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Guest Viewpoints

Star-Spangled Solo

June 28, 2021
By Constance M. Constant

Lady Gaga’s splashy Star-Spangled Banner at President Biden’s Inauguration amusingly brought to mind my father’s Greek village in 1955, when I was fifteen. Arcadian Mercovouni was the last place I expected to solo about “broad stripes and bright stars.”

I recall our June, nighttime touchdown: TWA’s tiny window revealed the illuminated Acropolis below. The immense propeller-driven Constellation took 24 hours to travel 5,000 + miles from Chicago to the splendid land of our ancestors: my first visit. 

Bright-eyed Mama and snowy-haired Papa always reminisced about grandparents I, sadly, would never know in their ‘patrida’.

Until this journey with my parents, I had not spent much leisure time with Papa, a restaurant/bar owner. My family worked long, grueling hours at the magazi. For relaxation, Papa loved to read. Our home bookcase featured Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle, along with his hardbacks about Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. I had not yet read my father’s books.

Surely, European Athens differed from New World Chicago. Goddess Athena’s immense polis boasted white marble sidewalks but few automatic traffic signals. Surprisingly, Athenians dined outdoors, at sidewalk cafes – after dark.

We eagerly ascended Western civilization’s sacred hill – Acropolis visitors could still enter the Parthenon’s interior. Touring northern Peloponnesos, our bus scraped deadly heights along narrow, mountain roads. Passenger angst explained religious icons positioned around the bus driver. In Mycenae, Papa soaked-in Agamemnon’s ‘hometown’.

That evening, 14,000 of us showed up at Epidaurus’ ancient theater to sit outdoors, wrapped in genius-perfect acoustics, for Euripides’ tragedy, Hecuba. Academy-award-winning Katina Paxinou masterfully portrayed the immortal Trojan Queen’s desolation in losing husband Priam, plus nineteen sons and four daughters she had personally given birth to – all because of beautiful Helen. Papa disclosed, “Agamemnon had lots to do with igniting Hecuba’s grief.”

My knowledgeable father proudly introduced my Greek roots clearly, ably, and enjoyably. Starting life in America as an impoverished thirteen-year-old shoeshine boy, he taught himself English, dictionary in hand, reading Chicago’s newspapers – with no opportunity to attend college. Papa would have been a brilliant history professor.

Trip highlights? My parents’ joyful reunions with family and birthplaces. Meeting lovable aunts, uncles, and cousins – I realized intervening oceans never severed our common bonds. Greek villages, ten years after devastating Nazis occupation, vastly differed from today’s Greece: no electricity, no indoor plumbing, few conveniences. “Don’t waste water!” Papa directed. “Villagers work hard loading containers on donkeys to walk to wells – for water. Not like turning on a faucet connected to Lake Michigan.”

Mama’s Tegea birthplace, adjacent to Alea Athena’s ruined Golden Age temple, fused history with emotion. “I played hide and seek with my sisters and brother among these ruins,” Mama smiled, then wept, missing parents who died circa World War II, as had Papa’s parents.

In his mountain-rimmed Mercovouni, Papa sent me, atop a donkey, to a distant well with my cousins, for water collection. Immersed in sizzling sunshine and pristine Arcadian air, I noticed every hillside pebble was clearly visible. Smog was still foreign to Greece.

A reunion dinner in Mercovouni meant meeting more relatives. Mama helped my aunts wash dishes, the hard way. Additional guests arrived after nightfall when kerosene lamps were lit indoors. Men, sipping homemade retsina wine from stemless glasses, took command of the dining table and began singing songs from Greek Revolutionary times. 

That’s when my cousins invited me to hang out on the quiet village road. The brilliant moon spread its exquisite silvery patina over red-tiled roofs and encircling mountains. More stars sparkled in the black sky than I had ever seen before. Chatting together under bright starlight, I heard Papa calling me inside with a peculiar request.

“Connie, I want you to sing the Star-Spangled Banner.”

“Do … what?”

“Sing the national anthem,” he repeated. Behind him I spotted the throng – watching us.

“Why?”

“I’m explaining America’s national anthem.”

As the shyest of kids, I never wanted to sing solo to anyone. But, parental determination mushroomed behind his spectacles – that ‘look’ – every kid knows. Refusing, in front of his kinfolk, was unimaginable.

“They don’t understand English,” I tried.

“I’m gonna translate,” he assured me.

Someone brought me a vacant chair and I sat, uncomfortably facing our audience; Papa stood to my left. We were a duo.

Shadows flickered in lantern glow as Papa explained the 1812 British attack on Fort McHenry – in Greek. Soft, golden, lamp flames shined on our listeners – villagers’ gold teeth glistened in kerosene light. I glanced up at my history-engaged father. Grasping his signal I inhaled, initiating a wobbly – “Oh, say can you see…”

Unlike self-assured, glamorous Lady Gaga at Biden’s Inauguration, I sang softly in the crammed, shadowy room while Papa translated. Time dragged – endless lyrics lingered. Finally reaching “… land of the free and home of the brave,” our anthem gratefully ended. Stunned by cordial applause, I looked up at Papa. He was smiling from ear to ear.

Later, I asked, “Our national anthem? Why, Papa?”

“They asked about America – from somebody who lives there. The Fourth of July – is tomorrow… and U.S. history is important, too.”

Getting to know my father better while traveling to Greece with my parents, when I was fifteen, is a singular, lovingly remembered event in my life. It was in Papa’s ‘patrida; I learned my father, a very proud Greek, was also a very proud, good American.

Constance M. Constant is the author of Austin Lunch, Greek-American Recollections; Cosmos Publishing, 2005, and American Kid, Nazi-Occupied Greece Through a Child’s Eyes; Year of the Book, 2016.

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