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
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.
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
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.