Eva and I recently attended a presentation of art at Stockholm University which featured a film of the artist’s experience in a village on the Greek island of Samos in the early 1990s. Upon our early entrance to the small auditorium, a man with vivid black hair looked at me and loudly exclaimed something like: “I see a Greek has arrived.”
I don’t go around thinking of myself as Greek, although I easily indentify myself with this ethnicity. Three of my grandparents were born in Greece. The fourth was born in the USA of mixed northern European heritage—Dutch and “Scotch-Irish”, by family names. My sister and I were not raised in the Greek tradition or culture.
I was slightly nonplussed but pleased by this surprising greeting, after which the man and I warmly shook hands. As usual when among Greeks, I had to explain that I never learned the language except to say kala, efcharisto (good, thank you) to the standard greeting ti kaneis (how are you), which is disappointing to the Greeks I meet, whether citizens of Greece or ethnic Greeks from elsewhere.
The man, whose name was given too quickly for me to catch, is the husband of the artist with whom I exchanged greetings immediately thereafter. She is American with a German surname, and a professor of art at UCLA. We swapped cards and have since communicated briefly by email.
The greeting this Greek fellow gave me has stayed with me in a pleasant way, now several weeks since. This feeling and associated thoughts wandered around in me and finally settled on another event, long past, when I was proclaimed “Greek” at the funeral of my Aunt Bee’s husband, my Uncle Tommy.
The parents of Thomas Anthony Thomas were from Greece and had four children born in California. His father’s family surname was Efthemiou; his mother’s was Andritsas.
Tommy Thomas and Beatrice Pagonis married in the mid-1940s. Uncle Tommy became a mentor to me, as he was to others. He was a short and powerful man who, with an 8th-grade education, rose from worker to foreman and eventually partner in the main business, then, of Newport Beach, the fish cannery. It is now “The Cannery” restaurant.
Tommy was brash, generous, argumentative, loving. He was full of life and good, if biting, humor. He was always a challenge to talk with and to satisfy. I loved him and still do. He was the first of the older generation to die.
When I was not yet nine years old Uncle Tommy took me on a tour of the fish cannery. I saw the boats come in and saw the fishermen unloading the tuna, swordfish, crab and other catches, but mostly the tuna.
I listened as Tommy bantered with the fishermen, immigrants from all over southern Europe: Greeks, Italians, Portuguese, Jugoslavs. The comaraderie among these hard-working men was different and more exciting than that of my father and his friends in the Socialist Labor Party of San Francisco.
In all the back-and-forth between Tommy and the others, Tommy was the benevolent leader.
Around twenty-five years later I was living and working in the Los Angeles area and could visit Tommy and Bee more often. By this time the tuna had almost disappeared from California’s waters and the cannery was reduced to canning pet food. Despite Tommy’s deep disappointment in not being able to successfully lobby the state legislature to limit the catches as is now done in Alaska, and in no longer being able to be a man among other men in the fishing business, he continued to be as cheerful as he could be. But I could see that it was a great burden to carry the old times with him and radiate these to the others who were similarly disappointed, even wrecked, from the collapse of the local fishing industry.
He told me of the fishermen with whom he maintained connection. One in particular stands out in my memory, one who Tommy pointed out to me as we were together in town doing some errands. The old fisherman walked with a cane. He lived alone, so Tommy checked up on him every few days to see how he was. One time Tommy was overdue on his self-appointed rounds and found the old man collapsed on his kitchen floor. Tommy got him to the hospital where he recovered. Tommy simply saved the man’s life.
Not long after this telling, Tommy had a massive stroke and was dead within a year. The formerly powerful and dependable man was now a helpless mumbling person, bed-ridden and fully dependent on everyone else. His face was contorted, one half of it fully immobilized from the stroke, as was half his body. It was horrible.
Tommy was a 33rd-degree Mason and wanted his funeral according the rites of this fraternity. He also had roots in the Greek Orthodox Church. Aunt Bee asked a Greek priest to be present with the family at the rites.
The funeral ceremony was held in large building (I think it may have been the Masonic Lodge in Huntington Beach) where the general public was admitted, but the family was off to the side in a covered area where we could see out and not be seen. We saw Tommy’s many friends and former associates pass by his closed coffin to pay last respects. As I watched this sad and solemn procession, I was electrified to see the old man whose life Tommy had saved. He was, with the help of his cane, walking stiffly and straight as a soldier, slowly toward Tommy’s coffin. He was dressed in a sharp gray suit and held a flower. As he laid the flower on Tommy’s coffin I burst into tears and uttered a loud noise that I tried unsuccessfully to quash—thus making it all the more strange sounding. I was the only one in our family gathering, including the priest, who was crying, as far as I could tell, and I was embarrassed.
Aunt Bee had a reception at her house afterward. It was crowded and noisy, old friends greeting and socializing. I held back, not familiar with everyone and still somewhat embarrassed. The priest came over to me, grabbed my arm tightly and said to me: “you’re a real Greek.”