Four Dishes and a Thanksgiving: November 23, 1961

I had been in the United States only twelve weeks when I experienced my first, and most quintessentially American holiday: Thanksgiving.  My father, Kosmas, my mother, Eleni, my older sister, Frederiki, and I immigrated to the United States from Kastoria, and arrived in New York on the first of September 1961, when I was three.  In late August, we had left Kastoria, sent off by a throng of tearful relatives, friends, and neighbors.  A five-hour-long bus ride on a largely mountain “highway”—in a reality a narrow, perilous, dusty, ancient road—delivered us to Thessaloniki.  From there, we trained across the Greek border into Yugoslavia. 

My parents had planned this circuitous route to America so that my father could see his nephew, my first cousin, Christos.  Christo had no recollection of my father.  The last time they had seen each other was in 1948, during the Greek civil war, when my father was a soldier in the Greek national army and shortly before Christo, who was not yet five, was forcibly abducted from his mother’s village by Communist guerrillas and sent to an indoctrination camp behind the Iron Curtain, as were thousands of other Greek children during the notorious paidomazoma.  My father’s middle brother, Alexandros, whose name I carry, had been executed, murdered by Communist insurgents well before Christos’ abduction. 

The four of us—my father, mother, sister, and I—disembarked from the train at Skopje station.  My father had 45 minutes, before our train departed again, to wipe away 13 years of separation.  Somehow, they found each other on the train station platform.  My 36-year old father—a survivor of the Nazi occupation, decorated combat veteran, a strong resolute man—and his teenage nephew—a beautiful, sensitive looking boy, the son of my murdered uncle—embraced each other, stared into each other’s faces, and wept uncontrollably.  My mother, sister, and I watched them both as they shared a plate of fasoulada and some bread.  They ate with two spoons out of the same bowl and drank wine out of the same cup that my cousin had brought to the station.

It took several days for our train to pass through Yugoslavia, Austria, and West Germany before we arrived in Belgium.  One day later, we left Brussels aboard a Sabena Airlines flight bound for New York.  One of my father’s cousins was a former Greek air force officer who worked for Belgium’s national airline, thus our ticketing and departure from Brussels. 

This was the first time any of us had been in an airplane, not counting the times my father had jumped out of them during his wartime paratrooper/commando training.  My mother fortified us for the long flight that lay ahead by bringing on board two enormous loaves of bread, salami, olives, and cheese.  She was stunned when the plane’s stewards served us meals, which she could not identify and which she was unwilling to taste.  My mother was incensed when the customs’ officials at New York’s Idlewild Airport (now JFK) seized the cache of food she had carefully held on to for us across Europe and over the Atlantic.  As we shuffled past the customs gate, my father went ahead, looking for our bus connection to the Port Authority in Manhattan.   My mother and sister left me standing next to our gigantic trunk in the middle of the terminal space to wait for them as they went in search of a restroom.  In a split second, a man selling small brown bags of hot peanuts from a stand across from us, shouted in Greek to my mother: “My Madame, where are you going?  Don’t leave your boy alone here, not even for a moment.  You’re not in Greece.  This isn’t the village.  People here steal children!”  My mother recoiled in horror, fear, and embarrassment.  She held my sister and me tight to her as strangers hurried past us.  Seconds later, my father returned.  My mother turned to him and said in a voice I had never heard her speak in before: “Where have you brought us?” 

One day later, after leaving New York and crossing New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio on a cramped Greyhound bus, we arrived in Fort Wayne, Indiana—our destination.  Waiting for us at the bus station was the reason we were in Fort Wayne—my Uncle George, Theio Yiorgo.  Because my uncle had been made an internal refugee by the Greek civil war, he was able to immigrate in 1950 under the Displaced Persons Law, which circumvented the very small quota permitted for Greek immigration to the US since the mid-1920s.  He landed in Fort Wayne because it was there that that his official immigration sponsor, a second cousin who had come to America before the First World War, had settled and still resided.  Along this chain of migration, my father had followed my Theio Yiorgo and his family—my aunt, Theia Eleni, and my cousins Niki, Alexandra (Sandra), and Theodota (Dorothy) to Fort Wayne—an industrial city in the northeast corner of Indiana, equidistant between Chicago and Detroit. 

Soon after we arrived, and over the following several weeks, a seemingly endless succession of gregarious and warm-hearted people came to welcome my parents to the Greek community, anchored in the city’s predominantly working-class Southside district and around the modest, recently established Greek Orthodox parish of Holy Trinity.  As was the custom then among Fort Wayne’s tightknit community of Greeks, new arrivals were helped by earlier arrivals.  Most already established families would gift something small but tangible and practical to each new immigrant family, collectively aiding every new family with some of its basic needs for a new life in a new country.  One family might give drinking glasses or spoons or forks, another might provide plates, towels, or linens, and yet another might give a blanket or an icon.  In turn, once the new families would establish themselves they would contribute to help subsequent arrivals begin their lives in America.

I remember vividly one such gift given to my parents by a Greek-American couple, George and Rubie Mallers: four dishes, one for each one of us in my family.  These were not ordinary dishes.  They were beautiful dinnerware, pieces of white flawless china, bordered in crimson, and ornate, but subtle, 14-carat gold leaf.  George, the community’s rising young leader and an accomplished attorney and businessman, and Rubie, a refined, gentle woman and devoted mother to two sons and a daughter, gave my parents something more than a set of plates when they first met to welcome my parents into the community.  They shared grace with my parents.  They thoughtfully gave my parents something they needed, but they gave it in the form of something beautiful and precious, sharing dignity with my parents.

By October, we were staying in a small community-owned house next to Holy Trinity parish, a kind of transitional residence that many Greek immigrant families would briefly live in until they could find more permanent housing.  On November 23, we visited my Theio Yiorgo’s house for Thanksgiving.  I had no idea what Thanksgiving was and I did not really care.  My sister, who was now a second-grader attending “American school,” labored to explain to my parents the purpose of this strange holiday that was neither religious nor patriotic.  She insisted that it was some kind of American “Oxi Day.”  This meant nothing to me.  As a three-year old, I did not know what “Oxi Day” was.  All I cared about was that a feast awaited us and I would get to spend the day playing with my cousin Dorothy.

My Theia Eleni’s table introduced me to a standard of glorious Greek-American excess that our family gatherings would produce thereafter, holiday after holiday, for decades.  Yes, my first Thanksgiving, my first American holiday, celebrated entirely, as they all would be, with endless amounts of Greek food.  As we prepared to sit down around my Theia’s beautiful table—even the kids’ table sparkled with perfection—my mother produced the four dishes from George and Rubie Mallers in the event that more plates might be needed as the meal progressed. 

There was something about those dishes that I liked very much—they were pretty and pleasing.  I asked if I could have one of the “pretty dishes” for my Thanksgiving meal.  I was, of course, indulged.  My Theia Eleni whisked away her white dish and my mother put in its place a “pretty dish.”  As I gorged on roast turkey, keftedes, kritheraki, patates tou fournou, tiropita, and much more, I was convinced that the “pretty dish” must have somehow enhanced the food.  How else could I explain why everything tasted so much better than it ever had before?  Then and there, I decided that I liked Thanksgiving.

My mother, now 86, suffered a fall this summer that produced a fractured pelvis and an extended stay in rehab.  My wife, daughter, and I returned to Fort Wayne from Boston to be with my mother and to make structural changes to her house to help accommodate her return home.  For years, my mother has been imploring me to empty her cabinets and closets of things she no longer needs and to take them back to Boston.  I had never done so.  This time, I decided to finally appease my mother by promising to take back to Boston at least some dishes from the scores and scores of dishes and plates she has accumulated over the years. 

Going through my mother’s cabinet above her washer-dryer, I came across the four dishes George and Rubie Mallers had gifted to my parents 53 years earlier.  I had not seen them in perhaps more than thirty years.  I had almost forgotten about them.  I carefully held one of the dishes in my hands, and realized that the dish was not simply “pretty”—it was truly beautiful, extraordinarily unique, much like I have come to see and appreciate more and more things in life, as I have grown older.  I thought of the gloriously loud and voracious gatherings of my family at holiday tables in my youth.  Still holding the dish, I laughed with no one around me to hear as I remembered one such Thanksgiving Day feast when my Theia Eleni began to scold my Theio Yiorgo for eating far too much—again—suggesting that he might need to go on a diet.  That conversation and my Theia’s pleas for moderation ended abruptly when my Theio responded: “Woman, I didn’t come to America to go on a diet.  We starved plenty in Greece.  I came here to eat.  Now go bring us some more food.”   My Theio is no longer with us.  My father, too, has also passed.  My Theia Eleni has left us.  Even George and Rubie Mallers have gone on.  I would like to thing that those dishes, which remind me of some of the people and goodness in my life that I give thanks for, will still be here, will still be cherished by my family when I am gone.

When I left Fort Wayne at the end of August, the four dishes were the only things that I brought back to Boston.  Today on Thanksgiving, when my wife, Elizabeth, and our daughter, Sophia, and I sit down to our meal, we will eat from the “pretty dishes.”  I will tell Sophia this story, once again, so that she may share it with her children years from now, when they sit down to give thanks to God, laugh together, and eat from those four dishes.                          

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.