Always Papa, Never Dad

My father’s name was Nicholas Constantine Michalos.  He was born in 1900 and died in 1972.  In Book II of The Iliad, Homer catalogues the men who went to Troy.  Among the 142, 550 Greeks are men from Nisyros, a small island in the Dodecanese that is my parents’ birthplace.  My father, an only child, left Nisyros for America when he was 19.  He was no Achilles or Diomedes, seeking glory in his journey.  But he was certainly heroic, leaving his parents and everything that was familiar for an unknown future in New York. He traveled with my Theio Yianni, my mother’s oldest brother.  Between the two of them, they knew no English, but they had enough tharos to sustain themselves and prevail.  I never asked how he felt when he saw the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

On Nisyros, my father had been a farmer, harvesting olives and figs from the various horafia.  In New York, he was a dish washer at the Horn & Hardart, a job that did not require English.  He also worked as a furrier but found his calling as a chef.   My mother said he looked like a banker.  He wore three-piece suits, button-down shirts, cuff links and a tie clasp.  His shirts weren’t always white.  He wore light blue, yellow, gray, even pink shirts before they were stylish – and without a polo player over his heart.  He was cool without even trying, what Renaissance courtiers called sprezzatura.  He wore a fedora that looked better on him than on Jon Hamm.  His overcoat had huge pockets that were always filled with candy.  His favorites were Peppermint Patties and Cracker Jacks.  I ate everything else.  He loved pie but didn’t eat the crusts.  And we could polish off a bag of oatmeal cookies, sitting opposite each other, dunking them in milk.  No dunking in public.  Only in the kitchen.  I loved watching him eat.  He would put down his knife and fork between bites and chew thoughtfully, savoring every morsel.  And he ate bread with every meal.  Only barbarians didn’t eat bread.

Apparently, back on Nisyros, a couple of ladies were pining for my father.  A heart throb.  Who knew?  But my yiayia took to her sick bed and refused to emerge until he married my mother.   He left her behind, returning to New York to now prepare a life for his family.  My sister Mary did not know our father until she arrived in New York when she was four.  People asked her how she would recognize him, and she answered that he would be the one holding all the toys.

They lived on 145th Street and Riverside Drive until I was born, when they moved to Washington Heights.  By the time I was born, my three sisters were old enough to consider me more of a nuisance than a sibling.  They also complained that I was spoiled because I was the baby.  One thing is certain – I got THE NAME.   My grandfathers were both Constantine.  Patiently waiting for a son, my parents followed every naming tradition for my sisters. . .and waited.  And then I came along.  Constantina.  My mother always said that when I was a good girl, I had been named for her father, but when I was naughty, I had been named for her father-in-law.  The amazing part in all this is that my father never made me feel that he was disappointed because I was not a boy.  As an only son in a patriarchal culture, he had a responsibility to carry the surname into history.  But that wasn’t going to happen now, and he was okay with that.

My father was a patient, humble man.  I say this not from some nostalgic mythologizing of a deceased parent.  I have empirical proof and eyewitness accounts.   Five females and one bathroom.  Need I say more?  My father was an only child, but my mother had six siblings.  Only a preternaturally patient man could be the patriarch of such a tribe.  He didn’t seek that title.  My Theio Miltiadi, the other outsider brother-in-law, named him that.  Actually, he called him Abraham, with all that that name implies.  Every Saturday night, they all played cards.  If he was winning, my father would get up at an opportune moment, announce “’Night all,” and go to bed.  If he was losing, no one moved.   On July 20, 1969, they were sitting around the dining room table playing cards as I sat on the floor watching Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins make history.  As Armstrong emerged from Apollo 11, I called everyone’s attention to the TV.  “Look.  Look.  He’s going to walk on the moon.”  They stopped, still holding their cards close to their faces, and watched.  Right after Armstrong uttered his famous words, my father said, “Very nice, pethaki mou.”  And they went back to their game.  He had lived to see airplane technology evolve into space travel, but he never believed the moon landing.  He didn’t know where Arizona is, but he figured this had all been staged in some American desert.

We always kissed him on the top of his head, and he said that was why he was bald.  When I asked why he was handsome instead of rich, he corrected me.  “I have $4 million, one for each daughter.”  That was a lot of money back then.

As we drove to the cemetery when he died, I remember an old man stop and place his hat over his heart as my father’s hearse passed.  That made me smile, that a total stranger would honor him so simply.  My sister Mary was talking, and she said something about dad.  Sitting in the back between the other two, I leaned over and asked Sybil, “Did she have another father?”

“Are you crazy?  What are you talking about?”

“Well, who’s dad?  I had a Papa.”


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