James N. Pratley
Five years ago at Christmastime, the first one arrived, and I thought it was a box of explosive shells we used for the Air Force Ejection Seat Trainer. Made of thick pine, it was mailed in many places and had all kinds of stamps and documents. When I took it into the kitchen, I could see that instead of stenciled letters, it had foreign inscribed ones. They seemed familiar, taken from the language of science and mathematics. Sigmas, epsilons, chis, omegas.
I checked the return address. It was, of course, from my aunt Toula of Molai, a town in Lakonia in the Peloponnese of Greece. She was the wife of my uncle Pete, my mother’s brother, a dentist who was the only member of the family who had not emigrated.
With a wedge and hammer from the kitchen drawer, I began to free, nail by nail, the lid of the box. Inside I found a soldered can, which rattled when I shook it. It made slushing sounds, and I thought I might, with an ordinary can opener, peel it open, careful not to spill any fluids.
And what did I find? Filled to the brim of the can was a pool of golden oil, smelling like the hot summer fields of the Peloponnese, with the earthy aromas of herbs and the ambrosia of the gods. Bobbing purple nuggets floated, and immediately I popped one in my mouth, knowing that it was none other than one of Aunt Toula’s priceless, delectable olives.
I sat, smacking them, one by one, with crusty bread to catch the drippings, while letting my mind float off to the memories of that grand summer trip.
With my parents we had visited my aunt and uncle, not knowing at all what kind of people they were. We all spoke some Greek, but we were astonished, not only by their hospitality but by the sheer delight of their personalities. What amazed us most was that they were not two people. They talked and acted like one. Whatever one said, the other qualified, modified, completed, applauded, and embellished. Their performances and conversations were melodious, even dramatic to the point of being almost operatic, or like a Greek chorus or a parabasis in a Sophoclean play. Once in a restaurant they caused a scene when a customer had told them of the death of a mutual friend. A strange eulogy followed with a crescendo of bellows, soprano, and bass arias: “He was a fine man.” “No, he was a saint.” “He loved his family.” “What are you saying? His family would die for him.” “He was a fighter in the war.” “More, much more, he was the greatest hero.” And they always held hands when walking, and when sitting, on the slightest provocation, would smack each other on the cheek or wipe each other’s jowls clean at the dinner table. They were loving to the max.
And very bossy. They planned every moment of our stay. “You will visit the marine caves in Githion tomorrow, the next day the Byzantine fortress in Monemvasia, the splendors of its Hagia Sophia overlooking the Aegean, and then the ruins of Mistras in Sparta. Be prepared for all the splendors of the Peloponnese.”
And so it went for almost two weeks, my uncle with his tight white beard twisted into hard, marbleized curlies, his deep-set eyes missing nothing, recording every animate and inanimate object in our sights. “Now listen to what I will tell you. Do as I say. That is the thema,” all the time Aunt Toula chiming in, “Listen to what he says. It’s the best theme. He knows what he talks about.”
One evening sitting at an outdoor restaurant under a starry sky in Githion (the ancient city where Paris had whisked away Helen from Sparta for a sea voyage to Troy), all of us filled with the exuberance Greeks call kefi, we listened to Uncle Pete and Aunt Toula expound the tale of their lives. He had been mayor of Molai during the Nazi occupation, and she continued to manage the olive groves of her family estate in a nearby area called the Vatika. They began to tell of how grateful they were to my family and the Greek War Relief for saving their lives. “You cannot imagine the hardships we endured. Everything we produced, the olives, wheat, fruit, they confiscated, and what their troops didn’t consume, they shipped back to the fat pigs in Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks died of starvation. Even here in Molai we would find the dead on the streets. Our relatives. Our good neighbors. Po, po, po.” Uncle wringed his hands; Aunt Toula bent her head in grief. “Oh, thank you, thank you. For those packages. It saved our lives,” she said.
The two then went into a duet mode, telling us grim tales of how people die from starvation. “They rattle around the streets like skeletons. Their faces blank. Their eyes sunken like marbles in a dirty pond. Some get bloated bellies. Children cry endlessly. People on their knees scratch the earth for something edible, dandelions, wild greens, and find nothing but weeds that make them vomit on themselves. Ah, but the old people. They are the saddest. Their jaws hang and they look at you with the most pitiable expressions that beg for mercy. The priests, those brave souls, starve themselves, go around anointing foreheads with holy oil for their final absolutions. And the Germans? What do they do? They stay in their quarters outside the town gorging themselves with grapes, fruit, bread, olives, the last slaughtered swine and cattle left in the farms. All confiscated. From farmers and bakers and merchants who tremble from their threats. And what can we do? Reprisals that only bring more grief?”
A long silence followed. Then Uncle Pete resumed his tale in a soft voice, Aunt Toula wiping her eyes. “Those dirty pigs put a Luger to my head, told me to give them the names of our fighters who were resisting in the mountains. I kept quiet.”
Aunt Toula murmured, “Yes, yes. He kept quiet. We appeased them, gave them cans of olives to save our lives. They liked our olives. Those pigs, they’d never had good food before. But tell them, dear, tell them that those olives were not free. We knew how to resist. Yes, we did. Tell them.”
Then suddenly, Uncle Pete flashed a grin and said, “Oh, you can be sure. Those olives were bullets. Bullets! You tell our dear relatives about it.”
Aunt Toula brightened for a moment, then frowned as if she were about to burst into tears. In a shaky voice, she said, “I used just a tsipiα (a pinch). But, dear, tell them first about what you did.”
“I told the captain if I gave names it would only cause more reprisals and more ambushes. Then a bright idea hit me. I told the interpreter to tell the captain that I was a dentist and could fix the captain’s loose false teeth. But, as you know, we Greeks are cunning. The captain took my offer, I guess because he was so vain and because perhaps his junior officers were ridiculing him.”
Aunt Toula burst out in laughter. “Tell them, tell them what you did.”
“Well, I do not wish to brag. But I had made a special mix of eucalyptus and pine pitch, my own concoction to stop false teeth from clacking. It stank to the heavens. And if you forgot to take your teeth out at night, it would harden and glue your mouth shut. So, one way or another, we had our ways of resisting those dirty pigs.”
We all laughed; then Uncle Pete took on a serious tone. “But, back to the bullets. Tell them, dear, about your bullets.”
She hemmed and hawed and began. “I said I used just a tsipiα. A very little tsipiα because it is well-known that arsenic is hard to detect in small amounts. In the cans of olives I gave the Germans, I added just a little bit. And whether they had an effect we will not ever know for sure. Is that not correct, dear?”
Uncle Pete grinned big. “We can only make this observation: that after you started giving out those bullets, in a few weeks we began to see fewer of those oppressive pigs. We found one morning a couple of them laid out on the square with wide-open glassy eyeballs. Po, po, po.”
My parents and I weren’t quite sure how to take all these tales. By the end of the trip, we were somewhat accustomed to their hyperbolic style, but the facts about the occupation were certainly true; that was written about in the papers back home. The bullet saga may have been an exaggeration, however, just as were some of their other tales about how Greeks routed the entire Italian army of occupation. That, too, had partial confirmation in the American press. And ultimately we wanted to share their bullet fantasy as a humorous fantasy invented by people under extreme stress. It didn’t matter, we thought. These people had a right to somehow cleanse the horrible memories of the Nazis.
Back in Molai on our last night, we sat at a table in our relatives’ home feasting on moussaka, dolmathes, roast lamb, all the Greek delicacies. Olives were on the table, and I couldn’t resist them, eating them like peanuts. Aunt Toula took notice, said nothing, but removed the bowl before me to pass around to others. And I thought . . .
Oh, my god, were these bullets from old cans? I knew that olives keep in oil for a long time. I said nothing. Became morose until Uncle Pete noticed me, laughed, and said to Aunt Toula, “Give him more bullets, my sweet. Your nephew likes them so, and he’s a Greek, not a German.”
That was a relief. Dad and Mother didn’t quite get the gist. Later Dad said I was too suspicious, but Mother, knowing her brother, understood it eventually and said I shouldn’t dwell on the matter.
All that transpired five years ago, and in the meanwhile, for five years Aunt Toula would send me her box of olives at Christmastime, and I would send her a can of the famous fruitcakes from Corsicana, Texas. Of course, I wasn’t sure she would like them. Many people don’t like fruitcakes, and it is rumored that the same Corsicana fruitcakes are passed around as gifts ad infinitum. Aunt Toula, I assumed, didn’t pass hers around, accepting them as exotic foreign gifts. She never sent thank-you notes either, but I thought perhaps it was not customary among Greeks to send thank-you notes.
To my sorrow last Christmas, the olive can included a card announcing the death of Uncle Pete. A friend helped me translate a sympathy card to send her. I also decided I had to return to Greece in the summer to pay my respects and give condolences to my dear aunt.
So that summer, climbing down from an old Mercedes bus from Athens, I checked into the little hotel in Molai with a young receptionist, but no sooner had I phoned my aunt than she came barreling down the hill as if brandishing a spear and shield like a hoplite ready for battle. She was livid, her eyes flared, she banged the receptionist’s desk, and her voice shrilled: “You bad, bad girl, you have disgraced me. You let the town know that my blood relative from America is staying in your hotel? Not with me? You should have called me. Shame. Shame.”
And once again, I was treated royally like my parents were five years ago. (Both my parents had passed on. And Aunt Toula had the priest in town perform a brief church memorial on their behalf, complete with a sugar- and almond-decorated tray of barley cake.) In their honor, and mine, Aunt Toula gave dinner parties, afternoon coffees, and social evenings with lyre music of local musicians; my bedroom had ironed linen sheets with embroidered trimmings. And she told me of how Uncle had died from a heart attack while filling the tooth of an old shepherd with a foot-pedaled drill. “He died drilling. It was his life’s calling. He could see the faces of people in church and tell you what fillings he had performed on each parishioner. And when they smiled at him, he saw not a face or mouth, he saw just their teeth.” She smiled to say that, then let the tears flow when after church she greeted those patients.
One afternoon, after an afternoon nap, she knocked on my door and said, “Come, nephew, we are going to visit your uncle.”
She hailed a young taxi man, Takis, by yelling from the balcony of her house loud enough for the whole town to hear. He was shy, scrawny, and shell-shocked by her bombastic commands. “Drive quick and smooth and don’t dare to hit the holes on the road. Don’t rattle me, you hear?” She was dressed to the hilt with a shiny black dress and visor, hose and low heels, an ebony cane, and a slick silver bun. Her pointy face was heavily powdered and her lips painted a dark cherry red. She smelled of rose water and couldn’t have weighed more than fifty kilograms.
We drove some distance out of town across rocky hills until we reached a small ravine grown over with big pine trees shading the cemetery of Molai. She hung on hard at my elbow as we walked the cemetery grounds. Some of the grave sites were elaborate; some were only engraved flat stones. Many birds began to flutter around us, sparrows and finches. Aunt Toula chirped, “Pete loved birds. He liked to feed them, and it makes me so happy they keep him company here.”
Uncle Pete’s grave of raised, carved marble stones had a Byzantine cross and at its base a thick plastic-encased photograph of him. A censer stood next to the picture, and the birds, shortly after our arrival, began a chorus of welcome—or so imagined Aunt Toula. I spied behind the headstone a couple of rusty Corsicana fruitcake cans painted with faded Texas bluebonnets. I put two and two together. Aunt Toula must not have liked Texas pecans, but the birds did. I said nothing.
She pulled me beside her next to the grave and spoke to the headstone. “Look, Pete dearest, who I’ve brought to visit with you. Our nephew from America. Say hello to him, chriso mou (sweetie).” Turning to me, “Now you say hello to your uncle.” She lit the incense and walked around the grave site, spreading the smoke, crossing herself, then placing flowers near the photograph and kissing it reverently.
I coughed and spoke up sheepishly. “Hello, Uncle. Greetings from America. So happy to be in Molai. I should come to see you more often.” I felt like an idiot.
Aunt Toula sat beside me on the gravestone and began talking; at first I thought it was to me, then I realized it was to Uncle Pete. She told him of the week’s news in Molai, how the flowers and olive trees were growing, the gossip of the town, the political problems in Greece. I sat first bemused, then confused. Her performance, rather her hallucinations, seemed to materialize as a real extraordinary conversation with the dead. Or was she sniffing ethylene gas and talking to a Delphic oracle? I sat frozen, waiting for the spell, or whatever it was, to be broken, all the time agonizing over the philosophical meanings of the soul and the afterlife. These are not my usual concerns, and normally they boggle my brain.
It must have been the birds that broke me out of that trance. They chirped so loud, waiting for some Texas pecans, I presumed, that they drowned out Toula’s jabberings. She rose, puckered her lips to kiss the grave good-bye, and screamed at Takis, who had been waiting in the dusty taxi outside the cemetery. “Wake up, you lazy boy. Come get us. We’re ready to go home. Quick!” The boy rushed to us and seated her, tangled with her cane, as delicately as he could in the backseat.
The night at the final dinner before my departure, my aunt and I vowed to visit the next year. I wanted her to come to America, but without English, and her dear Pete, she thought it unlikely. I held her hand and thanked her as profusely as I could manage for all her hospitable efforts. I toasted her by popping another purple olive, and wished a good harvest in her olive grove. “Oh,” she said. “Never fear for that. The harvests are better than ever. We make money. Ship cans now to all of the EU nations, even Germany.”
I did a double-take on that, looked up at the ceiling, thinking for a moment about bullets, hoping for some kind of clarification from Uncle Pete (or his ghost). How ridiculous those thoughts. All that business of bullets was a long time ago. Things are forgotten by now, what with the prosperity and goodwill of all of the EU nations.
But then Aunt Toula’s facial expressions lost their gaiety. (Moods, I’ve noticed, in Greeks can change rapidly. Just mention something Turkish to them to see that metamorphosis.) She seemed all of a sudden reflective, somber, the same way she had looked when she had talked of the Nazi occupation.
She reached across the table to hold my hand, the other hand pointing a twirling finger to the ceiling, and said, “Nephew, your uncle and I saw the world spin this way and that. Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. The world should be more like the olives trees in my groves. They grow purple flesh and black seeds, and never stop pleasing everyone. They only need, very occasionally, something in them to make things good again. Just a little tsipiα once in a while. That’s all. Is that not so, nephew?”