My family’s origins begin at the birthplace of civilization, philosophy, and wisdom—Greece! At least if you believe the Greek supremacy portrayed in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding that’s true.
The movie is often quoted in my house and while it’s a caricature of Greek-Americans—loud, brash, talking over one another, food-focused and family-oriented—it hits the mark almost on the bullseye. Not just for Greek families, the portrayal is reminiscent of other immigrant families as well—Italians, Jews, Russians, Turks, or Persians to name a few.
My father’s family is from Mani, Greece. A dry, harsh, mountainous area that creates people just as harsh—with unbending wills and indomitable spirits. In other words, a swift kick to the head by a mule wouldn’t begin to dent the craniums of the people from Mani. It’s often said that all the bad-tempered Spartans (legend has it Spartans left deformed infants out in the wilderness to die rather than be burdened with raising them) were sent to Mani. So, you can just imagine what my father’s side of the family is like.
My mother’s side of the family is from Kalamata, Greece, known for its olives. In contrast to my father’s side, my mother’s family is as smooth and polished as olive oil made from Kalamata olives. They say opposites attract, and the contrast between my mother and my father, and their families, has made for some very interesting family dinners.
My parents’ journey to America took place more than forty-five years ago. They simply boarded a plane and arrived. They were lucky enough to have family in the US that sponsored them to become citizens. Their physical journey, unlike earlier immigrants, was a non-event. It was the emotional journey they took after their arrival that really defines my family.
I’m sure my parents have—on more than one occasion—questioned why they left behind their comfortable middle-class surroundings to move to the United States. When I was a child, my family and I lived in Sunset Park, Brooklyn—complete with gangs, tiny apartments full of roaches and mice, and a gaggle of teenage mothers. Overlaid on top was constant street noise—yelling, loud crashes, fists hitting—I remember as a little girl sitting in the corner of the room with my hands over my ears trying to block it all out, trying to find a minute’s worth of peace.
While those early years were hard on all of us as we acclimated to a new culture, I am thankful every day that my parents choose to come here, that they saw the writing on the wall for Greece’s future. Every time I speak to one of my relatives in Greece currently facing years of recession with no recovery in sight, I know they made the right decision.
Growing up first-generation, straddling two countries, was not easy. Only someone who has lived this can understand what I mean. You are raised with the moral guidelines of a country you know nothing about. My parents where moored in Greece’s archaic societal norms, never progressing their thinking with the country they lived in. Luckily, their old-fashioned thinking didn’t extend to education, more specifically a woman’s right to education. My parents, especially my father, believed that girls had just as much right to an education as boys. Would their thinking have been altered if I’d had a brother? I will never know. But I was one of the lucky ones, able to receive the tools I needed to make my own way in this world and not be reliant on a man. Others of my cohort were not as lucky.
As a first-generation immigrant I was very aware that I was Greek-American. Not of one country, but of two. I have tried to take the best of both—the rich history, beauty, and tradition of Greece and marry it to the fierce, forward momentum of the United States. I felt that Greek food deserved its own mention in this essay. Not enough good things can be said about Greek food and what a gift it is to the rest of the world!
I am blessed with two beautiful boys, the second generation (at least on my side of the family and more like the sixth on my husband’s side). Their last name is Jones and while I dreamed of such an Americanized name as a little girl, today the name seems like white toast—dry, with no flair. That’s why the middle name for both is Skafidas. It adds a little spice back into their names, makes them interesting, gives them a history and a story. A story that could only be written in America.
My boys’ lives are the perfect blend of all the generations that have come before them. And as our family gathers to roast a lamb on Easter (which has mercifully moved from the front yard to the back), our family Greek, Jewish, Irish, Russian, Polish, and Welsh all come together to eat and celebrate that we are all Americans.
Mary Skafidas is Vice President of Investor Relations and Corporate Communications for Loews Corporation.
This essay excerpt is adapted from JOURNEYS: AN AMERICAN STORY compiled by Andrew Tisch and Mary Skafidas and is printed with permission from RosettaBooks.