Anthropology of Countryside: My Aunt.

 

The kitchen table was large, so that the space around it was narrow and people had to squeeze in. It was set in an alcove, part of which was a low kitchen counter so that Aunt Ellen could practice her culinary arts, which as the eldest sister in a Greek family she did with great art and generosity, while the family sat nearby. Her chair was accessible, and after a bout of shifting, pots, adding ingredients, ascertaining the progress of whatever viande was on the menu and washing up a bit, she would move over to the table and and join the group. There was always coffee and cookies. My mother did not believe in cookies, and when we did have sweets we had a very different ritual for devouring them, but Ellen had an unending supply of morsels that were passed around the table which kept the conversation going. At Christmas she made kourambiethes and tiny sweets in little foil cups of deep red and green candied fruits and glazed nuts. And of course, she always paid a special little bit of attention to me when she offered the cookie.

Despite my love for her, she was surly, perhaps moody. She had a personality, completely strange to me, as an only child, tailored for communicating with and keeping in order a large demanding family. Various people would appear at the table, Uncle Tom's nieces from Ohio, Aunt Jane whose topic of conversation was her divorce, a tragic thing in the fifties, and treated as such, Aunt Marie my gay aunt from California, Ellen's kids, Bobby, Larry, Peter and Kathy and many others. People changed as the years and events--holidays, funerals, graduations--went by, as did their status at the table. Uncle Tom, an Italian Catholic, did not sit at the table once dinner was over.

Deborah Tannen the popular linguist has an interesting analysis of Greek families: she says that they keep conversation going by setting up arguments. There was a strange aura around the table of acceptance--after all, you were at the table with your coffee and cookie --and conflict. Nothing that you said would be taken for granted, all of your observations would be open for refutation. And of course, the whole set up was rife with rivalries of one kind and another. For instance Auntie Annette, my mother's brother George's wife, lived next door, but almost never visited. I believe Ellen had to go there, and I think it might have something to do with food, she too, was a superb cook.

As the years went by things piled up on a shelves behind and to the side and front of the table. Gifts, empty vases, books, board games. I used to stare at these things, and at the green walls and the window with a curtain that was another shade of green.

My mother and father went through rough seas, they fought each other, they were strong complex people each with a formidable unhealing wound which only deepened in their contest. My mother would take me up to Ellen's--it was maybe three blocks away up a hill, in a state of rage. I liked going down the hill, because it was relatively steep on its west side, perhaps before the road was built it was like a bluff. I will never forget those walks. Children can't give up loving their parents when they are acting out. In those days there was no cure for it, now we can go and learn how to redirect our energies and negotiate with or at least actively make choices to accept the people we love. Before the armies of therapists and grief councilors and shrinks descended on the land in the seventies people only had the old ethnic patterns which were being twisted by the new culture, so that they fit badly, they bound and constrained, they caused marks and, as my mother used to say, cut off our circulation. We would get down the hill, set up with coffee and cookies, and then my mother would get into an argument with Aunt Ellen. "Connie," she would say. Most of the time it all worked out, a few times my mother stormed out, pulling me with her. Perhaps that is where I first began to need attention.

Before my mother and father's lives fell apart, or the pressures from the outside world (another of my mother's concepts) crushed their dreams, my father went hunting with my mother's father and brothers. They used to bring the game, mourning doves, squirrels and rabbits to Ellen's and everyone worked at cleaning and preparing the meat and then the women in the family cooked it. The subsequent feast was incredibly festive, the food was incomparable. The warmth and aromas alone were nourishing. They cooked the doves in a kind of sauce seasoned with hard Greek cheese called kefalotyri. There were olives, not the aristocratic kalamatas, but the fat puffy round ones and other tidbits, like pine nuts. The children waltzed around collecting the tiny breastbones of the doves and lining them up along their fingers. Much, I suppose the way the children in ancient and rural Greece would prize and play with the knucklebones of the sheep --the original dice for backgammon according to my classical archeology professor. Everyone was happy.

Another unsettling mystery graced Aunt Ellen's house. My mother was sure that someone had given Ellen, the eldest sister a trunk with her mother's things from Greece in it. And in the trunk were necklaces called lavalieres for all the girls. My grandmother Marina had died when my mother was five, so there was a huge sense of loss connected with her. Ellen kept saying “no Connie this trunk got lost when …” or something, and they would argue about this. I think I actually went into the basement to look for it. And you couldn't go into the basement--at my house you could go anywhere you wanted, so I though t it was strange that I couldn't wander around in the basement. This means that there was a clandestine element to the search. My mother never gave it up. I would sit at my place even when I was older and had coffee, and stare at the door to the basement. Years later, I was at the Hellenic museum and I saw examples of the trunks that women brought over from Greece. In these trunks were the native costumes from the village that the woman would have come from along with other linens. But the really important thing was that the costumes were embroidered with a pattern specific to each village and or clan. A pattern of identity, possibly thousands of years old, like DNA which would have symbolized an irreplaceable link with the past. How I should have liked to laid eyes on this, on the handiwork of my lost ancestors. but there was just the door to the basement leading into a suburban Hades, a terrain of oblivion, just beyond the conviviality of the kitchen.

Somewhere around 2004 or so, perhaps earlier, Ellen moved to a condo. Her house was torn down during the housing bubble. My heart stops when I think of the Catalpas out front (although we have one that was a shoot from their trees) and the remnants of the grape arbor where my maternal Grandfather Nick used to sit. I can still walk up to that back door and knock. Even though I live in the same neighborhood, and still sometimes ride my bike up the hill, I would never go down the street, Forestview Avenue, where the house once stood.

 

- Janina Ciezadlo