photo credit: Marion Ettlinger
Read an Excerpt
Essays for The Millions
Essay in Elements of Style
Brighton, Massachusetts, August 2005/Narrative Magazine/Winter 2013.
American Idol: A Mother’s Dilemma/The Motherlode blog/New York Times online/May 11, 2010
Uruguay/Camera Obscura/November 2010
Evanthia’s Legs/Salamander/vol. 12, no. 2
The Chess Lesson/New England Review/vol. 27, no. 3
the Clover House
from Chapter One
On those rare occasions when she couldn’t control the world around her, my mother placed the blame squarely on America, the country she had reluctantly immigrated to from Greece in 1959. My father would retort that there were flaws in Greece too, but she ignored him because he was American.
They met in 1955, when my father was based in Athens with the American mission in Greece, building roads and repairing bridges on the Marshall Plan. For four years, they lived a glamorous life of parties and dances in a city that was working hard to shed the effects of the Second World War and the civil war that followed it. Once they were married and it was time to choose a country, my father won the argument, flying ahead of my mother to purchase what would be their only home. When she joined him in the hair- sprayed suburbs of parochial Boston, knowing no one and understanding little of American life, my mother’s reaction was quick and certain. To keep what she considered this unsightly world at bay, she took the brown paper from the moving boxes and covered every window of the single- story house.
She sat inside, fuming at my father and at what she knew lay on the other side of the paper. She glared at the shadows of the neighborhood children as they ran from their yards into hers and out again. They lingered before the covered windows, wondering what was hidden inside, and she watched this shadow theater, thinking of the Karagiozis puppet shows she had watched as a child.
After a week, my father tore the paper down. He led her to the glass and forced her to look out at the jewel- green lawn and the fat buds on the dogwood tree.
“See,” he said, almost in tears. “It’s beautiful.”
She never agreed. In her mind, my mother never really left that papered- over room. And I spent my childhood trying to win an invitation to join her there in the Greece that she imagined and remembered.
I know this story about the papered windows because my father told it to me before he died, some ten years ago now. I don’t know what made him tell me. We didn’t see each other very often, so it must have been important to him that I know. Perhaps he knew that I’d be left with only my mother’s stories after he was gone. Perhaps he knew they wouldn’t be good for me without some sort of dilution.
For my entire childhood, until he gave up on the whole project and left, he watched me beg my mother for the stories I learned by heart— about the grand house in the city of Patras, where my mother and her sisters and brother did whatever they wanted under the benign gaze of their elegant parents; about the farm in the country, where the children climbed trees and ate fresh fruit all day. My mother was always happy to oblige my requests. She would bring out a jar of syrup- stewed oranges as she talked, spooning out the delicacy she had carried home from our summer trip to Greece into a bowl we would eat from together. I didn’t like the stuff— the sweetness of the syrup barely covered the bitterness of the citrus— but I waited my turn with the spoon, happy to be sitting with my mother, nourished by her memories of a better time and place.
Sometimes I would press her to clarify a bit of history or to elaborate on a detail.
“What?” she would say, turning to me with a startled gaze. “What did you say?”
And I would pretend I hadn’t noticed that she’d forgotten all about me. She wasn’t really telling the stories to me; she was simply saying aloud in my presence what she was thinking about every minute of the day.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in Boston in late February when the phone rings and I recognize the city code for Patras. My mother moved back there, newly widowed, and since then we go long stretches without speaking on the phone. It’s better this way. Our most recent conversation several weeks ago ended with her complaining about the rudeness of her two sisters— women who have shown me nothing but love.
I let the call ring but perch on the couch and fi nally force myself to answer it. I’m surprised to hear the voice of my cousin, Aliki, on the other end.
“Calliope,” she says.
The short o sound in her Greek pronunciation knocks me into a life that seems to have been just the other side of a thin wall. Legally, I’m Calliope Notaris Brown. I am the latest in a line of Muses in my mother’s family, she being Clio, the daughter of Urania. But Callie Brown is my American camoufl age. It makes it easier when I want to tell myself that the Greek part of me doesn’t exist— that I have no connection to anyone save the people and places I choose. Now one tiny vowel sound has brought it all back. And, with Aliki’s alto, the fear that she is calling to tell me my mother is dead.
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