Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Birthday Are Greek To Me

Tomorrow is my father< George Cokinos’ birthday, and his family is having a hard time believing he is in his ninth decade.  He still drives, rakes leaves and refuses to go quietly. Greeks have solved the problem of growing old, and it’s not the Grecian Formula. It’s the tradition of Name Days. Your Name Day is set by the saint you are named for and by that saint’s feast day which is set by the Orthodox calendar. Traditionally parties are held, but no age numbers are involved.

I know my Papou and Yiya didn’t have to take the age thing too seriously until they arrived in America, and officials demanded to know their birth dates. Either they didn’t remember, or they didn’t want to remember their true ages. Papou was much older than Yiya, perhaps by twenty years, but the gap grew larger as he aged, and weirdly enough, as he grew older, my grandmother became younger.  Perhaps he fudged the numbers when they got married, or maybe she just didn't care to her admit her age. Or maybe a little of both. In paper my papou was younger for the insurance agents, but older for the census takers.

When Papou was about eighty in the 1950s, he had to go take the newly implemented driver’s test at the DMV on Indiana Avenue. My Dad drove him down there and watched him scratch his head through a little window where he was taking the test. After a few minutes, Dad gestured at him to ask to go to the bathroom, and then, oh so subtly I’m sure, Dad went into the bathroom with him, and they got the thing done. (Dad proudly recounts that “they” got a 98.) Next came the driving portion which involved a lot of orange cones. Papou hit every one. Fortunately, the inspector was a customer at Churchill’s Bar and Grill, the family restaurant. Dad took the man aside and promised him that Papou would only be driving to St. Sophia’s, and his daughter’s house and only on Sundays.  Would he please pass him? He did.

Those were different times.  At that point in his life, Papou was wielding a Cadillac. He had a tiny garage so he hung tires on the walls for when he parked. Dad says he often drove right over the curb into Aunt Catherine’s yard, and she would yell at him from her kitchen window. But he kept driving well into his eighties, and as far as we know, he didn't kill anyone.

My father is still driving as well, and still passing all the tests. He was born right here in DC where we have birth certificates and birthdays and eventually- with the advent of my mother, the American birthday tradition was established. (My mother, by the way, solved the age thing her own way by joining in with Jack Benny and remaining firmly lodged at thirty-nine.)

Way back when, back in his childhood, Dad remembers his big present would be a five or ten dollar gold piece. He has given them all way now, but he wished he kept one. His favorite present, however, was the birthday gift that he bought himself at age eighteen: a used 1932 maroon DeSoto with black fenders.

We celebrate Dad’s birthday tomorrow- on April 18th, but I discovered a few years back that his birth certificate says April 17th. I said, “Hey Dad, look at this. You’ve been celebrating the wrong day all these years.” And he said “Too late.”

Happy Birthday, Dad. Whenever.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Explaining GreeK Easter

Easter is a big event in our family- at least on the Greek side. When I was growing up, I always got an Easter basket on American Easter because my mom is not Greek, but then we would celebrate again whenever Greek Easter rolled around. The Orthodox calender follows a different schedule, but what it usually means is that the Greek Easter bunny gets to hit the half price candy. This year, however, much to the dismay of cheap Greeks everywhere, both fall on the same day.

My father recalls the fasting which lasted until the Saturday night before Easter Sunday when everyone went to St Sophia's for the midnight service. The fast ends with a huge meal in the middle of the night. A lot of people think of lambs turning on spits when they think of Greek celebrations, and I did, too, but I was lately informed that our Yiya always did a leg of lamb, and the lamb thing wasn’t done until my Uncle Mimi moved out to Chevy Chase in the late 1940s. There we could play baseball in the side yard and roast whole animals with impunity. If the weather was nice, tables were set up on the back terrace. I remember doing the Twist for the first time in their basement, and often watching the Wizard of Oz on TV after dinner.  The best part of Greek Easter though, for kids big and small, was the Egg War.

All Greek Easter eggs are dyed a deep red for Christ’s blood. Some rely on food coloring for the red effect. My Yiya, however,  used red crepe paper. All symbolism aside, the seemingly sole purpose that Greeks dye a gazillion eggs crimson  is to destroy them. The point is you take your egg, hold it in your fist and hit your opponent's egg or be hit. The egg that cracks is the loser, and the victor goes on until all eggs are broken, and only one grand champion egg holder is left. (If you cheat like my father and uncle, you might slip in your thumb or, if really prepared, a marble substitute.)

These days my cousins, Dean and Ann have taken on the daunting task of having the hoopla at their house which is a frightful distance from Washington. They keep moving farther away, but it does no good. Many of us are well known for not missing a meal, and my brother drives all the way from Michigan. Some of my family can’t find their way out of a paper bag so they tend to travel in tribes and caravans with those that can.  Egg count this year is up to about 45, and the rainy forecast must have my poor cousins contemplating moving out of state, but until that happens, the Egg War will go on, and I have a lot of dying to do.