Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My Big Fat Greek Upbringing

My yiayia, Alexandra Hotis
At first glance, you might not guess I have a Greek heritage. My dad is Greek, first generation. My mom is a mix of Irish, Swedish, and Norwegian. But, without doubt, I was raised “Greek.” And the Greek culture is a patriarchal one. Not too many decades ago, if you were a girl growing up in a Greek family, your path was pretty straightforward—marry a good Greek boy and have children.

I’m amazed at the leaps women have made within my Greek family in just two generations. My extended family counts medical professionals, attorneys—including two Assistant U. S. Attorneys—accountants, teachers, publicists, businesswomen, you name it.

But I’d like to step back a moment to see how we got here, using my time growing up as an example.

If there’s anything you’d care to know about my upbringing, rent the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It’s all in there.

The large extended Greek family? Check.

Married in the Greek Orthodox church? Check. With—count ‘em—ten bridesmaids. Big fat Greek wedding indeed.

Member of the Greek dancing troupe? Check.

Everyone in the family named the same? Check.

In my family, you have one of the following names or a variation of: Alexandra, Anthony, Stacy, or James. Although, included in our ranks, we do have a Theodora and a Despina for flavor, and one rogue Karla.

The “A” in Anne A. Wilson? Alexandra. Which, by the way, has spawned four variations: Alex (for a girl), Alex (for a boy), Alexia, and Sandy.

Yiayia? Check.

Yiayia is grandmother in Greek. And any girl who calls herself Greek, has surely endured yiayia matchmaking.

You’ve seen the stereotyped yiayias, dressed in black, wearing kerchiefs, waddling to and from the kitchen carrying pans of baklava, wearing crosses on their necks, and worry beads strapped to their waists. And yeah, I’ve known my fair share.

When I lived in Annapolis, during my time at the Naval Academy, I attended Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church. They had an especially, uh, persuasive group there. This yiayia contingent—determined septuagenarians, who would have me marry their grandsons—would stalk me after liturgy, accosting me gang-style at church coffee hour.

“You need to find good Greek boy and get married,” Effie says.

“But I’m in school. I can’t get married,” I say.

“School? Pah! Why you go thees navy academy?”

“I want to get a degree. I’d like to be a naval officer.”

“But what about the cheeldrin, honey?” [You have to add the guttural “h” in “honey” or it’s just not authentic]. “You need to have lots of cheeldrin,” Effie says.

“But I haven’t really thought about children,” I say. “I don’t even know if I want kids.”

“Of course you do, honey,” Effie says. “You just don’t know it, yet.”

“My grandson ees good Greek boy!” Zoe says. “You listen to me!”

“No, no, no,” Soula says. “My grandson, Nick, ees businessman! He take good care of you!”

“Thanks Soula. Thanks, Zoe. But I can take care of myself pretty okay.”

“No, no, no,” Effie says. “I introduce you to my Dimitri. He owns Greek restaurant!”

“Thanks Effie. Thanks all of you. But I already have a boyfriend.”

“Oh? Who ees thees boyfriend?” Effie says.

“His name is Bill. We go to school together.”

“Bill . . . what?” she asks.

Uh, oh. She’s on to me.

“What ees his last name?” she presses.

“Wilson. His name is Bill Wilson.”

“Op, op, op!” They say in unison. “No! Ees not Greek! Ees American!” Soula says.

“But you’re American, too. We all are.”

“No, no, no,” Soula continues. “Ees not the same. Ees not Greek! See over there? That’s my grandson, Georgios. He ees from the old country.”

Oh no. Not the old country.

“Georgios, Georgios! Ela etho (come here)!”

No! He’s getting up!

Back then—this was over twenty-five years ago—the guys from the old country arrived with gold necklaces, shirts unbuttoned, chest hair brimming, the swagger, the attitude, the answer to every Greek-American girl’s dream. No, please, no.

But the "old country," aka Greece, is where my grandparents were born. My grandfather arrived in the United States at the age of eleven, and my grandmother—my yiayia—crossed the grounds of Ellis Island many years later at the age of twenty-six. Together, they raised seven children.

My dad was one among these children, which included his sister, his brother, and four half-siblings. They grew up poor in El Paso, Texas, and scrabbled and worked their you-know-whats off to make it in America.

These two generations laid the groundwork for my generation. But throughout, the essence of the Greek woman never changed. Smart and hardworking, they could take care of themselves, their family, and anyone else who came along. But now, new country, new freedoms, new opportunities. The world had opened to future generations of Greek women. We were free to fly. In my case, literally.

I marvel at this, because my sisters, my cousins, my contemporaries, we all shared the same upbringing—yiayias wondering when we were going to get married. Why was it taking so long? When are you going to have cheeldrin?

Ironically, most of us did. We got married. We had children. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. We had choices. Would could get an education, have a career. Have a family or not. Now or later.

Even though I poke a little fun at our yiayias, they had substance. Strong women. Tough women. And this was passed down to those of us who happened to be born in a different country at the right time with the right freedoms. If not for them, had they not had the work ethic to lay the foundation in a new country, we would never have had these opportunities in the first place. 

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