Harry Mark Petrakis
Updated: March 10, 2013 6:04AM
In these days when the battlegrounds of society center on the rights of gays to marry, and on a woman’s right to have an abortion, I remember the neighborhoods of my childhood in Chicago in the 1930s. Television, cell phones and iPods were unknown in communities that were often as constricting as cocoons. We lived within our own language, customs and religion. Anything alien was deemed hostile . . . a prejudice that immigrants carried with them from the old country into the cities of America.
These fears about mixing with strangers prevailed in my father’s Greek Orthodox parish, as well. Deviation from this custom produced calamitous consequences. One young Greek in our parish defied his family and married an Italian Catholic girl. His outraged father carried an armful of his son’s clothing into the backyard and set it on fire. A Jewish girl from a family on our street who bore a child by a Christian boy was ostracized, her family observing the seven mourning days of Shiva for her loss.
On our corner was a Greek grocery with breads, cheeses and bins of spices that permeated the air. My mother would send me to buy a quarter pound of oregano. In a corner of the grocery were a table and a few chairs occupied by old Greek men. They sat wreathed in tobacco smoke and the sweet scents of resinous mastiha. The oldest was Barba Elias, burly as a buffalo with a face gray and creased as parchment.
“Come here, boy,” he said, his voice in Greek as rough as granite.
I approached him warily.
“Tell me, boy,” he growled. “Do you love your mother?”
“Yes, Barba Elias!”
“Yes, Barba Elias.”
“Do you respect your father, your church and your God?”
“Yes, Barba Elias.”
“Do you swear before all that is holy that when you grow up you will never marry anyone but a Greek girl from our parish?”
“Yes, Barba Elias,”
As I left clutching the small bag of oregano, I felt his fierce eyes like a pair of knives in my back.
Then my sister Tasula, third oldest among the six siblings, shattered this carefully structured existence. She graduated with honors from the University of Chicago in December of 1934, and was the pinnacle of my father’s pride.
My sister was a dutiful daughter, but also eager to exercise her intelligence and newfound independence.
A year earlier, while working in one of the exhibits at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, she met a tall young Anglo-Saxon artist named John who had a booth where he painted instant portraits of fairgoers. Tasula and John dated secretly for almost a year, and it was only when their relationship became known to my family that my father raised a protest.
“I am priest to this parish,” my father said, his voice quiet but intense. “I am expected to set an example for others. This is my responsibility, and therefore must also be the responsibility of my children.”
My mother also appealed to my sister.
“Your father has enemies in the parish who look for any excuse to condemn him,” she said. “We must do all we can to protect him.”
But my sister was in love, and unwilling to validate the prejudices that dominated the community. She continued dating John Thoman.
I remember an afternoon when John came to our apartment for a meeting with my mother and a soft-voiced priest who was a dear friend to my father. From an adjoining room, I listened to their appeals.
“We know you love Tasula,” the priest said gently. “But try and reason beyond that love. Her father is spiritual father to his parish. If you continue seeing Tasula against his wishes, he will be shamed before his parish. You cannot build a life on his sorrow.”
John seemed to accept their pleas. When he rose to leave. I saw the despair in his face,
I was 10 at the time, and my romantic nature was outraged; I hurried downstairs to wait for him. As John came into the lobby, he loomed over me like a Goliath. “Don’t give her up, John!” I said, my voice shaking. “Don’t let them make you give her up!”
He bent from that great height and scooped me up in his arms.
“Thank you, buddy,” he said. “Thank you.”
There was a Saturday night in March of 1935. In our apartment, my younger sister and I slept in adjoining beds. My father was in his bedroom asleep as well, in preparation for his early Sunday liturgy. My older brother was in his bedroom. Naka, the Swiss lady who took care of us, and her son, Alex, were asleep in their room. Only my mother was still up baking in the kitchen. Shortly after I fell asleep, I was awakened by shouting.
I ran from my bedroom and saw my mother outside my father’s bedroom, seeking to console my sister who was crying, “I’ve killed my father! I’ve killed my father!”
John stood nearby, his face pale. I looked into my father’s bedroom and saw him thrashing in bed, with Naka, her son and my brother Dan trying to calm and restrain him. From time to time, my father released a cry of anguish that chilled my heart.“Go now … both of you,” my mother was saying to my sister and John. “Go now, please … please. I’ll phone you later.”
They left and my mother sent me back to bed. I didn’t learn the details of what happened until Naka told me the next day that my sister and John Thoman had entered our apartment the night before, and had gone into the bedroom where my father slept. My sister turned on his lamp and when he woke, she told him, “Papa, we’re married.”
That night was a crucible of anguish from which it seemed we would never recover. But my father’s love and pride in my sister were stronger than his grief. Assenting to the pleas of my mother, a few weeks later my parents went to visit my sister and her husband in the small apartment they had rented in the Pullman area. At first, my mother told me later, the reunion had been tense. But my father was relieved when my sister and John consented to a second marriage ceremony to be held in my father’s church. At the end of the visit, my father and sister embraced.
Both my mother and father were saddened when they saw how sparsely the small apartment was furnished, with several orange crates taking the place of bookcases and chairs. A few days later, my father traveled to a furniture outlet and bought my sister and John a room of inexpensive, serviceable furniture.
Despite having come to accept the marriage, my father foresaw a bleak future for the newlyweds. “Their marriage will not last,” I heard him gravely tell my mother.
My father was wise and right about many things. But in that dire prediction, he was proven wrong. My sister and John remained married for 61 years, their marriage ending when John died in 1996 at aged 92. My sister died four years later at 89. Their marriage produced four fine children — a physician, the dean of a college of nursing, a health-care activist and a business entrepreneur. Their union also bore 10 grandchildren.
Looking back from this vantage point in time, considering the nature of the conflicts and debates we are engaged in now, my sister’s story seems to belong in the annals of the Middle Ages.
This is the latest in an occasional series of Chicago-based memoirs by the novelist Harry Mark Petrakis. More of his work can be found at harrymarkpetrakis.com.