Daddy always said he would die when he was 85, but he made it to 86, so had an extra year to get his affairs in order. He and my brother made a trip to Bennett's Funeral Home to make all the arrangements, just in case there was no warning. He made my brother promise to have a big party after he died, so he could say goodbye to all his friends, but then jokingly added, we would have to do it for him. He was Greek Orthodox, but only by birth for he scoffed at those who went to church and especially those who went to confession like his Catholic friends. The local Greek priest made attempts to visit after his cancer diagnosis, but Daddy would have none of it until a month or two before he died when he began having second thoughts. If there was an afterlife, he thought, maybe there was still time for God to forgive him for the many years of badmouthing and negative talk.
Do you remember the father in that wonderful movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Well, I grew up with a Dad like that. He didn't clean my scrapes and scratches with Windex, but he did have a habit of interrupting my conversations with girlfriends to remind us of the Greek derivative of the words we used. After seeing the movie, this habit endeared him more to me, but it was too late to tell him. For someone who only went to the second grade, he had an impressive command of the English language. His grammar wasn't perfect, but yet he didn't need a dictionary to read the New York Times.
The party was held in a local Greek restaurant and the room was packed with Greeks and non-Greeks. My Dad loved people and people loved my Dad. He was an affable man who had rich friends and poor ones. He loaned out money, but never worried if he wasn't paid back. Then there were some kids who couldn't afford college, so he made it possible with a generous check. When I asked him for a quarter, he gave me fifty cents, but held me accountable for some of my expenses during college, saying I would thank him in the end, and I did. His needs weren't much except for a new Pontiac every year, which he bought from Bill Walker, one of his trusted Masonic friends. Driving the latest model car and wearing a new suit made my Dad happy and feel secure.
Even though my folks were born in the old country, we didn't grow up in a typical Greek household. I wasn't required to date Greek boys like some of my cousins were, and I was spared a
full-dunk baptism in the Orthodox church one hundred miles away. I also didn't know that the "last supper" was a tradition among our kind. It was not meant to be a memorial service. It was definitely a party. Dolmathes, spanokopita, and roast lamb filled our plates. There was bouzouki music, line dancing and hilarious stories that would have made my father blush. He arrived in America with only a name and a New York address written on a piece of scrap paper tucked in his pants' pocket He told us stories about sweeping floors and washing dishes before owning his own restaurant, but the funniest tales were the ones about going door to door as a Fuller Brush man.
Both my parents were story tellers, but the ones my Dad told usually had a purpose. He wanted me to know about his early years, so I would understand and appreciate his values and not take my good life for granted. He taught me about hard work and the meaning of the words, I earned it. He signed me up with a Social Security number when I was 13, so I could report all my earnings. When I started drawing on that account, I wish I could have thanked him. Politically he leaned to the left, but socially he was straight down the middle. Having your ears pierced is ok, he would say, but home by midnight is the rule. He made a big deal about my dating, and even a bigger deal when I said I wanted to get married. As far as he was concerned, knowing the boy's parents was more important than knowing the boy. He said he didn't care what color he was. If he came from good stock and a good home that was all he needed to give us his blessing.
I spent a few days with him in New Hampshire before he died. He looked thin and gaunt from the cancer that was eating him up inside, and had to use a pillow to sit on because he was all bones. He hadn't given up yet, and although he had decided not to fight it, he was never in the hospital or laid up in bed. He didn't seem to be in pain, and still enjoyed meeting his cronies for their daily coffee and philosophy talk.
When I pulled out of his driveway and headed for the airport, I didn't know his time would be up later that day. As I walked into my California house eight hours later, the phone rang, and I heard the words, he is gone. After a lovely meal with Mom and some of our family, he collapsed and within minutes passed away. His heart gave out before he would have to experience the awful pain of cancer. Everyone said it was a blessing. Now thirty years later, I see him standing in front of my car waving good-bye and blowing kisses on the day I backed out of his driveway.
In a beautiful eulogy read at my father's last supper party, my articulate uncle said it best:
"Close to midnight, like in a fairy tale, the soul of the once immigrant child, who had become a model citizen, a husband, father, uncle, grandfather, and to me a very dear brother, left this world of roses, birds, brooks, breezes and daisies for an unknown world from which no traveler has ever returned. Good night, sweet Prince, Bon Voyage Kalo Taxithee."