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
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
The Cokinos Brothers came to America one at a time, one after another. The eldest, Adam, came first, and let me tell you, the town they came from was tiny-a one donkey burg-way over the Peloponese Mountains a long way from Athens. Farming and the sea were the top two industries-and still are. Then there is the monastery (the one my father always threatened to send me to if I didn't straighten up. ) They could have used me. When we went to visit in 2005-only three tiny nuns were left, and they weren't spring chickens.
And it just boggled my mind that my Papou and his brothers ever got out of Dodge way back at the turn of the century- over those mountains and down to a port. My grandfather, Panos (Peter) Kokinos came on a steam ship called the Georgia and arrived in America on October 7, 1905. It took him thirty days to get here. The eldest brother, Adam had already arrived and opened a candy store on K Street NW.
They worked together making candy and ice cream by hand in the basement until there was enough money for Peter to open his own store at 1103 H Street NE. In 1909, another brother, Dionisios arrived, but he decided not to stay. In 1916 they sent for their brother, Alec who lived with his brothers until he got married.
Meanwhile back in Greece, legend has it that somewhere in the countryside near Sparta, a man walked out to his yard, and a bullet mowed him down. No one knows why. He left behind a daughter, Panyiota, my Yiya, who was soon shipped off to America to live with her brother, Tom and his wife, Christina in New Jersey. Fortunately someone knew a lonely Greek bachelor in Washington who had a candy shop. Pete got on a train and went to look her over. He was a much older man, but a handsome one. In later years, with every story, he would always get older, and Paniyota much younger. The Greeks never put much weight on actual birthdays. At any rate, at age 30, 35 or 40, Peter wasn’t getting any younger back then. They were married at 3 p.m. on July 30, 1914, and took the 6 p.m. train back to Washington.
My father, George and his older sister Catherine and younger brother Nick were all born at home in a brand new house at 919 11th Street NE-right around the corner from the candy shop. The children weren't allowed to sample the wares, so George took to wearing a big overcoat with lots of pockets-winter and summer-and soon lost all his baby teeth to his sugar habit.
The candy stores did great, but then Woolworth’s moved into the neighborhood around the mid 1920s. Adam had bought a farm way out in Rockville, and Peter had bought property at the end of the trolley line - where the street car turned off Wisconsin Avenue at Macomb Street and went on to American University. Peter built almost a block's worth of storefronts that he rented with apartments upstairs. It was going to be his retirement. You can see this building today - it has big fake cactuses out front and is mostly occupied by the restaurant Cactus Cantina.
Adam also had retirement plans of living on the farm near Tuckerman Lane. Unfortunately, his caretaker smoked in bed, and that was the end of that. Uncle Adam sold his candy store to the Vilanos family and by 1930 moved up to Philadelphia, where his wife Katie was from. He started the Guaranty Coffee Company on South Street and lived there for the rest of his life.
Peter opened another candy shop on Macomb Street, but this time there were no customers. No people lived out there. The workmen building the cathedral would come by though, asking for lunch, so Panyiota ran upstairs and made them soup. Soon the Macomb Cafeteria was born, and they were in business again.
Brother Alec moved uptown with them. Meanwhile, the Haramkapolos brothers had just brought their sister, Koula over from Greece where according to legend, she couldn’t find a man that was good enough to be her husband. Then she met Alec, and when she shook hands with him, she decided he was the one. Koula and Alec were married in 1926 and lived in the apartment over Burka’s liquor, but around 1932 they became the caretakers of St Sophia's church when it was down at 8th and L NW, and lived right next door.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
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.
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.