Graffiti, March 11, 2010…A Conversation with Kalliope Constantaras
Forty years ago, give or take a year or two, I took a picture that might be the best one I’ve ever taken. It’s a simple picture. So still as to be nearly silent. Black and white–shades of grey. It’s a photo of my grandmother’s hands as they rest in her lap.
Since then I’ve taken thousands of pictures, possibly thousands upon thousands, some have been really good, even great, but none have told the story that this one photo tells.
I’ve been thinking a lot about her lately–my mother’s mother–Pauline Foss–the only grandparent I ever knew.
I remember being quite young and going to visit my aunt and her husband and walking in to find my grandmother sitting there, unsmiling, in a straight backed chair sitting near the window, looking down into the street, watching the cars and people pass below. As I said she was “unsmiling”, she wasn’t a “warm and fuzzy” person. She was stiff and hard with a thick German accent. I don’t remember if I was terrified of her but I know, at the very least, I must have felt “uneasy” in her presence. My father loved her. I think he was closer to her then my mom, her daughter–so much so, that when he built our house, the one I still live in, he made a space for her upstairs.
She had her own kitchen and a large living room/bedroom with a window she could sit by and look out, though, being on a dead end street, there wasn’t much to offer in the way of passers-by.
Her being there allowed my mother to go back to work. For a period of about four years she was home when my sister and I returned from school. During that time she and I had our share of run-ins. The funniest being the afternoon she chased me around the dining room table wielding a broom she was trying to swat me with. She was convinced that I’d eaten a box of frozen peas my mother had set out for that evening’s supper that had mysteriously disappeared. Being chased around the table was funny enough but why would I boil up a box of frozen peas? My snotty laughter infuriated her and I couldn’t stop laughing at how ridiculous it all was. But to this day I have no idea what happened to the peas.
Years later when I was in my early 20’s and we’d grown close, I asked her if she would let me interview her. Here was a woman who left Germany, aged 17, and travelled, by herself, to America. That was in the late 1800’s. In my mind I kept listing all the things she’d lived through–the advent of some of mankind’s greatest achievements. She’d been there for the first cars, phones and airplanes. She’d lived in towns before they had paved roads. Electricity! Two World Wars! Men in space!
When we sat down in her warm room above my parents I was so excited by the stories I was about to hear that it was all I could do to control myself.
After we talked for about 40 minutes I was left feeling very disappointed. I pushed and prodded: “Tell me about the first time you used a phone.” “What about a car? Do you remember your first ride in a car?” I tried. I really did but all she wanted to talk about was her family. Raising three little girls: Beatrice, Evelyn and the baby, my mother, Helen. She did it pretty much all by herself after her husband, August Foss, died at an early age. She did it by taking in other people’s laundry and by baby-sitting other people’s children. And she did it well. Into her 90’s the children who she baby sat for, now adults, would stop by with their children to meet her. She did it well enough that I never heard my aunts or my mother ever talk about how difficult their childhood was. My memory of when the sisters got together is filled with tears–tears that come from laughing so hard. They’d tell stories about the neighborhood they lived in, their friends and their adventures together–and they’d laugh and laugh and laugh.
The Easter Rabbit and his two Bunnies (my aunts Bea and Ev)
The lesson Nanny, our pet name for her, ended up telling me that day and I was too young to hear was that she WAS talking about mankind’s greatest accomplishment: Family and friends and community.
That day as I packed up my tape recorder I asked her if I could take her picture. Till the day she died in her 90’s she prided herself on always being presentable in public–and on that day she wasn’t feeling well so she demurred. Grasping at straws I asked, “Could I take a picture of your hands?” She looked down at them as they lay in her lap then looked at me. She didn’t understand why I wanted to photograph them but finally, with a little cajoling, she agreed.
The sad thing is that after many moves and many years I don’t know where that picture is…or the tapes of the interview.
It’s a simple picture. So still. Silent. Black and white–shades of grey. A photo of age and struggle and wisdom of family…of friends…of community. A picture of my grandmother’s hands resting in her lap.
One of the things that got me to thinking about my grandmother was reading the poet, Kalliope Constantaras’s bio. In it she describes how her grandmother, her Giagia, was a huge influence on her through her stories on her life in Asia Minor and Greece.
Kalliope will be on “Graffiti” on Thursday, March 11 during our current fund-raising drive. It seems appropriate because so much of her poetry is woven with the thread of family, friendship, memory and community. Things that are at the very heart of what CosmosFM/Hellenic Public Radio stands for.
Hellenic Public Radio on WNYE. 91.5 fm.
Though I’m a very visual person I’m also, as many of you know, a word person; and my favorite word in ancient Greek is NOSTOS. It means: Homecoming; longing for home, one’s family. It is the root of the word nostalgia. The first time I held Kalliope’s book of poetry entitled “Stillness” in my hands I opened to this:
I find you Hellas
Holding the same lyre
you have held for centuries.
I find you on Olympus
in bird songs and sweet-smelling shrubs.
I find you on the sunset isle,
among the Kilim carpet’s reds and blues.
In the rock and marbled vein,
I find you.
Underneath the cypress tree
that keeps me company,
and in the wind that whispers return.