Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Ghost of Christmas Past

Every year I think this is it. This is the year I will actually do it. Sit down and write those pesky Christmas cards. I save the return address labels. I have a box of blank cards, but I never seem to get past perusing the previous year's mail. Poignantly,  I just found a card from Billie Stathes, my father's oldest friend who died about a month ago. They met around 1922 when she was five, and he was six.

Billie at five

Billie lived at 1832 8th Street NW with her parents James and Cleopatra Stathes, her baby brother John and her Uncle George. She called her neighborhood "the village," and her world was anchored by her favorite place, the Carnegie Library. She remembered four gas stations, a variety of shops and the original St Sophia's Greek Orthodox Church. Billie could also recall the days when the congregation rented space from the Adas Israel Synagogue on 6th and G. This is where she met my father - a zany little boy who loved playing the clown.

Billie and George were lifelong friends; both lived to see ninety and beyond in good health. Even when Billie moved to Florida and became a teacher, they still stayed in touch. She was always beautifully turned out and took no guff.

When Billie came to my dad's funeral in 2008, she gave me a detailed map of her long lost village drawn from her memories and rendered by her cousin Nick Chacos. I was so excited that I took it to the Carnegie Library, but the staff wasn't really sure what to do with it. Feeling the need to share this cool little piece of history, I wrote about it, and six years later, thanks to historian Mara Cherkasky, that posting would lead to Billie's picture landing on a new sign commemorating the old neighborhood near where the Greek church stood at 8th and L NW.

 In 2014, a busload of St Sophia's current parishioners and clergy went on a crazy little field trip to an empty and seemingly soul-less convention room. The only furnishing was a makeshift altar which took on a deeper significance when the crowd discovered they were standing as closely as possible to where the old one was. (Not an easy trick considering this block of 8th Street is part of the building now.)  After a few prayers, Father Steve led the group , all chanting, through the front hall and out the door to the new sign. He thereby sealed the deal by flinging holy water and olive branches around as Greeks are wont to do.

Father Steve Blessing "Billie's" Sign

Billie was thrilled to find out she was included in the project.  On that last Christmas card she thanked me for sending her pictures of everything- including the display which included a photo of her and Uncle George. She was ninety seven when she wrote: " I wept for a week when I received my village long ago. I became seven again, getting ready to take my gang to the library for a couple of hours." She was nearing one hundred when she died, still as independent as ever and living at home in Coral Gables.

Next time you are near the convention center "village," look for Billie and her Uncle George and say hello to this little ghost of DC's past.