San Francisco (The 4th of July)

July 4, 2013 § 1 Comment

(First published in Temporary Translation, July 4, 2010) 

I was nine years old when I travelled from my village at the Corinthian Gulf all the way to the US, to San Francisco, a little girl holding grandpa’s hand.

Grandpa and I visited his younger sister, Eleni, who was also my godmother but hadn’t seen me since my christening.

Our visit was meant to be the farewell meeting between brother and sister, but I didn’t know that at that time. For me it was the most marvellous thing that could happen to a kid of my age and time: a trip to the US.

By the time we got there, my godmother had been fighting cancer for far too long and knew she had already lost this fight. She had asked her brother to visit her and bring her goddaughter with him.

The relationship between brother and sister was a very close one. They had lost their mother very young – she had died of cancer too. Soon after, their father remarried and got five further children with his new wife. Although they loved their younger siblings, my grandfather and his sister would always remain connected by this special bond which only the memory of a deceased mother’s kiss can create. Even after my grandfather literally forced his sister (in order to escape poverty and the upcoming Second World War) to abandon her first and, as far I know, only love, to marry the much older, but well off, Greek-American, and to emigrate to the from her homeland most faraway city of the US, Eleni didn’t stop respecting and loving her brother. The spatial distance between them even intensified their love and bond to each other. Letters, packages, and later, rare but precious phone calls, were on a weekly basis.

When I was born, I was soon to become my grandfather’s darling, and so it was inevitable that I become Eleni’s darling too. In everybody’s opinion, I also looked just like her.

Eleni made her first, and last, trip to Greece, after more than thirty years abroad, in order to become my godmother, in the same church she was christened, in the same church her mother’s funeral took place.

When grandpa and I were in San Francisco the sightseeing tour, except for the Golden Gate Bridge, the Lombard Street, the Chinatown, other neighbourhoods, beautiful parks, and the Sea World, also included a huge and impressive cemetery. The only cemetery I knew till then was the one in my village, and that was tiny.

It was a gorgeous sunny day in April and we first drove through a sea of white crosses, placed in such a tidy pattern on the green field that I got a bit dizzy while looking at them. It was the military part of the cemetery, or maybe it was even a totally different cemetery than the one afterwards, but I was too young to know.

My godmother explained that these were all young men fallen in the Vietnam War. It was the year 1979 and the Vietnam War memories were as fresh as the flowers on many of these graves. As she talked about it, she closed her eyes in horror, put her hands on her belly, and pictured the hundreds of ships she had seen coming from the other side of the Pacific Ocean; their bellies out of steel carrying fresh wooden coffins. The cruellest lottery, a mother’s worse nightmare, took place in the US those days, she said. Blue plastic capsules containing birth dates. Birth dates to be paired with death dates very soon. Every single day she had prayed at home, and every single Sunday at the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, that her only son would not get one of the letters. Her son did escape this call and this death, and my godmother could keep her faith.

We past the military cemetery and arrived at the Orthodox one. Under a big tree, next to the main path where we were now walking, she stopped and told us that this would be their family grave. Grandpa had great trouble to hold back his tears, but she was calm and seemed even happy. She was content that we were witnessing this spot; that her beloved brother would know the tree under which she would be lying, that I, her youngest love, might visit her one day again and bring her some flowers.

In the evenings, in her bedroom which she hadn’t shared with her husband for over two decades already, she would take off her wig and let me comb her grey hair that had reluctantly grew again after the chemotherapies, but was too thin and weak to bear colour. While I was tenderly combing her hair, she would ask me about our family, our neighbours, and village back home. I, being a talkative child (a gossip rag actually), would tell her everything she wanted to know, even the things I knew my mother didn’t want me to tell anybody. But she was not anybody, she was my godmother and I was her godchild.

In her letters, the few months that followed our visit before she died, she would write over and over again how this would be one of her fondest memories. It is one of mine too.

A few years after her death, her son, Jim, visited us in Greece with his wife. My grandpa couldn’t stop embracing and kissing him all the time. Jim was overwhelmed but deeply moved too. It would remain his last visit though, because he died a couple of years later of an aneurysm, an insidious leftover of a car accident and a head trauma. He is buried somewhere in Reno where he and his wife lived at the time. Grandpa was devastated by the fact that Jim was not buried next to his mother.

Over the years, I’ve lost contact to Jim’s wife and thus I lost track of all the graves I was supposed to keep in memory.

When I think of San Francisco, I don’t think of the Golden Gate Bridge, of the Lombard Street, of the Chinatown, or the other neighbourhoods, the beautiful parks, and the Sea World. When I think of San Francisco, I think of this earth spot underneath the big tree in this unknown cemetery and her bones that have been probably removed from there by now. It is I who should have been the one to wash them with oil and wine and take them back home with me, put them next to my grandfather’s in our family grave, under another tree, the only one in our tiny graveyard.

Grandpa who died on July 4th, 1997, rests there alone.

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