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Profane Feasts

"Aunt Harriet's Odyssey"

Aunt Harriet’s Odyssey

Not counting Odysseus, Alexander the Great, and my Aunt Harriet, Greeks have litt1e heart for wandering. Rather than tear their bodies away from land that is the fiber of their being — a paltry allotment of stony soil, they gave it poetic names, such as the Peloponnesian Peninsula, whitewashed their houses to reflect more light out of the sun, learned to pick the bones of fish clean, and entertained themselves by dramatizing their conditions in marble and song. With this arrangement they remained more or less content until the twentieth century. Squeezed between vanishing natural resources and widening political turmoil, the Hellenics found their parcel of terra firma growing stonier and more constricted all the time, and were forced to accept, at long last, that their greatness as a people had wafted away like golden sand into the aquamarine waters of the Mediterranean. It must’ve been then, around mid-century, that they hit upon the scheme — subconsciously, at very least — of superimposing what was left of their classic ideals on the brash, nouveau culture that had arisen in the west. Better to latch onto an already thriving society, they seemed to be thinking, than to wait another two thousand years for the pendulum of sovereignty to swing back to Greece. Multitudes of Greeks set sail not to Persia to battle the descendents of Darius at sea, but to America for a more subtle tug-of-war at the hot dog carts, hamburger stands, and coffee shops of New York City. My grandmother, carrying the fetus of what was to become Harriet, her daughter Delphinia, and, many months later, my grandfather, were among them.

Once she had set foot on the very edge of the North American continent, my grandmother, respectfully known as Ya-Ya, embraced her own heritage doggedly, feeling no need whatsoever to roam where the buffalo used to roam. Besides, the city had five boroughs to choose from. Toward Staten Island she looked with distaste: It was across the wide, murky mouth of New York Bay, and she’d had enough sea slapping in her ears to last a generation. Manhattan was too vertical, not to mention too crowded with immigrants from other cultures, for her flat consciousness and homogeneous perspective to flourish. The Bronx to the north seemed as far off as The Klondike. And Queens sounded too high and mighty for her humble family. But in Brooklyn she found a ground-floor parlor and bedroom — cheap, where one could step out onto a fifteen-foot square patch of stony, barren earth without being noticed. Just like home! Ya-Ya purchased a packet of morning glory seeds, and in the borrowed shade of branches that reached over from the next, fenced-off yard, as little Delphinia tried and tried to mold mud pies out of that feeble stuff, my grandmother awaited the wonder of bringing new life into the New World. At the time she was also waiting for her husband to join her in America, thereby acknowledging not merely the audacity but the sagacity of her relocation.

The miracle occurred on schedule, but something got reversed in translation. Young Harriet never took to learning Greek, or cultivating marigolds, or heeding her parents. As soon as she was a ripe young creature she ran away from home, embarking on a more or less continuous odyssey back and forth across this broad and, as she learned, diverse country, becoming much too American to contribute to the Greek conspiracy. Some say she had itchy feet all her life because of that transatlantic trip she took, awash in her mother’s womb. But Aunt Harriet has always maintained she traveled in the name of love. With six husbands to her credit or, as most think, discredit, there always seemed to be one man or another to run after — or away from. Too bad she wasn’t satisfied with hopping to Detroit or Chicago, where clusters of the next generation of Greek-Americans had established themselves. Postcards arrived from black heads on the map we never knew existed, and which no Greek had ever journeyed to before, so far as we knew. Still we got to see plenty of her. Whenever her latest mate died off, or grew dull, or neglectful, Harriet would appear on Ya-Ya‘s doorstep in Flatbush, clutching a child by the hand, two, three or more scattered on the porch, an infant tucked between her breasts, and possibly one in her pouch.

Book: PROFANE FEASTS. Author: Tom Tolnay. Publisher: Scarlet Leaf, Toronto.

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