. But the Navy transferred her family to northern Virginia, and the Greek lessons were interrupted. Now she is thinking of picking up where she left off.

My other daughter in San Diego has already been alerted that, when I visit this month, my long-overdue Greek school will be in session. A correspondence course could follow. "I've always been ready, Mom," she said. "What took you so long?"

Sue Miller is a retired reporter for The Evening Sun.

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