Stella Christoulakis Petrakis
Updated: June 13, 2013 6:46PM
As I’ve grown older, images of my father have receded and memories of my mother have grown sharper. While I sometimes dream of my father, I more often dream of my mother. Part of that imbalance in recall may rest with the fact that my father died much earlier than my mother, on Memorial Day in 1951 when he was 66 and I was 28.
My mother outlived my father by 28 years, 23 of which she spent living with my wife, Diana, and me. The last four years of her life until her death in 1979 at the age of 91 were spent in a nursing home. Through those final years I watched her great spirit slowly succumb to resignation and despair. I was the one most responsible for placing her in the facility, a decision I feel guilty about to this day. Perhaps that is why I dream of her so often.
My mother not only exerted every effort to help others, her spacious heart caused her to suffer their afflictions with them. As the wife of the parish priest, she was a whirlwind of activity. She organized women’s societies, led fund-raising drives, sold raffle tickets and solicited ads for the church publications. Her efforts began soon after she arrived in this country in 1916 from the island of Crete with my father and four of my siblings. Within weeks after setting foot on American soil, and despite not yet speaking English, my mother became active in Liberty Bond drives. In the interval between wars, she worked with Interfaith Groups, various charity drives, the Chicago Beautiful Committee and a host of philanthropic organizations.
When the Second World War broke out, she organized savings bond rallies and worked with Greek War Relief as well as with Russian War Relief. Her efforts received commendations from city and state officials as well as praise from members of Congress. She collected these letters in a pair of scrapbooks that grew bulkier through the years. In her later life, when friends visited our house, she would bring out her scrapbooks to show the display of letters and photos. At those times I wondered pensively if I lived to be an old man in the house of one of our sons, whether I would also pull out reviews and letters to show visitors?
All her life until her confinement in the nursing home, my mother’s principal volunteer activity was the Red Cross. Not long after arriving in Chicago from St. Louis in 1923, the year I was born, she organized a Red Cross Bandage unit in our parish church that met throughout her lifetime and continued meeting after her death. After her confinement in the nursing home, the Red Cross presented her with a medallion honoring her 65 years of unbroken service.
I was probably no more than nine or 10 when I traveled with my mother to visit an ailing woman in our parish. We rode a streetcar, my mother carrying a basket laden with food. At the end of our journey, we descended stone steps into a cramped, dismal one-room basement apartment littered with papers, magazines and piles of soiled clothing. The woman, sprawled in a large worn armchair, was obese with a weary, misery-ravaged face. As she recited her ailments, her voice became a drawn-out moan.
A parishioner in my father’s parish who owned a dairy had promised my mother that he would arrange for delivery of milk and eggs to the woman, a promise he failed to keep. My mother phoned this man from the woman’s apartment, her strong voice verbally lashing the miscreant for his failure.
For all the years I can remember, my mother’s efforts to help those in need continued unabated. At the end of each Sunday meal, she’d gather leftovers and prepare to take them to an impoverished family in our community.
At one point during the years she lived with us, she took under her benevolent concern a tiny frail seamstress living in a furnished room not far from our house in South Shore. The seamstress had been diagnosed with an untreatable cancer and my mother visited her several times a week, carrying leftovers from our table. I was conscripted into service to drive my mother for her visits to the seamstress, a task I performed resentfully because of the intrusion on my own time.
The seamstress lived in a mixed-race building, young black children on the landings watching us silently as we ascended the stairs. Inside her single-room apartment, the seamstress wept as she embraced my mother. She was a small-boned woman, with tiny fingers. Her face was pale, her hair thinning and bleached some washed-out shade of henna.
The seamstress was in pain and when my mother asked about her pain-relief medications, she told us she lacked money to refill her prescriptions.
My mother sent me to a nearby pharmacy where I had the prescriptions filled and paid for them. Later, on our drive home I lamented the expense.
“You know we have trouble paying our own bills,” I complained. “Why should I pay for a woman we barely know?”
But my mother was unrelenting in her devotion and, during future visits, insisted I continue to refill and pay for the prescriptions. When the seamstress’ condition grew critical, I was also called several times to drive her to the emergency room of a nearby hospital.
The seamstress had a pervasive fear of ending up in a pauper’s ward in the County Hospital. She had once found the ward in which her friend was a patient, overcrowded and neglected by the staff.
A few days after one of our visits, the seamstress died. After knocking on her door without a response, a neighbor called the building janitor who found the seamstress unconscious on the floor and called for an ambulance. She was taken to the County Hospital, the very place she had feared to go, and where she died a few days later. My mother made the funeral arrangements and persuaded several affluent members of our parish to pay the expense of the casket, grave and the cemetery charges for burial.
Sometime after the funeral, my mother told me.
“You want to write about life, my son. This poor woman who suffered so much and who has now died is life.”
My mother was right, of course. She understood that caring for the poor woman was the moral and compassionate thing to do. She understood as well that her illness and death was an experience to be absorbed and understood. A few years after the death of the seamstress, I wrote a story titled “Zena Dawn” about a seamstress who was dying, and a compassionate black woman who befriended her. When I sold the story, the amount the magazine paid me far exceeded any money I had paid for the prescriptions and the cost of gas I’d used taking her to the ER. That was a profit my complaints and lack of empathy did not deserve.
Harry Mark Petrakis is the author of 23 books. More information on all his work can be found at harrymarkpetrakis.com