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My father reached for the key, the door frozen with decay; he turned to his wife, "Where is the key?" He stared at the paint flaked door, warped from year's of neglect. Looking up toward the house his eyes searched its haunted balcony. Rising from somewhere deep within him, he cried, "Mother!" I watched with dismay to see my father melt before my eyes to a child, a child returning from a day's romp, not a grown man of fifty-nine returning to his childhood home for the first time in thirty-seven years. Could he believe that his mother would appear after all of these years to welcome him? I was not prepared to see him so vulnerable, so lost. What hold did this place have on him?
Confused and in obvious distress, he gave the latch a final shove, and the door slowly creaked open. His emotions seemed to overpower him, he slowly buckled to the ground, kneeling, he bent forward and kissed the earth whispering, "Home, I am home, I have come back to you at last."
The village had not changed and then again it had subtly made an unintended transition into the twentieth century, without him. There were now automobiles speeding to Sparta. Electricity had arrived in the early sixties, and the village boasted modern plumbing and sewage lines. Every home, now had a phone, however the corner grocery, where plans had been made for him to leave his home for Canada, still did a brisk business, its dusty shelves stocked with recognizable brand names, Tide, Windex, and Ivory soap.
Everyone seemed to be a cousin or a long lost relative; our faces were pasted with acknowledging smiles, as we were kissed on both cheeks by withered pruned faced black clad women, toothlessly sharing memories of my father in rapid Greek.
Strangers seemed to appear from nowhere, and they guided us through the property hidden behind the gate. The neglect was evident, rotting wood, a sagging balcony, stood in stark contrast to the heavily laden lemon and orange trees still thriving in the house's garden. My father looked away from the house and reached up to pluck a ripe orange from its branches.
He continued up the stairs, as if fortified by the fruit, and entered the dark musty interior. The living quarters had long been stripped of any furniture, victim to the wars that had ravaged the countryside. All that remained was an antique iron resting on the blackened hearth. He gently picked it up, this last remnant of his childhood, and turned to my sister and me "Your yiayia had to fill this with embers from the fire to iron my shirts." His hands mimicked the methodical motion of the iron on the invisible board, carefully loosening the wrinkles of some imaginary fabric. Tiring, he handed the iron to my mother and moved to the bedroom. The floor creaked loudly under our weight, my sister and I glanced suspiciously at each other, wondering if the wooden slats would withstand our intrusion on their dreary repose. My father peered at the doorway and joyously spied a remaining piece of evidence of the family he so cherished, the ceremonial wedding crowns, now darkened with age, of my grandparents.
My father left them untouched, as if not wanting to wrench them from their perch as protectors of the memories of those that had filled this home with joy and sadness. He turned slowly closing the door behind him, retreating down the stairs and into the garden. Suddenly the spell seemed broken as we entered the sun baked courtyard. We were able to explore and move freely through the garden. It was just a house, in a small village, with an overgrown garden and yet I can remember it as clearly today as on that day so many years ago.
One rarely recognizes a life altering milestone as it is occurring, only in retrospect does it gain its strength, recurring in your mind, changing your view, your direction, if only slightly at first, then immeasurably as it gains momentum. This visit had made its impression on me and it would follow me, haunting me with my first understanding of loss, family and reverence to a country so faraway from what I had come to know as home.
So you see as we gathered today at our annual Laconian luncheon at St. George Bloomfield, my thoughts were filled with the people left behind in the villages of Sparta, family and friends from this long forgotten event. My father now much older and grayer, one of the remaining patriarchs, is greeted warmly, "George, it's Madeline, Ville's daughter."
This is our fifth luncheon organized by Chairman, George Farmakis, the guardian of the past. His committee, Tula & George Psaros, Madeline Ventzel, Harriet Hanzakos, Athena Hanzakos, and Penny Mavromihalis Voudoukis. As we enter the hall, a video is being projected depicting scenes from the beloved homeland. Guests include: Pat and Alex Demos, George and Ann Koutsopoulos, Helene Mackris, Dr. Ignatios and Penny Voudoukis, Dr. Vlahakis, Calliope Allen, Marge Lazarou, Frank Varlamos, Mary Lazaris, George and Athena Hanzakos, Elena Kerasiotis, Christ Lagos, Georgia Souphis, George and Cleo Passvant, the Fuente Family, Helen Kappas, and Pat Addatta.
Conversation fills the room, each one eagerly sharing with the other news of family and home. "How were the grandchildren?" "How was your summer?" All connected by the memory of a home coming, for you see it's no longer about the location; home is now only alive in the people and their memories.
My complements to the organizers, may we share many more homecomings in the future.