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The Loving Embrace of Avgolemono

March 8, 2024

“Creation is an act of love and is perpetual” -Simone Weil, French philosopher and mystic

When steeped in the mysterious world of voracious imagination, you might be hard-pressed to draw similarities between a dinosaur – of all things – and avgolemono soup. For one, the massive reptile stomped the planet 200 million years ago. Another thing: although paleontologists can’t prove it, dinosaurs were not known to eat Greek food. Of course, while the creature has long been extinct, our ethnic group’s special version of the rich, creamy delicacy, continues merrily bubbling on the stove, stitching a festival of sensuous pleasures. With countless generations touting its magical healing powers, it’s no flash in the pan – or, in this case, the pot.

Still, don’t be absolutely certain these two nouns will never be linked in marquee roles – at least in the eternally evolving realm of children’s literature. Want proof? Consider Greek Americans Mary Ciesa and Kristina Tartara. The Ohio-based duo have crafted a fun and fanciful book, ‘Spiros the Soup-Eating Dinosaur’, that’s a perfect romp  for kids, and for the kid that resides in the heart of every adult, Greek or not.

Ciesa rhapsodizing with scrumptious words, Tartara on full display with her outsized illustrations that pull you in like the Aegean breeze.

The plot revolves around the village dinosaur who is feeling somewhat under the weather. “It started with one big, blubbery “AHH-CHH-OOO!” The sneeze was so loud, it shook the church bell and startled the villagers out of their beds.” As resident dinosaurs in Greek villages are used to doing, Spiros also manages to joggle the lemons off the trees and expel the onions out of the ground. Enter sweet Popi, who recalls a traditional song that addresses an old recipe for Spiros’ favorite soup. Which leads to a daunting question:  Will Popi and Mrs.Koula, the village nurse, finish cooking the soup before the earth-shaking noises produced by Spiros rattles the onions out of the soil?  Stay tuned.

Along with her time as an author, Ciesa is a primary care nurse practitioner. “My love for writing,” she recalled, “was born in my elementary school years, where I was put in the “creative learning” classroom with open-minded teachers who breathed confidence into me.” In high school, she landed in honors biology and English. It was in that setting she “again felt challenged by teachers who encouraged writing and scientific inquiry. It was there that I found joy in expressing myself both creatively as well as analytically.”

At Kent State University, Ciesa majored in nursing – but with a flavorful twist. “While in school, I requested that the KSU College of Nursing allow me to do a  rotation with the Writer-in-Residence in the English department,” she said, “so I could explore my desire to write for children, once again combining this part of me that was both creative and analytical. (The writer-in-residence, the late Zee Edgell, a campus professor, published four novels).  Ciesa went on to earn two master’s degrees in Maternal Child nursing as a clinical Nurse Specialist and adult primary care as a Nurse Practitioner.

It took Tartara somef coaxing to step out of the shadows and grasp her gift. “Everyone always said I’m good at art, but I didn’t believe them,” recalls the former teacher. With a lineup of books with her that bear her brushstrokes, Tartara has faced other challenges. In 2014, when she was gaining recognition as an artist, she was diagnosed with muscular sclerosis. “I had trouble buttoning my kids’ clothes,” she says. “It felt like my life had been taken away from me. It was when my first book came out. Everything was falling into place and then my body crashed.”

Unruffled, Tartara summoned her true grit. She wasn’t about to let her disability hold her back. “I had to retrain my brain, so I took a drawing class at a local art studio. She also made room in her heart to fortify her prayer life, which included direct prayers to the Theotokos, which, he confesses, wasn’t very much a part of her life prior to her illness. As she reordered her priorities, she began sensing the Holy Spirit at work. She fortified her prayer life by making the Theotokos more prominent.

As the chances of booking an appointment at the famed Cleveland Clinic grew dimmer, Tartara got a dose of good news. “I was told there was a year’s wait to receive functional medicine. That was turned on its head when she got a call from the doctor’s assistant. “She said `listen, I’m getting you in in a month.’ She told me she felt sorry for me when I told her I couldn’t take care of my kids.” During those moments when darkness seeped into her body and soul, Tartara would share her pain with those in her circle, including her doctor. “He would tell me there’s always hope. I’m a Christian. I should know that. And he (the doctor) was Jewish!”

Thankfully, Tartara is feeling fine these days, back in full flower at her drawing board. For those who view writing and illustrating as dream jobs, Tartara hastens to offer a reality check. “Publishing trends are constantly changing,” she said, “so it’s important to find someone that understands the current market and who has studied how to write children’s books. It’s not as easy as it seems as there is a lot of thought that goes into it.”

Meanwhile, Ciesa is preparing to team up with another Greek American, Georgette Cosntatiniou, a retired child psychologist, to pen a book on ways to sort out death and dying to a young child from an Orthodox perspective. She’s also excited about the possibility of having one of her earlier books, ‘Dina Prima the Ballerina’, choreographed.

One of those in attendance at a book-signing last fall at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox church in Clearwater, FL, was my dear Aunt Fran, a longtime, active member of  the parish. Thoughtful and kind and with so many projects she’s constantly juggling, my dear aunt took the time to buy several copies of the book as Christmas gifts for family members, including Sophia, our granddaughter, nearly 2. “Mary Ciesa was very nice,” she said, the enthusiasm rising in her tone. “You can’t beat avgolemono soup and you can’t beat the way she put the children ahead of the adults, which was great. It made them feel special. Plus, always remember: you can be an adult and still have a childlike mind.”

Ciesa continues to bask in the afterglow of what her fertile mind produced: “I’m thrilled with the reception the book has been getting. Little kids are reading it over and over again and driving their parents crazy. It’s part of our culture.”

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