Monday, May 2, 2016

Proud to be Greek

(Polisson-Anastas family, October 27, 1946, 3 Perkins Road, Gloucester, 50th anniversary celebration for Angel and Angelica Polisson.)

You gotta love it.  Due to the success of the Academy Award-nominated film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” Greeks suddenly found themselves to be “in.”  According to the New Yorker, Greeks, who once rushed to Americanize themselves, were “now adding syllables back to their names.”

So, in keeping with this new ethnicity, let me tell you a secret.  My real name isn’t Anastas, it’s Anastasiades.  Yes, there really were a couple of syllables dropped from our original family name.
It happened to my father like it did with so many other Greeks.  Upon his arrival at Ellis Island in 1908 at the age of nine, the immigration authorities couldn’t handle Dad’s given Greek name, Panos Anastasiades.  So they changed it to Peter Anastas.  My actual first name is Panayiotis, which means “little Peter” or “junior.”  But my parents only used that for my baptism, after which they reverted to Peter, like my dad.

If you are wondering what Anastasiades means, let me explain.  Anastas is the past participle of both the ancient and demotic, or modern, Greek verb “anisto-anastasis,” which means “to stand up, rise or be resurrected.”  So Anastas means “having stood up” or, like Christ, “having risen.”  The final syllables, “iades,” stand for “the son of,” like the Russian suffix “ovich.”  Therefore, my name literally means “son of the one who stood up” or “son of the arisen.”  Not bad for the child of an immigrant, who arrived in America at the age of nine wearing his mother’s shoes.

Ah, but it wasn’t “in” to be Greek in 1908, anymore than it was hip to be Italian or Jewish.  When my father arrived in Lowell to join his father as a laborer in the Massachusetts Cotton Mill, he witnessed some horrendous battles between the newly arrived Greeks, the French-Canadians and the Anglo-Americans, who made up the primary workforce.  They were turf battles that later became labor struggles, eventually driving many immigrants to other towns, or even back to the “old country,” as the Greeks called home.  In fact, my father, whose own father had actually died before Dad arrived, soon left Lowell to sell newspapers and shine shoes in downtown Boston, where he remained until his induction into the army during World War I.

From boyhood I heard these stories about my father’s arrival and subsequent life in America, stories which I’ve passed down to my own children.  Dad’s story is the story of many Greeks, who came here penniless or orphaned, went to work, educated themselves, and eventually started their own businesses, not untypically lunch rooms or grocery stores.

Some immigrants, like my uncle Cyrus Comninos, who was a physician, or the sculptor George Demetrios, whom Dad knew when they were both young men in Boston, became successful in the professions or the arts.  Yet, while Greeks, like Theodoros Stamos, have become major painters in America, and Harry Mark Petrakis has written powerfully about Greeks in Chicago, we have not produced a novelist of the stature of Jewish American writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, or the Italian American novelist Pietro di Donato, whose Christ in Concrete is one of the great novels of immigrant experience in this country.  But look how long it took for Greek American life to make its way into the movies!

For all its popularity, which led the New Yorker to compare the film unfairly to a sit com, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is a remarkable picture of Greek American life, pitting first generation children like me against their foreign-born parents.  On the afternoon I happened to be seeing it, the audience was comprised mostly of Greek Americans.  There were a lot of little old ladies in black dresses, whispering to each other in Greek before the film began.  And once it started, I listened with delight as many in the audience anticipated the words before they had even come out of the mouths of the characters, especially the father, who, naturally, owns a restaurant at which the entire family works.

“Oh, God, how I know that world!” I exclaimed during the film, tears of recognition streaming down my face.  Tears, too, of immense sadness because the father, who is constantly reminding his children of their Greek heritage, was so like my own father, now dead.

Of course, the power of the film, and, indeed, its immense appeal, is not only because it’s about an ethnic group that many Americans know very little about.  It’s also because the film depicts family dynamics that we all share—a child’s need to separate herself from an overprotective family, a traditional father’s conflict with modernity, and the terrible difficulty we all experience in letting go, no matter what our ethnic backgrounds may be.

If anything, the film’s sequel, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” just released in time for Greek Easter, is even more relevant, as it explores the relationship between the teenage daughter, Paris, and her mother, Tula, who, in the first film, was struggling to individuate from her Old World parents. In choosing to leave Chicago for college at NYU, Paris separates herself from her loving, if often stifling, Greek family; but in the process she learns that they will always be part if her life.

And, yes, even for the strength of their critical insights into the crippling aspects of Greek American culture that so many in my generation tried to escape from, these two films, which I highly recommend, still made me proud to be Greek.

Peter at Museum (1)Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.