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Out of the Balkans

Part 2:
Jason's Journey, Recollections and Celebrations

Part 2, Chapter 4:


My memories of my Papou are of warmth, fun, and adventure. Papou, Leonardo Perna, known as "Louie," was not my blood grandfather. Anything he was not able to claim by virtue of blood, he won with the love and affection only a grandfather can give.

Papou was widower of four or more years by the time I was old enough to remember him in my life. He lived with us in the house that his wife, Eleni, had purchased in 1920.

On Saturday and Sunday mornings, my sister and I would steal into Papou's small bedroom on the second floor of our-three story brownstone in Brooklyn and crawl into his bed. We giggled under the covers while he pretended sleep. In a few minutes we were a raucous threesome, his fingers tickling our tummies and necks.

Leonardo was born on 12 March 1890, in Avellino, Italy. He was perhaps five feet, six inches tall, quiet, soft-spoken, hardworking, and unassuming. Slender in his youth, he developed a thick middle as he aged. His short hair and quick, wide- eyed smile made his appearance boyish. He spoke his native Italian, and broken English and Greek with care and thought.

Trained as a tailor in Italy, Leonardo immigrated to the United States when he was sixteen. He arrived at Ellis Island aboard the ship Sicily on 13 June 1906, and for reasons unknown, made his way to Chicago, where he worked in a dry cleaning establishment that allowed him to pursue his trade. It was there that he met my grandmother, Eleni. They were married in Chicago late in 1915 or early in 1916, shortly after she had been widowed for the second time.

The backyard and basement of our brownstone on Ovington Avenue in Bay Ridge was Leonardo's realm. The small city garden, measuring twenty by fifty feet, had a paved center area covered by a grapevine trellis - like those found in the gardens of Italy. Surrounding the trellised section were a small vegetable plot and ample planting areas for roses, azaleas, gladioli, and spring bulbs. And, there was a fig tree. A photo of Papou, Nitsa, and me was taken in the garden in 1938.[•*]

Papou was a loving grandfather. He never scolded or punished us. His arms were always a place of refuge and his generosity was unending. When he married Adela, his second wife, we did not understand why he had to leave our home. His frequent visits, our expeditions with him, and our many feasts in his new home made his absence bearable.

Mama and Skunks

When I was a little boy between the ages of three and six, Mom often took my sister Nitsa and me with her to shop in midtown Manhattan. On wet, cold, wintry days she wore a fur coat. Often, it became a little wet as we rushed from store to store. Coming home on the subway I would nestle close to her and drift in and out of sleep as the train thump-thumped on the tracks and the doors open and closed at the stations along the way. I was like a little animal burrowing into its mother's fur for warmth and security.

I remember still the faint, comforting smell of Mama at those times - the lightest, almost undetectable scent her coat gave off when it was damp and warmed by the body it enveloped. It was a coat made of skunk fur.


Dad had his signature scent, that of a cologne named Suivez-Moi (follow-me), the meaning of which I learned in my high school French class. I think that he bought it at Macy's. It was one of those nice affectations that he acquired as part of his transformation from barefoot village boy to New York City gentleman.

I can still summon the scent that attached to the stock of Dad's shotgun and rifle, drifted from his armoire, filled the bathroom after he left it, and left tell-tale identification on his wallet and ties, checkbook, coat collar, muffler, hat, and any other personal item that came in contact with his hands or face.

It was a proud day when I first shaved and followed the routine I had learned by watching Dad. I washed my face well, applied the shaving cream, shaved with my new Gillette razor (later, for a time copying my Papou, I tried a shaving mug and straight razor), rinsed my face, applied witch hazel, followed it with a splash of Suivez-Moi, and dusted my face lightly with a fine face talcum. I was a man like my Dad.

The Cellar

We called the basement of our home, "the cellar." It was both: basement or the lowest story of the house, and cellar for it served as a storeroom for provisions, especially, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, for wine. It was much larger and far more comfortable than the first floor storage rooms found in the Balkans and did not shelter family livestock in cold weather. We were therefore happily not subject to the animal odors that in winter rose through the cracks in the rough plank floors of Balkan village homes.

Until 1936, a coal-fired furnace that provided hot water heat in the winter glowed red in the far corner. A small room was used to store coal. An oil-burning heating unit, a gas water heater, and a tank replaced the coal furnace in 1936, and the coal bin became a wine cellar. An oil fuel tank was buried under the front courtyard entrance to the house.

A set of wooden steps led from the entry hall on the first floor down to the cellar. The bottom step faced Ovington Avenue. The electric service panel that held fuses to protect house circuits from an overload was on the wall three or four feet directly ahead. Papou thwarted this safety feature by inserting pennies between the base of a fuse socket and the fuse. We were lucky not to have gone up in flames.

To the right of the electric service panel, high up in the ceiling next to the foundation wall that bordered the street side of the house, was a covered access to the courtyard. This had been used to deliver coal to the storage bins in the room directly to the right; it later became a delivery port for grapes and a way to lift heavy items out of the cellar without going up the narrow steps.

The entire twenty-foot-wide and fifty-foot-long cellar was visible from the electric panel. Running down its middle were seven black steel posts that supported the floor above. Mom ran clothes lines between these posts to dry clothing in the winter and at other times to hang sausage to cure and herbs to dry.

To the left, after the wine storage room, was an open space where luggage, sea trunks, earthenware crocks, and other items were neatly arranged. All three sides of this alcove area had shelves that contained preserved food of all kinds.

Next, there was a three by five foot pantry-like shelved room that held old bolts, screws, nuts, wire, nails, tools, other hardware, paint, thinner, shellac, varnish, and assorted plumbing supplies.

Finally, on the left was a service room with a second, small kitchen and washtubs. Mom washed clothing there by hand, and used the 1920s vintage range and oven as an extra cooking facility on holidays. She never had a washing machine because Dad did not want her to do heavy laundry. Sheets, shirts, tablecloths, and such went to the Chinese laundry across the street.

The room was large enough to serve as my retreat. I experimented there with my Gilbert chemistry set on an old white enamel topped table that had a blue patterned decoration at its rectangular edge. I mixed chemicals haphazardly and boiled noxious blends in test tubes over an alcohol lamp. It was a miracle that I survived the fumes. A shoulder-high window opened into a grated well in the garden and provided lifesaving fresh air. In my teens, the room served as the meeting place for my Boy Scout Patrol.

On the right side of the cellar looking down its length from the electrical panel, under the cellar steps and against the wall, there was a long, narrow table on which Mom stored her winter carpets in the summer and her summer carpets in the winter. Assorted lumber was stacked under the carpets. Almost at the end of the cellar, the oil-burning furnace that kept us warm in the winter hummed ominously, its flame visible through a small peephole when it was on. Behind it, against the wall, stood a fifty-gallon gas hot water heater and tank. And, behind the tank was a door that opened to the concrete steps that led up through cellar trapdoors to the garden.

A lot happened in our cellar.

Grapes, Wine, and Grappa

In early September, Papou went to the wholesale fruit and vegetable market in Manhattan to arrange for delivery of crates of red and white grapes from California. With neighborhood children watching, men lowered the crates through the courtyard access into the basement and the loving and expectant care of Leonardo. (His Italian name is more appropriate for winemaking than "Louie.")

There were two or three fifty-gallon wood barrels standing in what had been the coal storage room. Set on top of one of the barrels was a grape press. It was old and worn, its metal parts rough and dark, its wood stained. At the top of the press was a trough, shaped like a V. It had interlaced, opposing spiked rollers on either side of the V. These, turned by gears that linked to a long-handled manual crank, pulled the grapes down between them, squeezing out the juice, which fell into the barrel with the grapes' pulp and skins. The press greedily devoured the grapes as we fed them in from the top. When the first barrel was filled, we moved the press to the second and third barrels in turn. Each received the must(1) of a particular grape.

I helped Papou, putting my hands under his as he turned the crank and dropping grapes into the press at his command. He rarely had any other help in the process. It was his private and happy labor. I often wondered whether he had learned the wine-making process as a child in Calabria or from Italian friends in the United States. I liked to think of him as a boy helping his grandfather as I helped him.

The basement was dark, light coming only from dim forty-watt bulbs hanging from the ceiling on extension cords. End of summer dampness condensed and trickled down the cold, black steel posts that supported the floors above. After what seemed like endless hours of pressing, the crates were empty and the barrels full. We breathed the aroma of grape must.

In the semi-darkness of the cellar, Papou used his skill to help the grape juice transform into three kinds of wine, each with its own character. He inspected the barrels every night after returning from his job in the City. He would strike a match and lower it slowly into the space just above the bubbling juices. He watched to see if the flame died as he lowered it close to the liquid. If after a few seconds the flame continued to burn, indicating the absence of carbon dioxide and the end of the must's fermentation, it was time for him to begin the next step of the process.

Leonardo siphoned the fermented juice out of the large barrels into smaller ones that he had prepared earlier. I choked on the fermented juice several times when he taught me how to prime the rubber siphon by sucking on it like a straw. He had treated the barrels with the smoke of burning sulfur in the weeks before delivery of the grapes. During the process, the whole house smelled of burning sulfur. With her furious protestations, Lily made Leonardo believe he was where burning sulfur prevailed ~ Hell. He never learned to contain the fumes.

Leonardo sealed some barrels immediately. To others he added measures of sugar and perhaps of yeast to initiate a second fermentation of the already-once fermented juice. He left several gallons of must and the remains of the wet mash in the bottom of the barrel as raw material for the creation of grappa.

He created three wines. One was a robust, deep red, burgundy-colored wine with the intensity of claret and the roughness of Chianti. The second, a soft, gold, white wine was a very dry, white varietal. The third, a golden-colored sparking muscatel, was slightly sweet and very full-flavored with a huge bouquet. These Leonardo placed in casks for aging. He moved them from cask to bottle over time, as the spirit of Bacchus inspired him.

Early on the first Saturday after the fermented grape juice had been siphoned from the large barrels, Papou uncovered his shiny copper still. Perhaps three feet in height, it was stored under old sheets and tarps, and hidden behind two gigantic steamer trunks that he and my grandmother, Eleni, had used on their trip to Greece and Italy in 1931. The trunks, often opened for play by my sister and me, were covered with stickers of foreign-sounding steamships and hotels, some Greek, others Italian.

After cleaning and setting up the still on a small table, Papou filled it with the remains of mash and liquid from the large barrels and lit its kerosene burner. Next to the still he set a card table, and five or six chairs. The still was directly behind his chair. He brought a green felt table cover, playing cards, and gambling chips to the basement from their place in the heavy, dark wood bureau in the dining room, and suspended one bare electric bulb over the table. By mid-morning, one by one, his friends began to arrive and follow him down the steps to the annual meeting of the informal Grappa Society.

The game was poker. Red, white, and blue chips represented pennies, nickels, and dimes. Stakes were low. Passions ran high.

All day the game went on, and all evening and late into the night, and into the early, dark morning. The game went on until the still had completed its work. Cigarette smoke rose from the table and swirled around the light bulb, some of it of heavy and sweet smelling Turkish tobacco. Wine glasses and coffee cups filled spaces on either side of the players. Plates with the remains of sandwiches of prosciutto, capocollo, feta, provolone, lakerda, and sardeles were on the floor.

Behind Papou was the steady drip, drip of clear grappa as made its way down the spiral condensing tube into a heavy, glass container. Periodically, Papou would lift a small tumbler from the table, move it behind him until it was directly under the drip, and hold it there for thirty seconds. Then, without any fanfare, he would lift the tumbler to his lips and test a few drops of the liquor. He gave no sign other than a slight nod of his head.

A few days after the still had relinquished the last drop of condensate, Papou would take a twenty-four-inch long black case from its place on a shelf in the storage room. Nestled in it, in a bed of green velvet, was a beautifully handblown glass hydrometer. He lowered the glass work of art into a wide-mouthed jug that held the liquor gained from the still. With the care of a chemist, he added distilled water to the liquor, sharing the liquid with a second jug when the first filled. He continued the process until the hydrometer indicated that the alcohol content in each jug was 90 proof (45% alcohol), down from the 120-140 proof that had been delivered by the still.

Some of this liquor he put into a small, one-gallon keg without any additive. Some he put into two or three other kegs with flavorings that created whiskey or brandy in ways known only to him.

Bottles of Papou's liquors were secreted in the basement ceiling and walls. I learned this when I watched him retrieved a bottle for his fiftieth birthday. The bottles were named and dated: "Nitsa, September 1931, for wedding"; "Jason, March 1934, for wedding"; "Jimmy & Lily for 25 Anniversary"; "Leonardo 60 Birthday".

Papou's wine was our table wine. I did not know until later, after he had moved in the early 1940s with his barrels and still to Bay Fourteenth Street, that he made enough wine to sell. One gallon at a time, he sold his product to Greek and Italian neighbors who favored "homemade" over the wines in the store.

Our family prized Papou's brandy. We never knew when he was going to open a bottle. Invariably, it was for a family celebration that he had anticipated by ten, twenty, or more years.

The Garden

Our garden provided us with the visual images that defined the change of seasons.[•**] By late February the crocus were sticking their heads through the snow. They were followed by daffodils and tulips, carefully planted in the late fall by Papou and my Dad. As spring progressed buds broke into leaves on the grapevines, rosebushes and trees, and finally, in May, the magnolia tree burst into bloom. That event signaled the time for Papou and Dad to start planting tomatoes, peppers, radishes, carrots, lettuce, and dandelions (yes, they planted dandelions in rows), and occasional experiments with watermelon, pumpkin, and one or another variety of melon.

Until I was twelve, Mom, Nitsa, and I summered at Carelas' farm just west of Saugerties, New York, so we missed experiencing the garden for most of the summer. We were amazed to find the jungle of growth when we returned to the city just after Labor Day. For a few weeks we enjoyed the vegetables Papou and Dad had husbanded all summer.

Many early or late summer evenings before we left for or returned from the farm, I would look down onto the garden from the second-story window of the bedroom that my sister and I shared. A single light bulb, suspended from an extension cord that ran over the grape trellis through the window of the kitchen that faced the garden and to the nearest electrical outlet, illuminated the area under the thick cover of vines that hid Louie, Jimmy and their friends. The women sat to the side in the dark, conversing with unseen animation and rising from time to time to serve the men refreshments.

Fireflies were like sparks in the dark border around the space that held a card table and the enthusiastic, happy players. There were a jug of dark red wine, half- filled glasses, servings of karpusi (watermelon), cups of café (aromatic Greek coffee), betting of pennies and nickels, and expletives that proclaimed the luck of the cards drawn. I fell to sleep listening to the conversation and laughter that rose to our window.

Fall was a time for garden cleanup, pruning, and preparation for winter. Dad squeezed in two or three Sundays of effort on the weekends that he, Bill Rusuli, and Louie Dimitroff did not go to Carelas' farm for fall hunting. The Thanksgiving holiday anticipated winter. The garden looked bleak as the days grew short until, on the morning after the first snowfall, the garden became a beautiful white-blanketed landscape with tree limbs shimmering in coats of ice. There were times that the garden was the Yukon, a polar ice cap, or a valley high in the Rocky Mountains, and my imagination created adventures for me in each setting as I lost myself in fantasies in the snow.

Over time, the garden changed. The trellis and its grape vines were removed, a cherry tree replaced the fig tree, and later, young Jason enthusiastically cut down the cherry tree. An azalea was added here and a rosebush there. Periodically, Nitsa and I repainted the garden furniture in garish orange and green.

For almost forty years, the garden was the site for family photographs that recorded four generations, many celebrations, and times of change.

Carelas' Farm

From the time I was two until my twelfth birthday, Mom, Nitsa, and I spent eight to ten weeks each summer at Carelas' farm, just a few miles outside of Saugerties, New York.[•] Situated lower in altitude and certainly less stylish, it was the Greek answer to the Borscht Circuit whose hotels were located on the higher slopes of the Catskills. A working dairy farm, it was also a boarding house in the summer. Its rooms and cabins housed thirty to forty mothers and children who escaped the heat of New York City in July and August. The young families were formed mostly by immigrants from Kastoria and Sozopolis. There were a few senior residents. On Friday evenings, husbands came from their work in New York City to spend Saturday and most of Sunday with their families.

Everyone referred to the proprietor as Carelas. His first name was Jimmy (formally, James, and in Greek, Dimitrios). In the mid-1920s, Carelas married Margaret, an Irish woman, who gave birth to five children: James (Jimmy), Georgianne, Betty, Basil (Billy), and Joan. Margaret never gave Carelas a moment's peace, and I never heard him say anything nice about her. In fact, he made denigrating her an art form and she yelled at him all the time. Yet, they remained married for more than sixty-five years. He died first, shortly after he ran into the Greenville, New York Post Office at age ninety-six and the police confiscated his car.

Carelas once operated a small restaurant in Coney Island that failed at the start of the Great Depression. Somehow, my father knew Carelas and of his desperate need to support his family. My Dad, my godfather, Bill Rusuli, and Louis Dimitroff lent Carelas the down payment to purchase the farm in Saugerties. In return, Carelas provided them with a big bedroom at the farm in Saugerties, and then in later years, at the farm in Greenville when Carelas moved his operation there. Mom, Nitsa, and I used the room at the farm in Saugerties all summer.

While I was a guest at the summer boarding house, my Dad made it clear to Carelas that he encouraged my participation in farm work. So, I took part in the hay harvest, milking, chicken feeding, chicken coop cleaning, and other activities whenever Angelo, Carelas' long term sidekick and retainer, wanted help. I also helped slaughter pigs, sheep, cows, bulls, chickens, and geese, becoming accustomed to the blood, guts, and smells. None of my friends in Brooklyn could boast of the same.

The task I performed only once and never wanted to get near again was cleaning the barn's silo. There is no more horrible smell than that of the sour, rotting debris in a silo's well.

Three or four times I was enlisted to use my Dad's 22 Hornet rifle to down a bull or cow that had gone mad. The rifle's scope enabled me to shoot the animal in the head at fifty to one hundred yards. Once down, we would rush to cut its throat and bleed it so the meat would not spoil.

Carelas worked ceaselessly. He was the head cook for the summer boarders, purchased all the groceries and supplies, traveled to livestock auctions and ran his dairy farm. As the years went by, he expanded his operations in Saugerties, opening a tavern and dance hall in conjunction with his dining room for summer boarders. Eventually, he sold his Saugerties property and purchased a larger farm in Greenville, New York. Through the years, he added thousands of acres to his holdings, built a man-made lake, an outdoor theater, a roadhouse restaurant and bar, and traded in livestock. A multimillionaire, he never appeared to be anything more than a poor, rumpled, badly-dressed, unshaven immigrant farmer with an accent.

A small river at the Saugerties farm offered swimming and fishing. Greek immigrants knew nothing about golf or tennis. The pleasures of walking and talking were enough. On weekends, except for my father, the men, mostly from the fur market, would often play poker through the night. The only hunter was my Dad. He and I would go off to kill as many crows and woodchucks as we could find.

Kastorians were noted gamblers and the games at the farm were for high stakes, but not as high as the games played over the Christmas holidays in hotel rooms in New York City or on the ocean liners that took the gamblers and their families on holidays to Greece. Life savings, homes, and businesses were lost on those trips. My cousin, Elias Demitriades, won his fortune on an ocean trip to Greece and never returned to the United States or the fur market.

Kyria Ekaterina

One summer at Carelas' farm, I fell in love with Kyria Ekaterina (Lady Katherine), my Lady. I was eight years old. My Lady had a sympathetic smile, a well-tanned, light olive complexion, dazzling white teeth, light-brown hair, blue eyes and, I learned, a lovely figure, as best an eight-year-old could judge. She must have been in her mid- to late thirties, was married, and was kind and gentle to me. I had begun to stammer that year, and she made me feel comfortable around her.

Kyria Ekaterina was a little aloof from the rest of the women at Carelas'. She read a lot and spent hours knitting quietly while sitting alone in the shade of an expansive tree. Sometimes, when I looked for her to deliver my gift, she was nowhere to be found.

My Lady loved fresh, warm chicken eggs, and they were my gift to her. I would creep around the chicken coop and scoop up an egg just as it was laid, when its shell was still soft. I rushed it to her. She greeted me happily when I brought her the prize. I watched her use a safety pin to punch holes into the egg and then suck out its still warm, raw contents with one or two efforts. This would ordinarily have revolted me, but when my Lady performed the act, it was great art - beautiful.

Often, I would go on one of my solitary missions into the woods, creeping behind trees and walls, pretending I was a soldier fighting the Germans or a pioneer escaping from a band of Indians. The trees of the forest provided shadows that moved with the wind and created as many enemies and pursuers as my imagination could conjure.

On one morning, I ventured far into the wood that led to Mr. Schoonmaker's pastures and farmhouse. Stealing along a fieldstone wall, I spied over it hoping to see a woodchuck or a deer, or a German machine-gun nest or an Indian inching up to attack me. What I saw was my Lady far from any road or home, stretched out on a blanket in the tall grass, reading a book. She was naked - totally, completely, naked. I stared at this vision for no more than three seconds, but it seemed like hours. I was sure that she had seen or heard me, and that my mother was watching me from a few feet away.

I slumped to the ground behind the rock wall for a few moments, recovered my composure, or at least some of it, suppressed my guilt, and slowly peeked over the wall again to be sure that I had seen what I thought I had seen. Yes, I had! For several breathless minutes I studied every mysterious detail of this goddess' body, then slowly crawled away along the wall and turned into the wood until I had gone far enough to be sure that I would not be seen. I never again returned to that spot in the forest.


Carelas treated his boarders to a hayride two or three times each summer. Dinner on those nights consisted of barbecued hot dogs cooked by the river at the great fireplace that we used to roast lambs in the spring. We children devoured a dessert of roasted marshmallows, cookies, and ice cream. At twilight, two or three horse drawn wagons filled with loose hay would arrive on the scene. We climbed aboard them for a long ride - men, women, and children. Carelas seemed to plan the dates of the rides on the availability of a full moon and a clear sky.

There was always someone along with a mandolin or guitar; sometimes, there were two or three amateur instrumentalists. As the horses pulled us slowly along country roads, men and women would sing Greek songs, tell stories, and laugh in the light of the moon under the dome of a star-studded sky. The song I remember most was about Barba Ianni [old John] and his papoutsia lastika (rubber shoes). My sister and I would eventually snuggle close to Mom and fall asleep. There was a very warm feeling about these rides. We traveled in a circle, a journey that brought us home and to bed.

Theo Costa

Theo Costa and Thea Anastasia were part of my growing up. As a child I did not understand why I called them Theo and Thea, Uncle and Aunt, as they were not related to us. However, we were Koumbari, a designation that closely associates families. It describes ties created through marriage, as between in-laws, or by acting as the best man or maid of honor at a wedding, or by becoming a godparent. These family ties are strong and lasting.

Later in life, a godparent might also be matron of honor or best man at the godchild's wedding. My mother and grandfather were godparents to Costa and Anastasia's children, Jimmy and Anesti. My mother relished her role as Matron of Honor at Jimmy's wedding. (Years later, my Nouno was my best man.)

Costa and Anastasia were not my uncle and aunt. However, it is common for close friends of a Greek family to become proxy uncles and aunts to children.

At whatever age I was, I remember Theo Costa Zelios at always the same age, somewhere between fifty-five and sixty. He just did not change.

Theo Costa's round, dark, olive-skinned face, was characteristic of the Turkic-Bulgar tribes that had invaded the Balkans. His hair was short, thin, and gray. The yellow-brown stains on the left side of his salt and pepper moustache, and on the thumb, index, and middle fingers of his left hand evidenced his chain smoking of unfiltered Camel cigarettes. Not a big man, perhaps five feet seven inches in height, he moved quietly with slow, purposeful strength, and spoke little whether in his native Greek or in halting English. He had a knowing tight-lipped smile.

Greek was Theo Costa's native language, learned as a child in Sozopolis on the coast of the Black Sea.

Theo Costa married his wife, Anastasia, after the Balkan Wars and the First World War, but before 1922, when the immigration gates closed in the United States. Somehow they made their way from Bulgaria to Greece, and then to Ellis Island. Settling in Brooklyn, they spent most of their years in a bright second- story apartment on Seventy-second Street between Third Avenue and Ridge Boulevard.

Theo Costa was a night-shift building engineer at the CBS Building in New York City for thirty or more years. He had the mechanical aptitude, health, and work ethic that made him a prized employee. During the day, he worked as a house painter to earn extra money for his family.

One of the unusual things Theo Costa did was to make soap. Greek families in Bay Ridge saved animal fat for him, spooning it from roasting pans and stockpots into jars. About twice each year, he would collect it, and in his apartment kitchen mix the fat with other ingredients, cook the mixture in a huge kettle, and produce soft bars of tan, lightly-scented soap. He took great pride in delivering bars of soap to family and friends.

Anastasia was a big, big-hearted, open-armed, smiling, laughing, gentle, pious, mountain of a woman. Her energy was unbounded. She loved her sons without limit. I remember her in her Second World War Red Cross uniform when she visited our home after rolling bandages all day. She sat with my mother having her sweet and Elliniko, not Turkico, café while knitting socks for her sons who were in the Army ~ Jimmy with the artillery in Italy and Anesti with the infantry in the Philippines. The prayers she offered every minute of every day and those that rose on Sundays with the smoke of the candles at her church, Kimisis tis Theotokou (The Dormition of the Mother of God) on Eighteenth Street in Brooklyn, were answered in full. Both came home safely.

Anastasia was the unchallenged local expert in making likismata (sweets) until the arrival in the United States of my Thea Filareti, my father's brother's wife, and another story. These are the wonderful, candied fruits served to guests by Greek hostesses. A cold glass of water and a cup of thick Greek coffee accompany them. It was impossible to choose among the thick slices of orange and grapefruit rinds, dark black cherries, rose petals trapped in their viscous liquor, and quince, either shredded or in bite-sized pieces cooked until their color was a deep, almost amber, orange.

She baked the customary Vasilopita (St. Basil's Bread) made for New Year's, and Lambropsomo (Easter Bread). She brought loaves to us every year as gifts to her children's godparents.

Vasilopita was a treat on New Year's morning when my father performed the traditional blessing of the loaf, then cut slices for the world, our home, and each family member in order of age. The loaf was huge, perhaps sixteen inches in diameter, golden from an egg glaze, and showered with sesame seeds. When toasted, the aroma of the Mahlepi, which was used to flavor the bread, filled the room.(2)

Lambropsomo was like Vasilopita but for the presence of dyed, deep red eggs set in the crown of the loaf and the absence of Mahlepi and the coin.

Theo Costa was the celebrant of two periodic events in our home.

Every six or seven years he painted the rooms of our three-story brownstone on Ovington Avenue. Sometimes I helped, or at least I thought I did. The job seemed to take forever. He was slow, methodical, and meticulous. I remember the smell of the lead-based paints thinned with oil that took days to dry.

He worked always with a cigarette, a Camel, between his lips. The ritual lighting of the cigarette included his tapping down the tobacco to one end, twisting the paper of the less full end before lighting it, and moistening the paper on the end that was held delicately between his lips. As the smoke rose, his hand moved the brush gracefully, in the way of a conductor leading an orchestra in an adagio. I liked helping him clean the brushes, which were his treasured tools. They were of all sizes, some very fine and soft.

I liked best helping Theo Costa make lakerda (salted tunny).

From the beginning of recorded history, excess Greek populations of Ionia, Attica, Boetia, and the Greek city-states colonized coastal villages in Thrace on the Black Sea. They grew grapes and made wine, mined minerals, grew corn, captured and sold Skythian slaves, and caught and preserved fish for themselves and for export to cities dependent on imported food. Tsiri (dried, salted mackerel), rengha (dried, smoked herring), sardeles (salted large sardines or anchovies in olive oil), tarama (carp or red mullet roe which when whipped with olive oil, bread crumbs, and lemon juice form a delicious, creamy dip), and lakerda were among the staple fish.

As a child, Theo Costa watched the men of Sozopolis as they preserved their catch from the Black Sea. He learned how to clean, salt, and smoke fish and brought those skills to America and to Brooklyn.

Every fall, Mom put up preserves, made loukanika (dried sausage); jarred tomatoes, and packed brine-filled crocks with green tomatoes, carrots, celery, and heads of cabbage (toursi). Then, after Leonardo stored newly-fermented grape juice into barrels for a second fermentation or aging, as the purpose required, and put the residual grape mash into the shiny copper still and made raki or, since he was from Monteleone, Italy, grappa ~ the time came to make lakerda.

Theo Costa would arrive early one October morning in time for a cup of coffee with my mother before beginning the work. He lugged huge bags over his shoulders, having gone at dawn directly from CBS in mid-town to the Fulton Fish Market on the lower east side of Manhattan to select as many two-foot-long, deep-blue, torpedo-like tuna fish as he could carry. These he deposited in the entry vestibule while he sat and rested, and had his coffee and a Camel cigarette. I waited anxiously for my instructions ~ which every year were the same. Mom would give me one or two dollars and tell me to go to Mr. Kramer's Hardware Store on Third Avenue to buy ten, five-pound bags of Kosher salt (rock salt). Mr. Kramer kept these in stock for his customers to rid their outdoor steps and sidewalks of ice and snow, and for the Jew or Greek or Scandinavian who needed it to prepare an ethnic specialty.

By the time I made the three or four trips necessary for me to carry that much salt, Theo Costa was ready to start work. We carried the tunny and salt down the wooden steps to the basement. The smells were those of the West Side delicatessens on Eighth and Tenth Avenues in mid-town Manhattan. Theo Costa retrieved two, twenty-four-inch deep ceramic crocks, a flat cutting stone, and butcher knives from under the storage tables. Slowly, too agonizingly slowly for the patience of a boy, he carried the crocks to the other end of the basement where there was a water spigot and drain. While he spread newspapers on the floor, set the cutting stone across two stools, and sharpened the knives, I washed out the crocks and dried them.

Cigarette between his lips and a razor-sharp knife in his hand, Theo Costa removed the heads, fins, and tails from the tunny. We washed each body carefully, removing any loose tissue. Finally, to the cutting stone, and with long, strong motions, he sliced the tunny into one-inch steaks. We set one layer of these in the crocks on top of a two-inch bed of salt. Then, we added another layer of salt and another layer of tunny until finally the crocks were filled, the top layer being salt. After wooden lids were placed on top of the crocks, he moved them to a dark corner under the storage tables. I washed the heavy cutting stone thoroughly, brushing it under hot water brought from the sink in the small basement kitchen, dried it, and carried it with difficulty to Theo Costa for him to store away.

Now we waited.

Greeks fix the time of many of life's events to a mystical period: forty days. It must derive from biblical stories and religious observance: Noah's forty days of rain and forty days of waiting to exit the Ark after it went aground; Moses' forty days on Mount Sinai; Jesus' forty days praying and fasting in the wilderness; etc.

In keeping with biblical tradition, the Great Lent and minor Lents last forty days, a couple waits forty days from the time they are married until they go to church, a baby is churched(3) forty days after birth, and the first memorial service is forty days after the death of a loved one.

Therefore, it takes forty days to make brandied cherries and forty days to dry sausage. And, it takes forty days before rock salt and tunny combine miraculously to create lakerda. On that great day, Theo Costa arrived with a gallon of olive oil and a lemon.

I followed him to the basement in anticipation of a filet of lakerda swimming in olive oil and lemon juice at the dinner table. He rolled the crocks out from their cool, dark hiding place, lit the indispensable Camel cigarette, took off the lid of one crock, scraped salt away from the top, and removed one steak from the first layer of tunny to a waiting platter. This he washed under cold water and dried with the softest of cotton towels. He placed the tunny steak on a plate, sprinkled it liberally with olive oil and a dash of lemon, and cut it into bite-size pieces. Theo Costa put the first piece in his mouth, chewed gently, closed his eyes, savored the flavor, and made his judgment. "Kallo!" ("Good!") Then, I put a tender piece in my mouth and the waiting was rewarded.

We emptied the crocks under the constant supervision of Theo Costa's genie, washing, drying, and layering the tunny, now transformed into slices of lakerda, into glass jars that had been carefully stored since their last use. Enough room was left in each jar for a quantity of the golden-green olive oil that preserved and sweetened the salted fish. Theo Costa had again worked his magic.

For Theo Costa our basement, redolent with Black Sea smells of cabbage in brine, wine barrels, drying sausage, dried mackerel and herring, and bouquets of herbs hanging from the ceiling, and now containing newly filled jars of lakerda, made him again a young boy far away in a small city by the sea.

Japanese Beetles

One summer before the Second World, War Papou single-handedly took on the Japanese beetles that attacked his vines. They were huge, ugly, shiny-black, hard-shelled insects.

Ingenious at devising tools to accomplish work in the garden, he made a Japanese beetle trap by attaching a coffee can to a broom handle and filling it with an inch of kerosene. Using a small brush on a second broom handle, he hunted, found and then swept the beetles to a fatal swim in kerosene. I enjoyed watching their death throes as, on their backs, they struggled for survival with their legs kicking frantically. So much for the compassion of a five-year-old!

Papou lost his grape harvest that year, and with the arrival of more beetles, the following year he gave up his summer trellis, the vines, and their shade.

The Watermelon

During the summer of 1940, on one of his visits to Carelas' farm to see us Papou told Nitsa and me about a watermelon growing in our garden in Brooklyn. He said it was huge and promised to keep it untouched until we returned home on the first weekend after Labor Day.

The trip back to Brooklyn was filled with the expectation of seeing our neighborhood friends, the new school year, and the great watermelon. Nitsa and I were wedged between pieces of luggage, fruit baskets, pillows, toys, and an ironing board that would not fit in the trunk. The nomadic gypsies of the Balkans were surely our cousins. At her feet in her front, right navigator's seat from which she gave commands like, "Pass him, Jimmy!" Mom had a basket of huge aromatic peaches that Dad had purchased at a roadside stand. We must have eaten half of them on the trip.

The long, hot, and humid drive south from the Catskill Mountains to Brooklyn took four or five hours on the two lane roads of 1940. After reaching Kingston on the Hudson, we traveled south on Route 9W until we came to the George Washington Bridge. Crossing it to Manhattan, Dad drove south along Riverside Drive and on to the cobblestone paved, slick, West Side elevated highway that at that time stood below Fifty-seventh Street. (The badly rusted elevated highway collapsed in December of 1973. The immediate cause was the weight of a concrete truck that was making a delivery for road repairs.)

The car's windows were all open, allowing the noises and smells of the traffic to reach us. There was no air conditioning. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was still a dream, so Dad followed the slow traffic over the Brooklyn Bridge and made his way along Fourth Avenue, delivering us finally to Bay Ridge.

We arrived at home to the damp and particular smell of Brooklyn at the end of summer. It was early evening when Papou greeted us at the door. Nitsa and I ran through the house to the garden, Papou on our heels. As we opened the door our eyes searched for the giant watermelon, and there it was. Nitsa saw it first. We caressed it and marveled at the size of this single great watermelon amidst the tangled vines. Then, Nitsa found the string that tied the watermelon to the plant.

The Mulberry Tree

A lone, slender mulberry tree softened the hard-surfaced courtyard to our home. The tree had few branches and was only six or seven feet tall. It seemed tenuously to cling to life. When the snows were gone and spring temperatures revived it, it budded and broke into leaf having survived to live another summer.

The courtyard faced north, so the tree that would have been at home in the Peloponnesos received little of the warm sunshine it needed to thrive. Nonetheless, each year the little tree provided a handful of berries that Papou and Dad happily harvested and shared with the family.

Fish, Fish ~ Fresh Fish !!!

The late 1930s and early '40s witnessed the decline of horse-drawn carts in New York City. From them, mobile vendors delivered ice and milk, and sold vegetables, fruit, fish, and sometimes pots, pans, and clothing. Italians, Greeks, Irishmen, Jews, and other ethnic groups were in the diverse body of men who hawked their portable goods.

The wood carts were simple, with wheel rims covered sometimes with rubber, but more often, bare metal. Most carts had a stepladder hanging in back and a tent-like awning to protect cargoes from rain and sun. Some had rails surrounding the space that held the vendor's goods. Wood boards covered with fabric or old carpet gave the men a place to sit as they drove their wagons.

Tired horses pulled the carts and their contents through the streets. Typically, a horse's traces were worn and heavy blinders covered its eyes. Occasionally, a shabby but ornately-beaded head ornament with feather plumes crowned its head. On hot summer days, flies attacked the animals unmercifully. Moving slowly with their heads bowed, sounding clip-clop through the streets, they were a sorry sight.

Before the blight of Dutch elm disease, our street enjoyed the dense shade of huge, mature trees. The horses seemed comforted in the shade and did not react to the taunts of the children that surrounded them. The poor animals were like Zen Buddhist monks sinking into themselves to find peace.

The fish cart was the most interesting of all the carts that passed our house. "Fish, fresh fish!" we would hear from half a block away as the cart turned the corner and came down Ovington Avenue. In the back of the wagon on a huge bed of ice lay all manner of seafood. Above the fish, a spring scale hung from the frame that supported the wagon's cover.

I was smug about my knowledge of the squid, octopus, mackerel, bass, cod, crab, and lobster. I had seen the same fish in the window of Cosentino's Fish Market on Third Avenue. Somehow they seemed more immediate and exotic in the middle of the street on top of a mountain of ice that was dripping its melt to the street.

One day, a huge lobster lay on top of the mound of ice on the cart, a mythic monster trapped on an iceberg. Each of its claws was bigger than both my fists together. A white, serrated, almost tooth-like structure flowed into a red, orange color in the claw that melted into the bluish, green-brown shell of the lobster. This all turned bright red in a pot of boiling water.

Papou told me that it was a Papou lobster, an old, old man of the sea. I felt sorry for him on his mound of ice, moving down the street toward his end as a magnificent meal. At the same time, I wished he were going to be on our table.

Other carts came down Ovington Avenue. Among them were those pushed by ragged men who from time to time collected newspapers. They sold these to a scrap buyer around the block on Sixty-ninth Street, next to the garage-and-filling station, walked half a block to the liquor store soon to emerge with brown paper bags. They hurried off down Third Avenue out of our sight and thought. Later, when I was ten, eleven, and twelve years old, I went into competitive business with these poor men. There was no pity from boys wanting to raise money for comic books and the movies.

The Shooting Gallery

The boy from Mavrovo lived ever inside the man who was my father. His love of guns and shooting was never satisfied, and he remembered wistfully the muzzle-loading pistol of his youth. He carried it illegally in his waistband, just as the klefts did in the mountains surrounding Kastoria. Among these bandit klefts were some of the most romantic figures of the Macedonian people, at best equivalent to Robin Hood and at worst, Billy the Kid. While they usually concentrated their brigandage on Turkish towns and caravans, they were often indiscriminate about whom they robbed.

Dad read about a design for a home target range in a hunting magazine. Following its directions, he purchased an eighteen-inch square piece of quarter-inch steel plate. This he placed at a downward sloping angle behind three or four inches of wood in a sandbox. He set his construction at end of the basement closest to the cellar door that led to the garden and pinned concentric circled targets on it.

We shot at the targets with my Remington .22 caliber rifle from just under the electric panel, a distance of about fifty feet. In the confined space, the little .22 sounded like an elephant gun. While acrid smoke filled the cellar, we kept shooting until my mother's voice called down the steps, "Jimmy, arketa (enough)! Open the cellar door, and air the place out!"

Shooting holes through the middle of pennies and dimes was the greatest challenge Dad set for me. We wasted many small coins in practice.

Dad's pride and joy was a homemade, muzzle-loaded gun. It was designed like the .22 caliber zip guns used by street gangs in New York during the late 1940s and 1950s. They typically consisted of a two- to three-inch length of small-sized pipe set in a wooden handle with a spring or rubber band loaded firing pin. Dad made his from the casing of a .50 caliber WW II machine-gun bullet, which he strapped into a carved-out notch in a wood block that looked like a miniature cannon carriage. He punched a tiny opening into the back end of the shell casing to use as a firing hole.

Dad filled the "barrel" with black gunpowder using rifle bore cleaning pads to ram down the charge. Then, he loaded BB pellets into the casing as shot. Once ready, he sprinkled a little powder on the firing hole, pointed the baby cannon at the target, and lit the powder with a match. First, there was a flash, then, a "woompff" as the little cannon jumped and belched a cloud of black smoke before it. The BBs made a smacking sound as they hit the paper target. Dad's face was one big smile.

It amazes me that my sober, serious, responsible, and conservative father could behave so much like a boy around guns, gunpowder, and fireworks.

Coney Island ~ Sheepshead Bay

Once or twice each year, in the spring or fall, memories of the Black and Tyrrhenian Seas brought visions of glistening black mussels to Mom and Papou, respectively. The recollection of the briny smell of the sea quickly gave way to an image of a heaping dish of the black-shelled delicacies stuffed and steaming in a serving bowl. It was then that Papou would announce to Nitsa and me, "We go Ships-a-hedda-bay!"

The first time he took us with him was in 1939 or 1940, when he still lived with us. After he moved to Bay Fourteenth Street, Papou came early in the morning, and had breakfast with us before we left the house, Nitsa and I on either side of him, each holding his hand as went out the door to begin our adventure. We walked to the corner, turned left on Third Avenue, continued one block further, and boarded the Sixty-ninth Street trolley.

Trolleys were long, red cars, some with well-varnished wooden seats running along their length, others with wicker seats facing frontward and backward. A pole connected the trolley to the electric power line that hung over the street. Shiny rails that marked the route guided the trolley's steel wheels through Brooklyn's ethnic neighborhoods. The conductor's function was to start and stop the trolley, collect fares, and ring the warning bell. Poles and hanging straps afforded security for standing passengers; early on Saturday morning there were none. We had the trolley almost to ourselves.

It was a long trip taking an hour or more to reach Coney Island's beach and boardwalk with its rides, sideshows, and hot dog stands. To keep us entertained along the way, Papou told us stories, pointed out people, stores, and new cars, and asked us what we wanted to do when we reached the wonderland. The trolley's wheels generated a rhythmic thump, thump, thump as they crossed over the expansion joints between rail sections. The occasional "cling-clang" of the trolley's warning bells turned our heads to see what danger was being avoided. Push carts, pedestrians, and automobiles cleared the way before us.

When we reached Coney Island, its sights and smells bombarded our senses. Nitsa wanted to ride the Ferris wheel and the roller coaster. Papou would leave me with the ride's gatekeeper and I watched as he and Nitsa climb into the cars and hurtled into space. The sight and screams of those rides scared me so much that I never climbed into a seat. Nitsa would return with delight, and Papou would be smiling and laughing with her.

My less daring choices were bumper cars and boats, the merry-go-round, and an obstacle course of a ride that had us careening down a slide that had many turns and corners, and then crawling through a cylinder that revolved on its side. The bumper boats and cars gave me a great sense of control and authority. I loved to smash into Papou and Nitsa.

Hot dogs and soda pops at Nathan's followed. I smothered my hot dog with sauerkraut, relish, and mustard. Sometimes I had cotton candy. Nitsa always opted for ice cream. Papou enjoyed a tall stein of beer with his hot dog.

Hunger satisfied, we got back on the trolley for the ride past Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach to Sheepshead Bay. It was a two- or three-block walk from the final trolley stop to the bay, its boats, and the fish markets that Papou favored. While the fish Mom and Papou bought at Cosentino's Fish Market on Third Avenue, just off Ovington, were always fresh, nothing satisfied Papou more than the fish at these Sheepshead Bay markets. Perhaps it reminded him of the life he knew as a child in Italy.

He bought as much fish as we three could carry, making his selections after a long conversation with the old Italian owner about what was available, close examination of each fish, including its eyes, and some poking and pressing as he tested the firmness of the flesh of the fish he chose. My bag was always the one filled with the prized, shiny-black, seaweed-covered, sea- and salty-smelling mussels. The fishmonger packed them in a net bag that contained wet seaweed, then in two or three additional paper bags.

Large cod and bass heads filled one of the other bags. These were used to make a wonderful fish soup that, with meat from the cheeks of the fish heads, onions, potatoes, celery, tomatoes, carrots, and herbs, was almost a stew. Warm, crusty bread soaked in the broth was delicious.

The other bag held sea bass, blue fish, flounder, cod, or mackerel. Sometimes Papou would buy two or three varieties of fish. Always, on top, there was a bag filled with fresh fish roe and liver.

Burdened with our sea treasures we walked to the trolley stop, boarded our transport, and started the long trip home. With the bags wedged between our legs and the lower part of our seats, Nitsa and I, on either side of Papou, drifted into a sleep induced by the trolley's constant thump, thump, thump. He cradled us in his arms until we returned to Sixty-ninth Street and Third Avenue. We arrived home exhausted but eager to tell Mom of our adventures and to show her the contents of the bags we carried.

Mom immediately washed the fish heads and put them into a pot on the stove with water, wine, and herbs. They simmered slowly to become a wonderful stock and soup. The fish, washed, went into the refrigerator for the night. Mom emptied the mussels into a large steel bowl filled with cold water and a handful of rock salt. She stirred the mussels round and round in the bowl and left them for half an hour. She said this bath revived them.

Gently Mom washed the fish roe and liver, patted them dry and placed them in a bowl and into the refrigerator. She then turned her attention to the mussels. I often helped in scrubbing them and in removing their "whiskers", the vegetation that a mussel uses to adhere itself to the rocks on which it lives. She showed me that I could not open a live mussel by twisting its shell. We discarded any mussel not tightly closed.

A huge kettle held the mussels with onions and white rice previously sautéed in olive oil, crushed fresh tomatoes, toasted pignoli nuts, and currant raisins. White wine, water, a little chopped fresh dill, salt, and pepper were the final ingredients. After she set the mussels and rice to a simmer, Mom prepared a salad and took the roe and liver from the refrigerator. These she sautéed in butter, olive oil, and oregano, with a little black pepper, and finished in a generous bath of lemon juice.

Dinner was ready. By now, Dad had returned from his Saturday work in the fur market. He, Papou, Nitsa, Mom, and I, with the guest or guests of the day (there were frequently unannounced friends for dinner) would sit down to the feast. Salad, sautéed roes and livers, mussels that had stuffed themselves with the rice mixture as they opened and cooked, crusty warm bread, olives, cheese, and Papou's dry wine or Retsina imported from Greece were a festive climax to a wonderful day. We were at the shores of the Black and the Tyrrhenian Seas.

Sledding in Owl's Head Park

A "Red Flyer" sled with ribbons and bows and a card with my name on it sat under the Christmas tree the morning of 25 December 1940. I was approaching my seventh birthday and more than ready for the excitement the sled promised. But, there was no snow!

Days passed before a heavy gray sky emptied several inches of white powder on the streets, cars, and houses of Bay Ridge. Best of all, it happened on a weekend, so Papou was ready and available to take us to the park. Nitsa and I ate a steaming breakfast and were then dressed in pants and sweaters, stuffed into snowsuits, and outfitted with hats, gloves, mufflers, and boots. Barely able to walk in our layers of clothing, we went out the door, Papou carrying the sled.

Owl's Head Park is close to Lower New York Bay at the foot of Sixty-eighth Street. Before the Second World War, there were still hulks of old wooden ships visible at the shoreline. These provided the stage for our pirate fantasies in 1940 and 1941, before the military built screening walls all around the shoreline to prevent peering eyes from seeing the ships massing for their run out the Narrows of New York's lower bay and into the Atlantic. Signs proclaiming "Loose Lips Sink Ships" covered the fences.

In late December of 1940, Owl's Head Park represented something entirely different for me. It was a place high in a remote mountain valley in Alaska. In my imagination, Papou turned into a team of huskies as he pulled Nitsa and me through the snow on our new sled, bumping over curbs and crashing through man-made drifts on our long trek.

At last, we came to the park and its first gentle slope. Nitsa and I took turns on the sled learning how to maneuver it with our feet when sitting up and with our hands when lying on our stomachs, heads tilted up to see ahead. Sometimes, we rode together with either Nitsa or me lying on top of the other, or sitting one behind the other with Papou running alongside to encourage us.

After pleading with Papou several times, he took us to the steeper hill, the big hill, the one that really counted. There were eight- and ten-year-olds on this hill. Nitsa went first. She ably guided the sled down the slope with cheers from Papou and me. She almost ran back up the hill pulling the sled and screaming her delight. I could not wait for my turn.

I decided to sit on the sled. Steering with my feet was easier than with my hands and sitting gave me more visibility and confidence. Papou started me off with a gentle push. As it moved down the hill, the sled gained speed at a rate that first surprised, then petrified me. Frozen motionless on the sled I watched the trees at the bottom of the hill rush up at me. The biggest tree was in the middle, and I hit it head-on, or more specifically, nose-on. It broke ~ my nose, not the tree ~ and blood gushed out all over me and the snow.

The next thing I knew I was in Papou's arms. Then, almost miraculously, I was in our kitchen at home lying on the table with an ice pack on my face. Poor Papou sat there accepting the blame and taking the verbal punishment from Mom. Still, he was the best Papou in the world. Broken nose or not, I went down the big hill!

Sunday Dinner, Bocce, Pizza, and Spies

One or two years before the start of the Second World War, Papou married Adela. She was a big woman from Naples, Italy. Not fat ~ big. She was tall, broad- shouldered, huge faced, and with ear lobes that under the weight of massive earrings fell almost to her shoulders. The holes pierced in her ears when she was child had become long slits, the effect being reminiscent of the ears, necks, noses and other body parts that are disfigured by some cultures to attain a valued aesthetic.

Adela's voice matched her physique, big and authoritative. Words sometimes exploded out of her.

Once married to Adela, Papou left our home on Ovington Avenue and moved to Bay Fourteenth Street in the Bath Beach District of Brooklyn. The treasured wine press and barrels, still, hydrometer, and bottles went with him.

Their home had a red-brick facing and was on the east side of the street, just a city block or two from the shore of Lower New York Bay. The main floor consisted of an entry, living room, dining room, and kitchen. A stair immediately to the right of the entry door led to two bedrooms and a bath on the second floor. The basement, converted into a small restaurant-sized dining room, held one large table capable of seating twenty. A second kitchen and a storage facility completed the basement. Papou grew tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and other table greens in a small garden.

Adela furnished her home in the style of late nineteenth century Naples with exotic influences of the mysterious Middle East, Sicily, and Calabria. The furniture was massive, of dark wood, and where upholstered, covered with richly-colored, heavily-textured brocades. The lamps were colorful, several having beaded skirts decorating their shades. Nondescript framed prints of Italy and its classical history covered the walls. There were deep red and green glass ashtrays and candy dishes. Ceramic pastoral figurines of peasant girls and boys seemed playful on the end tables and the coffee table in the living room.

Adela was a sewing machine operator in the garment industry. She would not work for anyone as a salaried employee, preferring to capitalize on her skill and speed at piecework. Unions had no friend in her. She could out earn most anyone at a sewing machine and loved the challenge of doing so. "Ma, sur-a," she would say, "I make-a lot-a mon, an-a I buy-a da-best-a." If there were anything she bought that was the best, it was the food for her table.

Adela did not serve a dinner, a meal, a lunch, a snack, or anything other than a banquet. As a child, I loved to have dinner at Papou and Adela's home. And, as a teen-ager, I met her every challenge and ate enthusiastically. In my teen years and as a young adult, I remember being at her table with Jimmy and Anesti Zelios, my mother's and Papou's godchildren. My friend Don Kaye, my brother-in-law, Stan Avitabile, and many others enjoyed Adela's hospitality with me. At such times, she was in her glory, for she loved young men, loved to cook for young men, and knew how to cook only in great quantity.

The only person I knew that did not love to eat at Adela's table was my father, whose tender stomach could not tolerate heavy tomato sauces or garlic.

Her dinners would start with a tasty appetizer. The one I loved most was a deep-fried rice ball stuffed with cheese and served swimming in a marinara sauce. She served soup next, not a clear broth, but hearty minestrone or a soup of beef and pasta. Then came pasta ~ ravioli, spaghetti or lasagna ~ in a meat sauce or accompanied by wonderfully stuffed bracciole or sausage. Papou ate an amazing bowl, not dish, but bowl of pasta. He was a small man with an enormous capacity.

Most appetites were, by now, fully satisfied, and if it was their first dinner at Papou and Adela's, guests thought the dinner over. Not so! The next course was a refreshing salad, perhaps with anchovies or sardines, and a liberal amount of minced garlic. And, then she served the main course: roast lamb, beef or chicken, with potatoes and vegetables.

The dinner dishes cleared, Adela presented a bowl of fresh apples and pears, another filled with nuts, and a tray of two or three cheeses. We pared and cut the fruit into pieces to marinate in our wine glasses. When it had taken on enough flavor, the fruit joined cracked nuts and cheese on our plates. These we ate slowly with bread and conversation.

Sated, we sat in the living room to rest, went for a walk along the waterfront or found a corner to take a nap. When an hour or two had passed and Adela had the kitchen in order, it was time for dessert and coffee. Papou usually bought wonderful Italian pastries from a local store: cannoli (a shell stuffed with sweet ricotta and chocolate custard), pasticciotti (lemon custard filled tart) and Papou's favorite, Rum Baba (sponge cake saturated with rum and topped with vanilla custard), and more. The coffee was espresso. With it, Papou served his sweet muscatel and home made brandy.

Shortly after Papou moved, he took Nitsa and me to the Italian Club that was housed in a huge old Victorian mansion just a block or two away from his new home. There he introduced us to bocce and pizza.

For an hour or so, the serious competitors permitted our Papou to monopolize one of the bocce pits while he showed us how to play the game. We were novices not only at pitching the heavy ball with purpose (ours was simply to smash other balls), but at the eccentric poses and dramatic exclamations that seemed to be a necessary part of the game. The men playing in the neighboring pits were passionate about bocce.

When Papou thought we had played enough, he took us to a table on the expansive porch that surrounded most of the aged mansion. Paint peeled from its window frames and exterior walls like bark shedding from a tree. A waiter took Papou's order and in a few minutes we each had an aromatic slice of something called "pizza" and a glass of Coca-Cola in front of us. Papou had beer. The cheesy, tomato-covered slice, fragrant with oregano, was one of the great early experiences of my life.

One Sunday in 1943, Papou and Adela had Papou's nephew with his wife and young son visiting from Glens Falls. The boy was about my age, eight or nine. After dinner, he and I went on a walk along the shore. It was cold and blustery with good-sized waves smashing against the rocks below the paved path that ran along the water. This section of Lower New York Bay coast faced almost directly to sea, so unlike the coast of the inner bay, there was no security fence to prevent looking out to the horizon. The security fences installed during the war along the shore of the upper Bay, past the Narrows between Bay Ridge and Staten Island, prevented anyone from easily counting ships as they assembled to form the convoys headed for Europe or from seeing them as they left.

We climbed over the guardrail fence and down onto the rocks, challenging the waves and tempting fate while we searched the debris that washed up onto the rocks for treasure. What we found was a poplin life jacket, one we were sure a German spy had worn as he swam from a submarine to the shore. Our imaginations ran wild. We had to find the police, get to the FBI, and warn the country. We took turns dragging the water-soaked life preserver through the streets while asking passers-by where the police station was.

Wandering at least one mile to the Eighty-sixth Street Precinct Police Station, we pulled the life preserver up the steps into the station and across the tiled lobby floor to the sergeant's desk. Breathless, we told him about the German spy and showed him our evidence.

"Get that damn thing out of here!" was the only response we heard. Frightened and confused, we dragged our evidence out of the station and down its steps, leaving it at the curb. We ran most of the way back to Papou's.

"Where-a-you-a-been?" Papou asked, "You-a-late!" We did not answer him, my Mom, or Dad. Shrugging our shoulders we made for the dining room table and the mountain of cannoli, cookies and cakes that awaited us.

Scrambled Eggs

Between the ages of seven and nine, I was a sickly boy, suffering from intestinal problems of vague and uncertain origin. Dr. DeTata ordered that I be kept home from school for one year. My appetite had vanished and even the best of my mother's extraordinary cooking did not tempt me. Even worse, I was denied my staple food, Ebinger's hard icing, chocolate cream-filled layer cake. Poor Mom, frustrated by her inability to create meals that would generate an enthusiastic response from me, lamented the dark circles under my eyes and my skinny body.

One rainy Saturday morning in March, Papou came to watch over me while Mom had her hair done and she and Nitsa went to downtown Brooklyn to shop at Namm's Department Store. It was early March, and I was looking forward to my ninth birthday.

Just after Mom and Nitsa left the house, Papou asked me what I had eaten for breakfast. Not happy with the response, he said, "I fix-a you some-a egg." I was not enthusiastic but enjoyed sitting at the table in our large, warm, and well-lit kitchen while rain made chattering noise against the windows. Papou assembled the frying pan, mixing bowl, butter, eggs, bread, quince preserves, and a chunk of white feta cheese.

After cracking two eggs and plopping them into a bowl, he came to the table to show me how much fresh black pepper and crumbled feta cheese to add to the mixture. Then, he demonstrated how to use the hand whisk to beat the egg and cheese mixture until it was frothy and filled with air, while saying, "do-a like-a dis." The frying pan already on the range had a generous dollop of butter slowly melting on its bottom. "Not-a too-a hot," he cautioned. "Slow-a cook, mix all-a time." His phrasing and articulation were not slow. In fact, he spoke quickly, quietly, and calmly. He never intimidated me.

The eggs cooked slowly, very slowly, endlessly. As he stirred them continually with a wooden cooking fork, his hands deftly put bread in the toaster. He let me turn the toast because it was like playing with a toy.

Our modern 1940 toaster glowed red-hot. Toasting required two steps. After the first side of the bread toasted, it was time to flip the bread to toast the other side. One did this by pulling the top of the hatch door-like side outward. It rotated down to table level, allowing the toast to slip down onto the toaster door, cooked side out. When the door closed, the untoasted side faced the hot elements. It worked every time.

Meanwhile, the eggs in the frying pan set into soft curds, Papou's hand never ceasing its gentle stirring. Finally, he announced: "Dey-a-don." He buttered the slices of toast, spread a generous layer of quince preserves on them, and served the eggs and toast to me on a warm plate. We sat down, and he encouraged me to take a bite.

Miracle cure!

They were wonderful, delicious, and I ate everything on my plate, the eggs and the toast. Papou glowed.

When Mom returned I greeted with her with the news. "I ate all the eggs!" She asked Papou what the excitement was all about, and he told her how I loved his scrambled eggs. She frowned. She was, for an instant hurt that I had eaten Papou's cooking and not hers. But, that passed as she realized that her son had eaten food with enjoyment. Her feelings were totally resolved when as she saw me eating more and more of her wonderfully prepared meals.

I never forgot how to make Papou's scrambled eggs.

Mozzarella for Lily

Though a stepfather, Papou adored Lily and did for her everything a caring father would do for his child. One of the more simple and thoughtful expressions of his feelings was the occasional delivery of fresh mozzarella procured from an Italian cheese factory somewhere on Sixteenth Avenue between Fifty-ninth and Sixty-ninth Streets. This Italian neighborhood was where our family doctor, Ettore De Tata, lived and practiced.

The neighborhood provided most everything available from Italy or prepared for Italian kitchens whether fresh, dried, canned, or preserved. The cheese factory was one of the few local sources of fresh mozzarella, a delicately flavored, soft cheese that had not attained the rubbery texture of its mature state. Lily lavished this on warm Italian bread or fried under eggs swimming in butter. It lasted only for as long as it was fresh, perhaps two days.

Papou went to Sixteenth Avenue on the Saturdays he was not at work. He filled bags with fresh Italian bread, capocollo, salami, provolone, olives, hot pickled cherry tomatoes stuffed with anchovy paste, bread, sardines, and whatever else he relished. These would compete with the Greek delicacies brought by my father from Eighth Avenue in Manhattan: feta, kasseri, kefaloteri, sardeles, elies (olives), tsiri, tarama, lakerda, and the myriad other foods that made our home like one of a Mediterranean village but set in Brooklyn.

Sometime before noon on Saturday, Papou would return from his shopping spree and place the two large bags he carried on our kitchen table. With a smile that creased the corners of his eyes, he would fish out the package of cheese and hand it to my mother. I do not remember her ever hugging or kissing Papou, but her acceptance of the cheese was an embrace between them.

Dresses from Papou

After working closely with Eleni in the 1920s Louie found employment during the Depression first with Brooks Brothers as a tailor, and later with Junior Miss as a dressmaker. By the time my sister was ten or twelve, Leonardo was well established at Junior Miss, working closely with my mother's cousin Christos Capidaglis. He was a prominent designer known in the business as "Capi."

At seasonal changes, at birthdays, and prior to special social events, Papou would appear at our front door late on a Saturday afternoon burdened with an armful of dresses, skirts, and blouses for my sister and mother. Nitsa and Mom would try on one garment after another while my mother and Papou marked them with tailor's chalk and pinned hems, waistlines, and bust lines for later correction.

Nitsa and I had both learned to mark, to pin, to cut with scissors and pinking shears, to hem, to sew, and to press. Everyone in our home knew and practiced these skills. So, for several days we all worked on the garments until mother and Nitsa had their new fashions ready to wear.

This went on even after Nitsa was married to Stanton H. Avitabile. While he was a medical student, they lived in a small apartment in the East Seventies near New York Medical Center's Cornell Medical School. Because their small apartment had little closet space, I would transport and exchange a carload of her wardrobe when the seasons changed. There were often new dresses from Papou in the delivery.

In Louie's case, the old adage about the shoemaker's children did not apply. His children and grandchildren, though not of his blood, had the best that he could provide.


In the summers of the late 1940s Mom and Dad rented a cabin at Dover, New Jersey, in a lakeside, vacation community. Mom and Nitsa spent July and August there while I was at Boy Scout Troop 123s Camp Waramaug at Ten Mile River, New York. Dad would arrive at the cabin late on Friday evenings after leaving the steaming-hot streets of the Seventh Avenue fur market in Manhattan.

On many Saturday mornings, Mom, Dad, and my sister would drive along the Delaware River through Port Jervis, New York, to Narrowsburg, Ten Mile River, and the camp. Dad was both an interested parent and a member of the Board that was responsible for the camp and its boys. When they arrived, the trunk of the green 1946 Hudson usually was filled with watermelon, corn, and other treats for all.[•‡‡]

On the final Sunday morning of August in 1950, the last year that I was at the camp as its cook, Dad came to take my friends and me to Dover. That night, they would go on with him to Brooklyn. I was to spend the week with Mom and Nitsa at the cabin before I started my senior year in high school.

We arrived at noon just in time for lunch. Mom and Nitsa were waiting, as were family friends and Dover neighbors George and Pearl Gigiakos, their daughter, Catherine, and Papou and Adela.

Mom came to the door of her cabin immediately on hearing the boisterous sounds of hungry teenagers. There was no sound sweeter to her ears. There were kisses, hugs, and hurried instructions to start the barbecue, set the tables, toss the salad, and do all the other things necessary for a picnic.

While these preparations were being made, my friends Dick Stillwell, Ron Moss, Don Kaye, Frank Johnston, Warner Shattuck, and I walked to the lake with Nitsa, Catherine, and two other of Nitsa's girl friends. We rode the carousel, jumping from animal to animal and reaching far out to reach for the brass rings. When one of us was successful, the hero was lauded with shouts and whistles.

After ten weeks at rustic Camp Waramaug (no electricity, no telephone) we thought ourselves as members of lost battalion returned from the rigors of the "front" and were eager to make an impression on the young women. I doubt that we did, except as rowdy teenagers.

When we returned to the cabin, hamburgers and hot dogs were sizzling on the barbecue. The picnic tables ~ there were two set under the trees ~ were loaded with platters of hot dogs, hamburgers, and cold fried chicken, bowls of macaroni salad, potato chips, roast peppers, mixed green salad, and coleslaw, cheese and olives, hot dog and hamburger buns, soft drinks, beer, and wine, jars of condiments ~ pickles, mustard, mayonnaise, relish, and catsup, a mountain of steaming golden corn dripping with hot butter, and desserts ~ Ebinger's apple pie and chocolate cake. We made my mother smile. Starved savages, we each devoured two or more hamburgers and two or more hot dogs, a breast or leg of chicken, and one or more generous portions of everything else on the table.

Temporarily satisfied, we lay down under the trees while waiting for our stomachs to make room for dessert. Frank Johnson, a wiry, short, and olive skinned Norwegian-American (about half of us were still hyphenated) with very white teeth stretched, got up, and walked around the cabins kicking at small stones and clumps of grass that were in his path. In a few minutes he came back to show us an enormous molar that he had taken from a horse or cow jaw he had found behind one of the cabins. Popping it in his mouth he stumbled to the table where my grandfather and Adela were seated, groaned, and spat the tooth out onto the table moaning, "My tooth, my tooth!"

Adela, startled, looked at the tooth and picked it up in her fingers. She scowled and declared authoritatively: "Dat's-a-not-a-you-a-toot. It's-a-horse-a-toot!" We all burst out laughing. We never forgot the picnic, and "It's a-horse-a-toot!"

Piano Lessons

Miss Morrow taught an elementary music class at our school and recruited private piano students from her first and second grade students. Nitsa and I studied with her for several years.

She was a middle-aged spinster who lived with her brother and a German shepherd in a first floor apartment dominated by the 5' 6" grand piano that filled her living room. It was in this room and on that piano that her students performed in the annual recital.

Parents jammed the living room and its adjoining dining room in tightly placed, folding chairs. It was usually hot with the proud recital-goers discomfort minimally relieved by the cross ventilation of an open front door and raised windows. Miss Morrow must have made some appeasing gestures to neighbors for her annual intrusion on their otherwise peaceful existences. In the hallway that led to the apartment's bedrooms, we students waited nervously standing or squatting in the order that we were to perform.

Nitsa and I usually took our lessons on the same afternoon, Friday, between 3:30 and 4:30. Nitsa had her lesson first while I took the German shepherd for a walk.

I hated that dog! Winter and summer, sunshine and rain, often in the snow, I walked that dog to the empty lot around the corner hoping that it would take care of its needs. Miss Morrow invariably asked, "Did he do his business?" just as I sat at the piano for my lesson.

During my lesson, I would sometimes hear footsteps in the hallway, murmuring directed at the dog, and perhaps a noise in the kitchen. I knew it was Miss Morrow's brother but felt threatened nonetheless. He was a mystery. Neither my sister nor I ever saw him. We knew he was back there only because we heard him.

I was not a good student. I could learn enough by practicing ~ just enough ~ to keep Miss Morrow from complaining to my mother. Perhaps my time with the dog won me mercy. At recitals, I would make a run for the door just as my name was called, then dash down the street and wait for my mother, father, and sister to come out from the recital when it was over. Mom and Dad never chastised me for my stage fright, perhaps because of their satisfaction with Nitsa, who was Miss Morrow's best student and an excellent pianist.

I continued to take lessons until the age of twelve when I became active in the Boy Scouts and the teenage organizations at Bay Ridge's Christ Church. After that, I had no time for lessons but I played popular music from Broadway shows for my own enjoyment. It never occurred to me to play for others. Basketball and other sports seemed to be the way to recognition and success, especially with teenage girls.

Then, one Sunday afternoon, I happened to sit at a piano in a dark corner of a local church. I played some tunes softly while waiting for friends to finish their participation in a meeting. As I played, a girl peeked through the door and walked quietly to the piano. Within minutes there were four or five girls standing around me asking for a song from this or that show. Suddenly I, a total failure on the basketball court, was a complete success with these lovely girls. Music became a passion and I started to take lessons again.


I discovered books on one warm spring Friday afternoon. I was walking home along Ridge Boulevard following my piano lesson at Miss Morrow's apartment on Seventy-fifth Street.

As I crossed Seventy-third Street, I noticed a slight, gray-haired woman standing at the entrance to a building I had passed too many times to count. She smiled and beckoned to me to come closer.

"Hello," she said. "Would you like to see the library?"

Intensive training governed my behavior. Extending courtesy to women, especially to older women, was high on the list of the expectations my mother made clear to me at a very early age. So, I walked to the bottom of the steps leading to the door of the building, and at her silent urging climbed the steps and entered. As I passed through the door I saw a large counter immediately in front of me. The floors were of two-inch-wide wood strips, grayed by age and wear. To my left and right there were rooms filled with row after row of bookshelves. To the right of the counter, stairs lead to a second floor.

The woman guided me up the stairs to a large room. It included a small section with low shelves filled with books, and furnished with low tables and short chairs. A larger section of the second floor contained normally sized tables and chairs, tall bookshelves, a counter, and a desk. Books on music and art were in this larger section.

"Do you like adventure stories?" she asked. "Look at these books," she said pointing to a bookcase with three or four low shelves. "Pick a book and bring it to the desk." She sat behind the desk and busied herself with books and papers.

I watched other children taking books from shelves, browsing through the pages, and returning them to their place. I did the same and came upon a book with a blue jacket. On its cover was a drawing of a huge, four-engine bomber pursued by fighter planes. The title was, Stratosphere Jim and his Flying Fortress. I opened the book and read the first page; it was a story.(4)

Timidly, I took the book to the woman at the desk. She smiled, asked my name, and whether I knew my address. I did. She wrote my name, address, and other words on two cards. One she kept and the other she handed to me while she quietly said: "This is your library card. Bring it whenever you come to the library and borrow books you would like to read. You must return them in two weeks. Do you understand?" I thought I did, mostly.

She stamped the due date on a card in the back of my book, explaining that it was the date the book was to be returned. I was a little confused, did not thank her as I left, and was not completely sure about the arrangement.

With the book under my arm, I continued on to meet Mom at Thea Anastasia's apartment where she was visiting for afternoon coffee. On arrival, I kissed and was kissed by the ladies present, given cookies on a plate, and a glass of cold water flavored with a tablespoon full of dark, sweet cherry preserves, and allowed to sit in Jimmy and Anesti's room at the back of the apartment. Once comfortable, I opened Stratosphere Jim and entered the world of reading.

What an adventure. The story was about a secret cave in the Rockies that hid development of a super bomber that Jim used to conquer evil. It was action-packed and exciting. I read for an hour until Mom collected me to walk home. I read before dinner and after dinner and finished the book before I went to sleep.

The next morning, Saturday, I asked my mother if I could go to the library. I told her about my experience at the library the previous afternoon. She gave her approval and off I went. By noon, I returned home with three books, the maximum permitted, and began my exploration of the worlds opened to me the previous day.

By the time I was twelve, I had read everything that interested me on the second floor, the children's floor, and under the supervision of the librarians, began to take books they approved for me out of the adult section on the first floor. At thirteen, I was allowed to select any book I wanted from the first floor. The librarian had spoken to my mother on the telephone and received permission for the library to let me make my own selections.

Historical novels were my first interest. Then, I found books and plays of social commentary. These provided a mountain of ammunition to attack the status quo, and lots of air to inflate my sense of moral indignation. I must have been insufferable, especially to my conservative father. He listened to my ranting about the ills of the world that he and his generation perpetuated as we drove to and from hunting weekends.

The Bay Ridge Public Library is still located at the corner of Seventy-third Street and Ridge Boulevard, opposite the lawn of Christ Church. The old building is gone, replaced by a modern facility. No matter. I can still see the red brick, the steps, and the gray-haired lady beckoning me to come in.


Visiting my godfather's shop in the fur market was always a treat. He had entered business for himself after leaving the partnership with my Dad at the start of the Depression. My Nouno was a salesman, not a designer, matcher, cutter, or operator. He performed some simple manufacturing tasks, repairing a skin in a garment or a silk lining. His forte was catering to the vanity of the women who came to his shop to buy furs wholesale. Many, if not most, of his customers came from the contacts that his brother-in-law, Uncle Louis, provided: rich insurance clients, executives of Metropolitan Life, and their friends.

The shop, located in one of the typically dingy buildings that served fur manufacturers, was relatively small. It had a solid front door with a second, wire- screen door that one could pass through only if "buzzed in." His showroom had a set of sofas that curved cocktail lounge-like around a formica-top table. One three- way mirror allowed eager customers to admire themselves in mink, fox, ermine, Persian lamb, or if Nouno was really lucky, Russian sable. No woman's fur-draped figure was denied exuberant praise.

A walk-in vault contained countless coats, stoles, and jackets of all kinds. I liked to go into the vault and bury myself in the soft warmth. In the small shop there were: a matching and cutting table, perhaps fifteen feet long; three or four sewing machines; two tumblers for cleaning furs; and, a four-by-six-foot wooden frame that held nailing boards. Nouno sometimes had contract workers in the shop. Most often it was empty, except for George Gigiakos, a burly, big-faced Greek from Larissa, who looked always surprised or confused. He subleased space to nail garments to patterns as a non-union subcontractor and performed some work for Nouno, too. Occasionally, my Dad used the shop for his independent projects. In the late 1940s, Dad left Fierstein & Fierstein and struck out on his own, again sharing Nouno's shop with him.

My godmother Rose came to the market two days each week to keep Nouno's books and to venture out to mid-town to shop and visit. I remember them pouring over the financial pages of The New York Times, checking their fortunes in the stock market.

When I visited the shop, I often had lunch with Nouno. Sometimes Dad would join us with two or three other friends. Nouno sent me to a deli on the corner of Twenty-eighth Street and Eighth Avenue where sandwiches stuffed with selected cold cuts and provolone, and topped with sweet red peppers, olive oil and pepperocini were made on whole or half loaves of Italian bread. Each day the deli made literally hundred of sandwiches for delivery to the fur shops in the area. We would sit around the showroom table and enjoy the sandwiches, pickles, olives, beer (for the men), Coca-Cola (for me), and coffee.

Nouno always tasked me to clean the shop for him. I swept the floors and the area around the sewing machines, organized the patterns on their wall pegs, and cleaned out the fur tumblers. For my efforts, I received pay: perhaps a quarter, or if I also cleaned the showroom, a half dollar.

Once when I was eight or nine years, old I had finished my work and was waiting for my father to arrive. We were going to the Catskills for a weekend of shooting woodchucks and crows, and for the annual lamb roast. Passing the time, I stepped out onto the fire escape landing ten stories above the back alleys below and searched the rooftops and windows for anything of interest. In the summer, I sometimes spotted young women sunbathing on a rooftop!

My fingers touched the small coins that were in my pocket. I took them out to count. Among the coins that made up my wealth were several pennies. I took one, held it out over the railing, and let it slip through my fingers. It fell so quickly that I lost sight of it before it hit the ground. So, I tried another, and another, and another. Then, I heard my Nouno's voice behind me. He said something like, "You are so rich that you can throw money away?" That is all he said, ever, about what I was doing.

I was ashamed. Nouno did not approve, and I felt that I had disappointed him.

From that day on, I picked up every penny I ever found in the street and always thought, "See, Nouno?"

Miss Bosman

Miss Mildred M. Bosman ("Ms." had yet to be invented) was an eighth-grade mathematics teacher at the K-8 public school that served the families in our neighborhood. It was P.S. 102. On Ridge Boulevard, the four-story building filled the half block between Seventy-first and Seventy-second Streets. A very large concrete playground that we called the schoolyard claimed several square inches of flesh from my knees and elbows. It was a place of personal humiliation as I was never able to compete successfully in running, hitting a ball, or getting a basketball through the hoop.

Miss Bosman lived in one of the more elegant houses on Ovington Avenue, perhaps two-thirds of the way down the street from number 260 where we lived. (In Bay Ridge "down the street" meant toward the Bay and a declining street number, and "up the street", the opposite.) As I passed her house four times every school day (going to ~ coming from ~ going to ~ coming from), I sensed her critical eyes watching me from behind curtained windows. If I were running as I approached the house, I slowed to a walk; if laughing and roughhousing, I became an acolyte, and even though I was curious, I stared straight ahead. I never knew whether she was there or not.

I did not fear her. Miss Bosman was not threatening, physically or psychologically. But, down deep, I knew that she was a force to respect, and a person whose good graces were valued by parents and children alike.

Miss Bosman was tall and slender. Her hair, pulled into a bun, was fine and light brown with generous strands of gray. She wore little or no makeup to give color to her very white skin and pale, thin lips. (In every attribute ~ manner, dress, and tone of voice ~ she was elegant.) I would cast Katherine Hepburn to play her in a film.

Half the students at P.S.102 had Miss Bosman for eighth grade mathematics, elementary algebra. My sister did. The other half, me included, had Mr. Collins, whose classroom was at the other end of the hall from Miss Bosman's. We were on the fourth floor, which was assigned to seventh and eighth graders.

Miss Bosman was dedicated to directing the academic paths ~ and therefore the futures ~ of children from immigrant families. She asked her fellow teachers which of their students showed promise in the basic skills ~ reading, writing and arithmetic ~ and were well-behaved. Then, having followed their progress long enough to confirm their opinion, she sometimes paid a personal visit to their homes. Both Nitsa and I received her attention.

One late afternoon, my mother answered the doorbell to find a tall woman asking to speak to her. A few minutes later at our kitchen table, Miss Bosman, gently and with authority, told Mom that she had to see to it that we continued to do our homework and get good grades (A's). She made clear that Helene would attend Hunter College High School in Manhattan and that I would attend one of three high schools ~ Brooklyn Technical High School, the Bronx High School of Science, or Stuyvesant High School.

These schools were academically competitive with the best private preparatory schools. They admitted students whose elementary school grades qualified them to take an entrance examination. Successful academic work at any one of these virtually assured acceptance to most colleges and universities in the United States.

God only knows how many parents received guidance for their children during the years of Miss Bosman's career as a teacher. Because of her, countless children of immigrants attended the best public high schools of New York City and went on to college and to professional schools and careers. I hope Miss Bosman realized that she was appreciated.

Greek Lessons

Most children of Greek immigrants attended Greek language classes at their church. Nitsa and I had Kyria Ioanna (Madame Johanna).

I remember almost nothing about the woman that came to our home every week to give us an hour or two of private Greek lessons. Kyria Ioanna, who may have been a teacher in Greece, was quiet and gentle as she taught us. She had a son about whom she talked with Mom, who always had coffee, pastry, and a visit with her after our session.

Poor Kyria Ioanna was frustrated with me. Several times she grabbed me by the shirt or arm as I tried to escape through the front door to avoid the hour. Nitsa, on the other hand, was a great student. Her lesson book was filled with A's. Not mine.


Until I was five or six, Santa Claus was real and he brought Christmas to our home on Christmas Eve while Nitsa and I slept. Of course, she knew the truth before I did but kept the secret.

Mom and Dad would wait until I had fallen to sleep and then bring in the tree, set it in our second floor parlor, decorate it, and pile presents beneath it. When I awoke Christmas morning, everything was in place.

There were rules to follow. Before any presents could be opened Nitsa and I had to wash our faces and comb our hair, and drink a glass of orange juice. Our first present was a sock that contained an orange and five or six wrapped pieces of coal. The latter represented the naughty things we had done during the past year.

When I was able, the job of setting up the Christmas tree became mine. Nitsa would help, but I did the heavy work. Then, she and I would decorate the tree often inviting friends to help us. It became an annual event, a tree decorating party. The magic was still there for me. I remember waking before dawn, and in the darkness, staring at the tree from my bed in the next room. I was able to make out the ornaments by the glow of the streetlights and passed the endless time until dawn by counting them. There were favorite ornaments that I could identify if I tried hard enough.

There was only one Christmas Day in my first nineteen years that we did not spend at home. It was during the Second World War, in 1944. My godparents and Uncle Louie invited us to their apartment on the upper West Side for Christmas dinner. A beautifully decorated tree graced the living room. It stood before the fireplace, next to a grand piano. The dinner table was elegant, decorated with sprays of pine, red candles and ribbons, and little red sleigh placeholders with Santa Clauses. These we took home with us. I remember one topic of conversation. The adults complained about a young singer who had performed at the Paramount Theater during the past year. A threat to decent society, he made fools out of teenage girls. His name? Frank Sinatra.

Stuffed pickled cabbage leaves (sauerkraut), a traditional Macedonian and Thracian dish called sarmades followed. The cabbage came from the pickling crocks in our basement. If none were available, Mom used fresh cabbage and cooked the sarmades in a bed of store-bought sauerkraut. Turkey with a bay leaf, cumin, cinnamon, and allspice-seasoned stuffing of ground meat, bread, onions, pignoli nuts, chestnuts, parsley, and currant raisins was one of the main courses, as was a Virginia ham or roast suckling pig. Serving dishes of sweet potato, rice (pilaf), Brussels sprouts, and cranberry sauce covered the table.

Nuts, cheese and fruit followed the meal. Later, Mom would serve coffee (Greek and regular) and dessert. Dad usually had made kadaifi, a version of baklava made with shredded wheat-like dough, and a candy, soutzouki, made from Muscat grape juice. If he had not already done so at Thanksgiving, Dad might open a crock of brandied fruit that he had carefully prepared beginning in August. He layered one fruit on top of another as each came in season, preserving all in a bath of Metaxa, a Greek brandy.

Making of soutzouki was complicated. Dad boiled Muscat grape juice with very clean oak ash until the juice thickened. The ash, whose thickening properties are a mystery, came from Carelas' farm. On a hunting weekend, Dad burned oak in a clean fireplace, allowed the embers to die out overnight, and bagged the ash to take home.

The thickened juice was filtered through several layers of cheesecloth until it ran clear, then returned to the fire to boil again. When he thought the mixture was ready Dad had us dip necklaces of half walnuts that had been strung on long pieces of cotton thread into the viscous liquid, time and again, until layers of the thickened grape juice gradually adhered to the nuts and formed a sausage-like roll covering them. When they were about one inch in diameter, he dusted the rolls with powdered sugar and cut them into half-inch pieces. Delicious!

In 1943, at the height of the War, several of our family's young men were home on leave from the Army. Tom Papanas, Diamond Papadiskos, Elias Demitriades, Anesti and Jim Zelios, and others were with us on Christmas Day. The house was packed and Mom, wanting the young men to enjoy themselves, made telephone calls to every Greek home with a daughter in Bay Ridge. By seven in the evening, our parlor on the second floor was converted into a dance floor with a Christmas tree at its head, and filled with young men and women. The party went on for hours. I remember how happy my mother was to provide a good time for these young men, all of whom returned at the end of the War.

There were many Sundays during the War that Mom collected soldiers and sailors at the back of the church and brought them home for a family dinner.

New Year's Eve and Day

When Nitsa and I were very young, we would have a babysitter on New Year's Eve. Mom and Dad would meet my godparents, Bill and Rose Rusuli, and Rose's brother, Louie Dimitroff, who was accompanied by one of his girlfriends, at the Astor Hotel for the celebration. Dinner and dancing at the rooftop, horseshoe ballroom of the Astor would be followed by a three-in-the-morning breakfast at Toffenetti's across from the Astor on Times Square, or perhaps at an open Child's or Schraft's. Schraft's, incidentally, had a chain of small restaurants that offered wonderful ice cream sundaes.

We were trained to be very quiet when we woke on New Year's morning. Under our beds we would find New Year's hats, noisemakers, confetti, and streamers brought from the hotel ballroom. I waited as long as my patience held out before making tentative use of the rattles and whistles. Nitsa would scowl at me. She was far too sophisticated for the toys that amused me.

The first time we were allowed to stay at home alone on New Year's Eve, Nitsa was probably twelve and I, nine. We decided to make chocolate chip cookies. I do not remember helping very much, but I do remember eating tablespoons full of the uncooked dough and the upset stomach that followed. Nitsa reported my condition to our parents when they called just before midnight. Unalarmed, Mom told Nitsa to put me to bed.

The following year, Mom and Dad took Nitsa and me with them on New Year's Eve. My godparents, Nouno Bill and Nouna Rose were there. For some reason, Uncle Louie was not with us. I remember only the incredible size of the room, the bright lights, the band, and a beautiful blond vocalist. Nouno saw that I was taken by her. At some point after dinner he left the table returning a little while later with the young lady in tow. She asked me to dance with her. I was completely flustered, not a clear thought in my head. But, I danced; I danced with Bette Hutton who would a year or two later begin a Hollywood career capped by her performance as Annie, in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun.

New Year's Day was very special. It started mid-morning with Happy New Year hugs and kisses at the kitchen table in the middle of which was a beautiful golden-brown, round loaf of Vasilopita (St. Basil's Bread). An annual gift from Thea Anastasia, it was fragrant with the smell of mahlepi, the ground kernel of the wild cherry tree. Hidden in it was a silver coin, which was believed to bring St. Basil's blessing to the lucky person who found it in their slice of the loaf.(5)

Dad made the sign of the cross three times over the bread before he cut it into wedges: the first piece, for our home, the second for himself, the third for Mom, the fourth for Nitsa, the fifth for me, and what remained, for all the people in the world. The coin was placed in a small glass with wine, and set by the icon and its lamp in our home. When the little glass contained three or four years worth of coins, Mom would wash them and take them to church, where she deposited them in the tray for the poor.

Mom usually made scrambled eggs with feta cheese on New Year's morning, and served a platter of homemade loukanika, a sausage that she had made in the early fall and hung to dry and cure in our basement. Buttered, toasted slices of the Vasilopita, with orange-amber quince preserves spooned on them, accompanied the eggs and sausage.

After our late brunch, we bathed, and dressed in our best. In the early afternoon, Dad went to the Greek florist on Sixty-ninth Street, just up from Third Avenue, and then walked back across Third Avenue to get our car from the garage. Boxed and under his arm would be two dozen, long-stemmed red roses that he had ordered days before.

When we were all in the car, we began the drive to our destination: 157th Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan. During the Second World War, when Dad refused to own an automobile and use precious gasoline needed by the military, we made the long trip by subway.

Dad drove from Bay Ridge to downtown Brooklyn and, pre-war, over the Brooklyn Bridge. After the war, he used the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to reach the elevated West Side Highway, the elevated highway from the Battery to Fifty-seventh Street, which is now long gone.

New Year's Day 1946 was particularly grim. Dark, heavy clouds threatened to add more inches of snow on top of that already on the ground. We had a 1930s vintage LaSalle that Dad bought just after the war ended, before he bought a new 1946 Hudson from Papou Perna's relatives in Little Falls. The heating system in the La Salle was nearly non-existent. Nitsa and I were bundled in blankets in the back seat.

Dad drove the plowed city streets that day. Broadway, which north of Columbus Circle was lined with small shops, had very few pedestrians. Automobiles on the side streets and even on Broadway were buried under snow banks made by the city's plows. Decorations and blinking lights in store windows seemed gaudy and shabby in the grey light of a post-Christmas, snowy winter afternoon.

When we arrived at the building where my godparents and Uncle Louie lived, a doorman in formal dress opened the front door for my mother. She, Nitsa, and I went into the building's lobby while Dad drove the car to a nearby garage where Uncle Louie kept his Buick. Arrangements had been made for Dad to leave his car there for the afternoon.

The lobby had a tiled floor, with wide red carpet that was easily one hundred feet long and led from the front door to the three elevators that served the building. French doors to one side of the lobby opened onto a small garden that was deep in snow, and on the other side to a walkway that led towards Riverside Drive. We waited for Dad in a lounge close to the elevators where a Christmas tree twinkled and a crackling fireplace warmed our hands, faces, and spirits. The elevator operators greeted my mother as we waited, and made comments about how Nitsa and I had grown.

When Dad arrived, roses in hand, the doorman announced our arrival to my godparents by phone, and we entered an elevator for the ride to the twelfth floor. As Nouno answered the doorbell, Nitsa and I broke into our song: Aios Vasilis Airhaitai ("Saint Basil is Coming"), the hymn for St. Basil. It was Nouno's name day, which he celebrated every year with a New Year's Day open house.

Pascha (Easter)

Pascha culminated the forty days of spiritual and physical preparation undertaken during the Great Lent. The forty days were meatless in our household. We did not suffer much as there were abundant cheese, egg, fish, and bean and pasta dishes to enjoy. However, abstention from meat made us continually aware that we were in a period of religious observance.

Palm Sunday initiated Megali Evthomadtha, the Great Week of Lent commonly known as Holy Week. We participated in the traditional religious services, activities, and celebrations that made the most important religious holiday in the year so special.

One of the difficulties we faced was the fact that the Greek Orthodox dates for Easter and those of the western Christian churches coincided only three times in a ten-year cycle. In seven of the years, the Greek Orthodox Easter might be celebrated as many as five weeks after the western Easter.

In any event, we frequently found ourselves carrying palms on the day that the rest of the country was celebrating Easter, or celebrating Easter weeks after the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue was history.

If our Palm Sunday was not Easter for the rest of the country, we returned home from church or went to a seafood restaurant for a traditional fish dinner. This was the last day in Lent that we were allowed to eat seafood (meat was already disallowed).

If our Palm Sunday were Easter for the rest of the country, we would proceed from church to Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to walk in the Easter Parade. We often met my godparents and Uncle Louie at Rockefeller Center. We enjoyed the display of lilies, and Mom, Nouna, and Nitsa took in the latest fashions. Often, there were outlandishly dressed women, some with deer, small lions, or other exotic animals in tow. Leashed and out of their element, I suspect the poor creatures were in shock as they were dragged through the crowds.

One "American" Easter, Uncle Louie suggested that we go from Fifth Avenue over to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue for brunch. The lobby of the hotel had been turned into a great dining room filled with lilies. At one side of the vast space, an elevated stage held a chorus and orchestra that performed seasonal music.

When we arrived, the Maitre d' told Uncle Louie that all the tables were reserved. I saw a green twenty dollar bill pass gracefully from Uncle Louie's hand into that of the Maitre d', and out of nowhere there appeared men who carried a table and chairs to the front and center of the space below the stage. The Maitre d'' uttered profuse apologies for having "misplaced" Mr. Dimitroff's reservation.

Orthodox services presented the liturgical drama of Jesus' last days every evening of Holy Week: His betrayal, trial, execution, burial, and resurrection. We attended Saints Constantine and Helen parish on Brooklyn's Schermerhorn Street, where Dad had served on the Parish Board at the time the congregation first formed. It was small and dark, had low ceilings, and lacked adequate ventilation. So, for a child whose face came only to the waist level of most worshippers, the services were uncomfortably hot, and the air stifling, thick with the smoke of candles and the scent of incense.

There was a crush of worshippers at the Holy Week services. I was mesmerized by the candles, glimmering icons, shining red oil lamps, incense, and chants of the priest and his psaltis. On Holy Thursday morning, we went to church together as a family to receive holy unction and communion. Having fasted in preparation for communion, Dad took us to a cafe for breakfast after the service, before he went to work and we returned to Bay Ridge and our school day. I always enjoyed these special family breakfasts.

After school, we helped Mom dye Easter eggs, a task traditionally performed on Holy Thursday. Thea Anastasia made the sweet, chalah-like bread, Lambropsomo, for us with red eggs embedded in its sesame seed-covered crust. Lambropsomo is translated literally as 'bread of light."

The service on Good Friday evening is a service of lamentation, first for the death of Jesus and second for our personal failings. Its centerpiece is a flower-covered representation of Jesus' tomb, the epitaphion. I remember craning my neck to be sure that fragrant rose scented water sprinkled on me as the priest processed through the church flicking the silver vessel, the randistirion, to bless the worshippers with holy water. Even as a child, I was moved by the emotion conveyed in the service and its music. We were given flowers from the epitaphion to take home to place at our candle-lit icons.

Finally it was Saturday, Easter eve. While we had fasted throughout Lent, a stricter fast began on Holy Thursday. We ate only plain vegetables and grains (without any oil or animal fats), and slices of halvah, a sweet, solid cake of ground sesame seeds. By now, our refrigerator contained a spring lamb, lamb heads, organ meats, and all the makings of a feast.

On Saturday, Mom began preparation of the traditional soup, mageritsa, by boiling lamb heads, neck, liver, and lungs in a great pot (unlike most Greek cooks, she did not use lamb tripe). Later, she would strain the broth, cut the meat into small pieces, and add rice. Just before serving the soup, she made the avgolemeno (egg-lemon mixture) and added it to the soup with fresh minced dill and parsley.

She also minced lamb organ meats, including kidneys, browned them in butter and fat taken from the lining of the lamb's stomach, and mixed the meat with onion, parsley, cumin, allspice, bay leaves, and cinnamon. Once well browned, she put the mixture into a pan that was lined with net-like fatty tissue from the lamb's stomach. Covered like a pie with the same tissue, it was baked until brown and crispy. This was a version of kokoretsi, a delicacy of spiced organ meats that villagers formed into an intestine-wrapped roll and barbecued over hot coals as an appetizer.

I could not wait for Easter Day.

On Easter eve, we ate a simple, early dinner. By 6:30 we were put to bed to nap until 9:00, when Mom got us up. Nitsa and I washed our faces and hands, brushed our hair, and dressed into our best clothing. Just before 10:00 we left Brooklyn in our car with the radio set to the Chicago Theater of the Air, a program that featured great lyric operettas like "The Vagabond King," "No, No, Nanette," and "The Merry Widow". It was one of my father's favorite radio shows. It was sponsored by The Chicago Tribune whose editor, Col. Robert R. McCormick, provided long, unmemorable commentaries between the acts. We would listen as Dad drove us to East Seventy-fourth Street in Manhattan and sought out a parking place close to Holy Trinity Cathedral. We arrived early and close to the front of the church to hear all of the Odes of Lamentation.

By midnight the cathedral was filled. Prominent Greek diplomats and socialites sat in a special section in front of the iconostasion, on either side of the Royal Gate that opened to the altar. Latecomers stood, packed in the aisles.

I remember especially a Greek Air Force officer who attended services for several years. Probably attached to the United Nations or the Greek Consulate, he wore a beautiful blue-gray uniform with many decorations. He was somehow handsome and the epitome of dignity and grace in spite of a terribly disfigured face. It was covered with scar tissue, perhaps the result of severe burns. For reasons that I did not consciously understand, I felt a bond with this man and wished to know him.

At midnight, the cathedral's lights were extinguished and we sat in complete darkness. In a minute or two there was a flicker of light from behind the iconostasion, then another. The Archbishop came forth from the Great Gate and sang (in Greek):

Come ye and receive the light from the unwaning life. Glorify Christ, who arose from the dead.

Soon after, he announced: "Christos Anesti!" and the congregation fervently responded "Alithos Anesti!" (Christ is risen! ~ Truly He is risen!). The faithful followed the Archbishop and the priests into the street where the service continued and an enthusiastic congregation sang the triumphant, stirring, resurrection hymn "Christos Anesti" (Christ is Risen) countless times. Many onlookers watched the service from open windows of the apartment houses that lined East Seventy-fourth Street.

While outside, we met my godparents and Uncle Louie to declare, "Christos Anesti!" and to perform the Easter egg ritual. One participant holds a hard-boiled, red-dyed Easter egg in hand, while the other strikes it with his or her own egg (point to point, rounded end to rounded end). The person with the strongest egg, the one that does not crack, wins "good fortune."

Because of my mother's heart condition and her need to be up early the next morning to prepare the Easter feast for the family and its guests, we did not go back into the cathedral for the liturgy which lasted until after 2:30 in the morning. Had circumstances been otherwise, Dad would very much have liked to stay, as we had before Mom's illness.

We carried our lit candles home in the car to the amazement of passengers in other cars and pedestrians who saw us. When we arrived at our front door, we made the sign of the cross at its top and went in to the kitchen to break our fast with a bowl of hot Mageritsa. Exhausted, we went to bed.

On Pascha, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends arrived early in the afternoon. Mom was in her glory, serving a magnificent dinner. Once I asked why we could not have Patsa (the Christmas soup) and Mageritsa year round. Mom said simply: "You would not enjoy them nearly so much if you had them every day. They are special, for special times." She was right.

Note from PAHH


[Skip theNotes]

  1. Must is the juice, pulp, and skins of the crushed grape. [Return to the text at note 1.]
  1. As mentioned earlier (in Part 1, Chapter 3), mahlepi is the kernel of the pit of the native Persian Cherry Tree. It is ground into a fine powder to flavor and make aromatic traditional holiday breads: especially Vasilopita. [Return to the text at note 2.]
  2. A baby is brought to church to be blessed and consecrated to God. A female child is brought to the Royal Door of the iconostasion while a male child is carried into the sanctuary and around the altar. [Return to the text at note 3.]
  1. In March 2000, I purchased a good copy of Stratosphere Jim and his Flying Fortress copyrighted in 1941, from a used bookstore in Tyler, Texas. The authors' names are Oscar Lebeck and Gaylord Dubois. The book has a proud place in my library. [Return to the text at note 4.]
  2. St. Basil was born in Cappadocia (west-central Asia Minor) about the time that Constantine the Great founded Constantinople (326 A.D.). A brilliant scholar and philosopher, he was ordained and eventually became a bishop. He is revered as one of the most distinguished leaders of the early church, and for his love and work for the poor and sick. [Return to the text at note 5.]

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