Friday, December 29, 2006

Merry Merry

Christmas for us means brunch at Mom and Dad’s. People who have had that breakfast have a hard time not coming back, even if they have moved on from our family. Mom turns out several varieties of eggs, creamed chipped beef, sausages, potatoes, chocolate muffins and an infamous pecan cinnamon coffee cake which can induce riots in the buffet line. This year we added three sailors since my niece joined the Navy and was married over Thanksgiving. It was probably our first and last Christmas for some time with the fleet, as my niece is being assigned to Japan, and her husband will hopefully soon join her. My eldest brother is the juice and coffee steward. My other brother mans the scrambled eggs, and due to the bigger crowd we consumed over 4 dozen this year.

Christmas used to mean trimming the tree on Christmas Eve, dating back to the times when Dad would wait until the tree sellers on Massachusetts Avenue had packed it in for the season. After they turned the lights off, he'd slink on over to the lots and root around in the dark. Sometimes the trees would be straggly and sometimes they would be OK, but he never knew what he had until he got home. Then, one year, when things were good, he grandly ordered a tree from Friendship Florist, and it was the worst tree EVER, so he never did that again.

By the time I came along, he was no longer liberating leftovers. Instead, I remember going to the Florida Avenue Market, and Dad would haggle with the vendors. I always had to pretend like I could care less about a tree, and be prepared to walk away and hang out at the ash can fire if the deal didn’t turn out, but we always went home with one, much to my relief.

A quick survey finds 1941 to be a favorite Christmas. It was the first year they had bought a home of their own in River Terrace. There was a live Cocker Spaniel puppy under the tree in a box. And a Lionel train with real smoke. My mom and sister had matching red velvet dresses which my mother had made by a dress maker instead of having to do them herself. Plus, my mother says it was the last year you could actually get everything you wanted before the rationing of World War Two got underway.

Another favorite was around 1939. That was the first year that Dad’s parents let him bring his non-Greek wife to Christmas at their place on Macomb Street. Dad remembers giving his father seat covers for his car. Papou thought they were blankets and tried to wear one.

The family has always had a Christmas party at Yiya’s and Papou’s house which I don't remember until Upton Street. Back then the Friendship Post Office was a Safeway, and I always admired my grandmother for keeping one of their grocery carts right there in her front yard. I also remember the aluminum Christmas tree, which eliminated any midnight runs to tree lots.

Now my Dad is the Papou of the family. He has eleven grandchildren and seven greats, and although it’s not as traumatic as Thanksgiving, they still put on a tree trimming party AND the world famous brunch Christmas morning. This year with the fleet, there were twenty six of us grateful pilgrims singing "Anchors Away". Once again I have to say thanks. Hope everyone had as good a holiday as we did.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


The word instantly puts a chill down the spine of my side of the family. Yes, there will be turkey, great food, and a swell party - especially for the blissfully unaware fifteen kids running amok in my parents' basement, but with the joy comes the quiet dread of getting ready. It starts in August when my mother pulls her notes from last year, and starts worrying. It ends at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, when the first guest arrives, and my Dad is harnessed to his leaf blower diligently chasing that last leaf off the premises. When a car's head lights sweep up the driveway, there will be no leaf left behind. (Never mind that the house is sitting on over two acres of hardwood trees and it's now pitch dark by 5 o'clock.)

You will find my mother sighing in the kitchen. She has been up since dawn cooking, completely dressed and ready since mid afternoon, but there is always something- like Dad killing himself outside, buzzing around the patio, or the little incident last year when there was no hot water at zero hour because Dad forgot to over ride the timer. (He keeps Mom on a very strict schedule water wise.) My mother, the model of self control, grits her teeth and accepts that she has done all that she can do. She and my sister set the tables the Sunday before, strategizing over the one in the family room which could block the football game, and how many kids are old enough to sit in a chair. She starts cooking in September and finishes just before 6 p.m. which is dinner time.

Thanksgiving is one of three major family gatherings. My poor mother is down to one rather distant first cousin on her side of the family, but the Greek side is way up.  Our branch alonebrings almost thirty to the table. Back in the day, my grandparents had the whole family over to their duplex on Upton Street, and we all fit in the dining room- almost.

Then their three children took over. My Aunt Catherine got Greek Easter, my Uncle Nick took Christmas, and my dad ended up with Thanksgiving. Back then the clan topped out at around twenty five; now we are approaching sixty. New babies and people keep coming. Last year Dino had twins, and this year my niece is getting married.

At this point, my mother would give her eyeteeth, her turkey candle collection and all her VCRs NOT to do this, (OK- maybe not the VCRS) but my Dad has laid down the law: if he's still breathing, we're still doing it. My cousin, John brings the cheesecake that his mother used to bring. (Aunt Catherine had a secret recipe/competition going on with Blackie's House of Beef, and I think she won.) My cousin, Anne, who is from Louisiana, brings a pecan pie. My brother, Peter arrives from Michigan and bartends. Uncle Nick brings the rum cake. Every year- the rum cake. My sister and I mash the potatoes. My brother, Roger started making Greek chicken soup one year, and now he can't stop. That's only a few of the many hands that get it done. We know the party's over when my sister corrals her sons to take all the chairs and tables back downstairs until next year. It's usually around 8:00, but it feels like midnight.

So we go on, and despite all the holiday angst, I know we have a lot to be thankful for: our ever expanding family.  My parents who keep us glued together. A basement full of over- exited children-ecstatic to have so many cousins. A big turkey on the table, and hopefully -plenty of hot water- at least 'til the dishes are done.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Happy Birthday Bebe

Today is my mother's birthday. She is a bit shy- even to this day, but my mother is the quiet steady engine that keeps this family well fed and motoring right along. She always turns out great meals except on her birthday when she likes to go to her favorite Chinese restaurant. Being of Southern heritage, when my mother cooks, she usually has a stick or two of butter at the ready. One of our family's favorite recipes is Greek chicken- like Yiya used to make. My non Greek mother is not particularly fond of this dish, but she patiently churns it out by request. As the saying goes in my family- first you take a chicken... then you bake it in a pan with tomato sauce; cook the macaroni, drain the noodles... and the my mother adds a stick of butter. And all those tomatoey chicken drippings  go on top of those buttery noodles and.... I can't even stand to write about it, it's that good.

My mother was born here at the old Sibley Hospital which was on North Capitol Street. She weighed seven pounds, and was the first child born in the family. Her parents, Bernice and Roger Calvert had just gotten married the year before on Bernice's eighteenth birthday. They named my mother after her mother, Bernice Bailey, and so she became "BB" which morphed into the Bebe we know today. My grandmother wrote: "Baby's first ride was from the hospital to Mount Plaesant in Dr. Molzahi's car. After that she had numbers of auto rides, street car rides, baby carriage rides, but I think she loves best of all to ride in daddy's arms."

She was born a blond, and to this day, through the miracle of modern means, she has stayed a blonde. She is so beautiful that she became a model AFTER she raised three children and before she had one more. She is still a looker and still on the go, planning the next cruise as soon as this one is over. She even drags herself to exercise class and does Thanksgiving for forty of our closest relatives- all on my Dad's side. (That includes a turkey AND a ham and about 5,000 pounds of mashed potatoes)

So this is it- the one day a year she doesn't have to cook.  We're off for Chinese somewhere in Rockville.

Happy Birthday, MOM, and thanks.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

How The Cokinos Brothers Came To America One At A Time

Once upon a time in Agulnitsa, Greece, in a tiny town very close to the sea and not terribly far from Olympia, seven brothers were born in a big house. Or was it nine?  And don't forget the girls- at least two or three of them.

One thing was certain- the Cokinos family had a lot of children, and America had a lot more space. The first time I visited the village,  it just boggled my mind to think that my Papou and his brothers had ever gotten out of Dodge. I first pictured them riding donkeys or even walking the whole way- carrying their things, perhaps sleeping in a barn, slogging through the Peloponnese mountains....but my overactive imagination and horrible sense of history overlooked the fact of a railroad. In reality, they only had to walk a few blocks to catch the train.

Adam, according to my father, was the eldest and the first to set forth. He came to Washington DC sometime around 1900 and opened a candy store at 924 9th St NW near K Street where the ever growing  Greek community would one day build St Sophia's at 8th and L in the 1920s. I don't know why he picked Washington- perhaps a friend or relation had come before him, but this is where he set up shop.

My grandfather, Panos arrived in America on the steamship "Georgia" on October 7, 1905. He dropped the Panos for "Pete," but he never did learn to speak English very well.

According to my father, the brothers worked together making candy and ice cream by hand in the basement of the shop until there was enough money for Pete to open his own store at 1103 H Street NE.  In 1910,  they were doing well enough to send for their younger brother, Alekos who had just turned 21. He arrived 95 years ago on November 11, 1911 and lived with his brothers until he got married.

Greek women were a rare commodity in Washington at the time. The men mostly came alone to make their fortunes, but networking was big- even without social media. Adam ended up finding the girl of his dreams in Philadelphia. He married "Katy" in 1912 and took her back to Washington where they had three little girls- Jean, Mary and Thetis.

Meanwhile back in Greece, in another little village called St John, near Sparta, again according to my father, a man walked out into his own yard only to be mowed down by a stray bullet. It was not his lucky day. He left behind an unmarried daughter, Pota, who was soon shipped off to America to live with her brother, Tom and his wife, Christina in New Jersey.  Christina was not thrilled by the new arrival.

Fortunately the Greek- American love line kicked in, and my Papou got on another life changing train. Pete was probably in his thirties by now and a much older man than Pota, but he was handsome and successful to boot. The Greeks never put much weight on exact birth dates so as our grandmother was getting on in years, she liked to use creative math and became younger and younger as time went on.  I am guessing in real time they were only about 8 or 9 years apart, but according to her calculations, Pete would have been around 30 when they met while she was a mere 12 years old. I did notice that Pete was equally guilty about fudging his age. I have found his original birthdate ranges from 1875- 1887. In the census of 1910,  he claims he was 33 years old, and ten years later in 1920 -he's still only 36. I'll bet his wife had no idea either.

Whatever the case, neither were spring chickens in 1914. They were married at 3 p.m. on July 30,  in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and without wasting any time, they took the 6 p.m. train back to Washington.  Their new life together began in the brand new house at 919 11th Street NE that Pete bought for his bride...(I wonder which came first- house or wife?)

Their first child Catherine came along in 1915 followed by my father, George and younger brother Nick. All were born at home-right up the street from the candy shop.

The children weren't allowed to sample the wares, but my crafty father took to wearing a bulky overcoat with lots of pockets-both winter and suspiciously summer, too- which allowed him to become an intrepid shoplifter. He later claimed he lost all his baby teeth to his voracious sugar habit.

Despite my father's thievery, the store was a big success until Woolworth’s moved into the neighborhood in the 1920s. At this point Pete decided to move out to the edge of town where the street car turned down Macomb Street off Wisconsin Avenue to make its way to American University. He built a two story building in 1926 with apartments upstairs and storefronts below. You can see this building today in its newest incarnation- the restaurant Cactus Cantina.

Adam also had a retirement plan. He bought a farm near Tuckerman Lane in Bethesda, but before he had a chance to live there, it burned to the ground. (Unfortunately, his caretaker had a habit of smoking in bed.) Uncle Adam sold his candy store to the Vilanos family and sometime in the mid 1920s, moved up to Philadelphia so Katie could be near her family again. He started the Guaranty Coffee Company on South Street and lived there the rest of his life.

Pete opened another candy shop up on Macomb Street, but business was slow in this less developed part of town. When the workmen building the National Cathedral started coming by looking for lunch, Pota would run upstairs to her apartment and get them soup. Soon the Macomb Cafeteria was born, and the family was in business again.

Brother Alec had moved uptown with them. He was still a lonely bachelor, but happily for him, the Haramkapolos brothers had just brought their sister, Koula over from Greece.  According to family lore, she came here because she couldn’t find a Greek man that was good enough to marry, but once she met our man Alec especially after she shook hands with him, she decided he was the one. (Those were the days.)

Koula and Alec were married in 1926 and lived in an apartment on Macomb Street-over what would become Burka’s Liquor Store for about six years. Soon their daughter Catherine was born. Here they are right in front of Macomb Cafeteria.

Then they became the caretakers of St Sophia's church down on L Street, where they got their own digs right next door.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

What do you get for Anniversary #72?

My parents have been married 71 years. SEVENTY ONE YEARS. They met when a group of Western  kids came over to my mother's apartment at the Broadmoor on Connecticut Avenue. Carl Langmark brought his buddy and neighbor, George Cokinos. They were both juniors. My mother, Bebe Calvert remembers the exact day- April 8, 1932. She was just fifteen, but it was that old cliche- love at first sight.  Soon they longed to ditch their friends for a few hours, and Bebe accomplished this with her free passes to the movies at the Avalon.  Bebe and George soon became inseparable at school and home. Sometimes they even skipped school- especially around lunch time. My father had saved all his money and bought a Model T which made the perfect get away car for picnics. My Yiya always packed her Georgie a big lunch, and little did she know it was being shared. At one point my grandmother shipped Bebe off to her sister in Ohio, hoping to cool off the relationship, but this didn't work. My mother came back still very much in love.

My parents eloped on Memorial Day in 1935 to Elkton, Maryland. Dad’s buddy, Fred came along as a witness, and they drove in a 1932 Desoto convertible. My mother was 17, and dad was 18. They shouldn't have done it. She was not a Greek, and this was a big no-no back then. As a wedding present, Fred took them out for a fried chicken dinner which set him back $1.25 per person. Then the newlyweds snuck back each to their own homes and tried to figure out what to do next. About a week later a fellow in Havre de Grace saw their wedding announcement in the paper, and called his friend, Pete Cokinos- my Papou. The cat was out of the bag, and my father was thrown out of the house. My grandfather asked the Greek community not to hire or help him in hopes that he would give up my mother and come to his senses. My dad did not give up. He got a job; he found them a place to stay.

When my older brother, Peter was born, they named him after Papou which was the tradition in Greek families. (yes, that’s the deal with all the same names) My father took the baby to see his parents, but my mother wasn’t included.
It wasn’t until after my sister was born that my Papou even met my mother. He would come to the Hollywood Inn, and help my dad make hamburgers for the weekend customers. And it wasn’t until my brother, Roger was born that Yiya finally came to see Bebe and the new grandson, Roger in the hospital. I guess even Yiya had to throw in the towel after 6 years and 3 kids.

My mother took it all in stride. She was and is the peacemaker. She did whatever it took to help everyone get along, or to make my Dad’s life easier, and that must be part of their secret. I know it has not been easy all these years by any means, but they are still together. After 70 years, I remember commenting to my father on the longevity of their relationship. He was standing on the front porch at the time, and looking off into the distance and he wistfully said "You know, your mother is my best friend." He paused to let that sink in as he rarely says anything so sentimental. I was a bit stunned myself. "Well, that's so nice, Dad," I managed to get out, feeling a little choked up.

Then, putting things into perspective with his irrepressible sense of humor, he said " Of course, most of my other friends are dead."

Sadly true, but we both had a good laugh.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A Short History of Cars

1951 Fleetwood
Cars have always been a big part of my father's life. He once bought a house on Upton Street- one half of a duplex actually, but it came with, count 'em nine garages. (You can still see the garages- tiny little stalls from the alley between Van Ness and Upton Streets.) Before he had his own car, my Dad would steal my Papou's car- a circa 1930 maroon Chevrolet with black fenders. Papou kept it in a garage about a block away from where they lived on Macomb Street so my father had to swipe two sets of keys- one for the garage and one for the car.  My Papou never understood why that car got so little mileage per tank of gas.  He even took it back to the dealer to complain.

My father can tell you about every car he has ever owned starting with the Model T Ford he bought on the sly with the money he earned from picking up golf balls and selling papers. His father thought he was too young to have a car, but that didn’t stop my dad. He lied about his age, forged his father’s name, and got a permit when he was only fifteen. His friend, Fred Brown hid the car at his house until it was too late for my Papou to stop the deal.

After the Model T, my dad upgraded to a 1927 Chevrolet-2 door coupe convertible and from then on it was convertibles all the way. He wanted to modify the Chevy so he went up to the Friendship depot and got a straw bench from a retired streetcar. Then he cut the trunk lid, reversed the hinges, and made his own rumble seat.

The next car was a 1932 Desoto with black fenders. He bought that one from a chef from Altoona who was working for Papou at Macomb Cafeteria. Then, just before WWII, Dad swung a brand new 1940 Hudson V8 with back windows that buttoned in when the top was down.

The Hudson (parked in front of Wash. Monument)
After this factories stopped making cars and started making war machines. Those were dark days for my father. During the war, he pre-ordered four cars- and when they started rolling off the assembly line he was right there. The first was a 1947 green convertible Studebaker,


which he sold as soon as the 1947 green convertible Buick came in.

Next was the maroon 1947 Town and Country Chrysler which he totally loved….

until the 1947 emerald green Cadillac showed up.

And that was the end of the line…until around 1951 when a pink one caught his eye.

A few years later, my brother would follow unwittingly in his shoes. Not knowing of Dad’s escapades, he’d climb down the tree outside his bedroom window on Davenport Street and “borrow” the car at night. The difference between father and son here was that my brother got caught because Dad always checked his mileage. My brother’s only recourse was to buy his own car with the money he made from a temp job at the post office. He got a 1939 Buick, shaped like a torpedo. What little paint it had was blue. There was an antenna in the middle of the windshield. No brakes, no insurance, and once again, a forbidden purchase. He parked it about a block away and walked home. He got away with this until about nine months later when Dad found a traffic ticket in his wallet.

For my dad, it was Cadillacs right on up to the seventies when Cadillac stopped making convertibles. Even then my cousin, Peter Sclavounos, managed to find him a custom made red Eldorado- which turned out to be the last stallion in line, and Dad’s personal favorite with its chrome spoke wheels and big white side walls.

But Dad eventually got the fever for a new car again- and it had to be a convertible. That’s when my all American Dad converted to BMW, and it was somewhere around then that he got the bright idea of buying my mother “her car” for their anniversary. My mother didn't learn to drive until her late twenties, and she doesn’t particularly enjoy it, but she wanted her freedom. She avoids the Beltway at all cost, although I have to say she’s a little bit of a lead foot for a supposedly timid driver. She drives to get there, and she does just that. She’s always hated the top down for the unspeakable things that happen to her hair, but she’s always driven a convertible because that’s what Dad loves, and Mom has always "gone along with the program". Even now-just this year- for their 71st anniversary, Dad went out and bought her a bright red Toyota Salera convertible. My mother was totally gracious about it, too. She said she liked the color. And just like when he was a kid, Dad got away with it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Restaurant Biz

 When my father, George Cokinos first got married, his father asked all the Greeks in town not to give him work because my dad dared to marry Bebe Calvert, a non Greek. Papou hoped he'd give my mother up, but stubbornness also runs in our family. Fortunately for him, George already had a job at the Macomb Deli (where the Zebra Room is now) right across the street from where his parents lived. Every day, his mother would go over there trying to convince him to reconsider his marriage. She offered him bribes like a trip to Greece. She proposed sending him back to G.W.U. When all else failed, she cried. Nothing worked. George didn't particularly like the restaurant biz, but that was what he knew. He was nineteen years old with a baby on the way. His resume was limited and  included picking up golf balls at a driving range, selling The Saturday Evening Post, and being a busboy for his parent's restaurant, the Macomb Cafeteria.

Later, the golf ball experience may have helped George get work picking up hangers off the floor for the Hecht Company, but the $15 a week was not cutting it for him. Finally a friend, Steve Demas, took pity and hired George as a helper on a laundry truck. My father worked hard. He was promoted to Service Manager and soon got to drive a Ford coupe with the words QUICK SERVICE LAUNDRY lettered in gold on the door. By then George was 21 and had two children to support.

Finally my Papou broke down and allowed the young family to live in a road house he already owned called the Hollywood Inn out in Camp Springs, Md.

At the time it was somewhere near the middle of nowhere. My Papou originally bought the property for the congregation of St Sophia to use, but it was just too far away from town. Or maybe too rowdy.

Hollywood Inn 1938
My parents could live there rent free, but the catch was they had to run the restaurant. So by day, George worked for Quick Service and whenever he had a chance he put flyers on people's cars advertising the Sunday chicken dinners at the Hollywood Inn.

Dang if they didn't misspell his name here

During World War Two, Papou talked George into running Churchhill's Bar and Grill with my Aunt Catherine and Uncle Mimi who had just arrived from Greece in 1939. Churchill's was where Cactus Cantina is now on Macomb Street. If you go there, you can see the old glass door just about in the middle of the building where my mother used to sit at the cash register. The grill was open from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m. My dad had to work the night shift until Uncle Mimi learned how to mix a cocktail.

At the end of the war, they were able to sell Churchill's and buy their own linen service- Modern Linen. Soon my brother and all three of my cousins were drafted to go work there. They hated it. Everybody hated it, except for my uncle and my father who thought it was a piece of cake compared to running Churchill's.

My brother Pete and cousin Pete hanging around Churchill's

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Beach

As soon as April rolls around, my parents are off to the beach. They make the three hour drive to their house in South Bethany every weekend from about April until October. After thirty plus years on the road, my mother is tired of the commute. (She's not fond of sand or sun on her body, or what water and  wind can do to her hair, but my father loves it all. He comes from a long line of beach lovers going all the way back to his father's roots in Greece. You know those families that send photo cards of themselves all dressed in white posed at sunset on the beach? Well here's our family's version:

Summer 1927

One problem for my mother is the way my father drives. He is a big proponent of relaxing with one finger on the wheel and cruise control at his feet. When the exit for Route 50 pops up up,  he is usually in the far left lane, crosses four lanes of 495 and maybe cuts off a dump truck to make the ramp. My mother is rigid with fear, but the process doesn't seem to bother him a bit.

My father is 90, and he didn't wear a seat belt until he was about 85 when he was pulled over near Denton for speeding in his red BMW convertible. The cop was so astonished at Dad's birthday- April 1916- that he dropped the speeding charge. He did give him a ticket for not wearing a belt, and that's what got my father. Not the years of my mother nagging, not the safety warnings, but the $25 ticket.

Holly's just after the Bridge or Jimmy's Grill in Bridgeville is a regular pit stop. My mother likes that. She gets to get out of the car and have a soft shell crab sandwich on white bread. Short Brothers is also on their beat. It is one of the tiniest farm stands on 404. No advance signs, no wind gadgets, it just appears near the Delaware line. Diane, who is the ever present farmer's wife, knows my whole family and will report on one member to another as we go by. She will pick you out the best corn or a good melon if you ask.

My parents have been going to the Eastern Shore since there was ferry instead of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Back then they couldn't afford to spend the night and would pack up three sandy kids at the end of the day and come back home.

Much later, when I was around, we stayed at the Del-mar in Ocean City, MD. It was the kind of hotel with rocking chairs on the double decker porch. We slept in saggy beds and my brother and I had to cling to the edges to keep from landing together in the middle. My brother remembers the time when our Papou set a small rubber replica of dog do-do on the floor in the dining room. A waitress shrieked when she spotted it, and ran in the back to get a bus boy. When they returned, my grandfather had already slipped the offending object back into his pocket. He was a hoot.
My clearest memory was not so funny. I remember my father got a huge splinter in his foot while walking on the boardwalk. He had to go to the hospital in Salisbury. I never went bare foot after that one.

My parents have had a beach house of their own since the late 1960s when ocean front property was cheap and risky. They were among the first to build in South Bethany, but had to rent it out for many  summers. We went almost every weekend in the winter, but it was usually gray and cold with a biting wind. None of my friends wanted to come with me after a while.

Nowadays my mother stays off beach, and occupies herself with planning all the meals and cooking. She also loves the cocktail hour. (or two.)  which ay contribute to how my parents stay married through all these years going to the beach.