Harry Mark Petrakis
I was only nine or ten, not yet old enough to understand the full impact of the Great Depression that ravaged our country in my childhood.
The beginning of the 1930s had 4 million unemployed men and women seeking work. By 1931 the number had grown to 6 million. Farmers fighting drought struggled to harvest their crops while across the country poor families starved. Beggars came regularly to our back door and however hard our own efforts to make ends meet; my mother never turned them away.
President Herbert Hoover seemed helpless to prevent the country from floundering, and many blamed him for the Depression. (Thinking the president associated with the Hoover Vacuum Cleaner Co., my father-in-law would never allow a Hoover Vacuum into his house.) Armless and legless veterans of World War I sold apples from baskets on the street.
My father was a Greek Orthodox priest who immigrated to the United States from the island of Crete in 1916 with my mother and four of my older siblings. His first parish was a community of young Cretan coal miners in Price, UT. From there, the family moved to a parish in Savannah, Georgia, and then to St Louis, MO, where I was born. That same year, we made a final move to Chicago, IL where the last of my siblings, a girl, Irene, was born.
During my childhood, ten of us occupied a series of multi-roomed and shabby apartments that we rented on Chicago’s South Side in proximity to my father’s church. In addition to my parents and six children, a Swiss lady named Marie Constand (we called her “Naka”) and her son, Alex, lived with us for almost 25 years. In exchange for their rent and food, Naka helped cook and care for my sister and myself. Her son, ten years older than I, and about the age of my eldest brother, was an agile-limbed young man, so good a tennis player that once at a tournament he had volleyed with tennis great Bill Tilden.
The bleak, gloomy apartments we occupied seemed to me designed by brooding architects whose goal was to eliminate as much light and warmth from the rooms as possible. I could never understand why every bedroom window had to look out on the brick wall of a building next door.
The layout of the apartments was always the same. A sun-parlor room at the front led to a living room with a sofa hide-a-bed, which when unfolded was where I slept. A long narrow hallway led off to cramped bedrooms where my parents and siblings slept. The bathroom was even smaller with an old bathtub that had chipped enamel and indelible stains. Beyond the kitchen, whose appliances were tarnished by wear and time, was another smaller sun-parlor room, hanging like a kangaroo pouch over the back alley, that was sleeping quarters for Naka and her son.
The Depression impacted my family just as it did the rest of the country. My sisters lamented wearing silk stockings with runs. My brothers cut insoles of cardboard to fit into their threadbare-soled shoes. My younger sister and I inherited mended and faded hand-me-down clothing from our older siblings.
I envied my brothers, Dan and Mike, and my sisters, Barbara and Tasula because they had traveled on the original journey by ship from Crete with my parents. They spoke proudly of their first sight of the majestic Statue of Liberty in New York harbor when their ship docked at Ellis Island.
Despite his meager salary as a priest, my father managed to feed the family. My mother, aided the effort by her ability as a cook, often replicated the biblical miracle of multiplying the loaves of bread and fishes. Her mainstay was the steaming platter of pilaf, that savory dish of rice and spiced tomato sauce that was our staple.
For our family meals, ten of us sat around the long dining room table whose surface hidden beneath the tablecloth was cracked in numerous places. In between meals, we stretched a makeshift net across the table and played vigorous games of Ping-Pong on it.
At dinnertime, my mother took charge and as we passed her our plates, ladling out a cup of the savory rice pilaf. With a slice of bread and a glass of milk, that was often our meal except for those occasions when a parishioner gifted my father a chicken or a side of pork. Then my mother added a few fragments of chicken or pork to the pilaf.
Meanwhile, conversation and stories flourished at our table. My siblings told of incidents they had experienced at school or at work. All seemed to have inherited the gift of being good storytellers. There were also spirited arguments. One of my siblings was an agnostic, another a socialist, still another freely quoted the philosopher Nietzsche. When we had visitors, disputes abounded. A visiting rabbi or priest was granted only basic courtesy at our table, but no mercy as his beliefs were pinioned and challenged.
I recall a distraught Catholic priest once asking my father how he tolerated such heretical opinions and challenges.
“Democracy,” my father replied with a pleased, proud gleam in his eye … “That’s the problem here … democracy …”
Sometimes now, so many years later, dozing off in the evening as I make an effort to read, a clamor of voices invades my sleep. I am hurled back to those old Depression apartments, ten of us crowded into those cramped, airless rooms. I see and hear our family gathered around that battered old table on which we played our games, my brothers and sisters telling stories, joking, arguing, ranting, their voices swirling and echoing from the room.
They have been dead many years now, all my siblings, my tolerant father who graced the head of our table and my mother so short she had to tilt her chair forward so her feet could touch the floor. Devoted Naka and her son have long passed on, too. Yet time and again, the marvel of memory returns them all to me, so I hear them once again, their voices and stories still resonant in my ears.
Only when I, the last of the ten who sat at that table still alive, only after death finally claims me, will those buoyant and contentious voices fall silent, settling to rest beside me for eternity.
Harry Mark Petrakis has published 25 books, including novels, short stories and essays. His website is harrymarkpetrakis.com.