The Feasts of Memory was my first book, and when I was writing it, I was still living in the world of either/or, one world or the other.
I had stayed out of the shipping business, and I spent the day at home in my one bedroom apartment by the United Nations in New York. I wrote steadily and regularly every day from one in the afternoon until six in the evening.
A friend of mine asked me why I wrote The Feasts of Memory, and I said, “To answer that, I would have to tell how confusing it was to be growing up in a Greek family in Westchester County in America in the nineteen forties and fifties.”
The either/or choices of my life included not only shipping and writing, but Greece and America as well. As I wrote in the first chapter of The Feasts of Memory:
“Greece was downstairs in our house in Rye, as I sat by the bannister on the second floor, watching the people in our living room, listening to their babel of words and laughter. Greece was downstairs on a Sunday night, while upstairs in America I struggled to answer questions in my workbook before it was time for bed. Greece was Monday and Thursday afternoons when a Greek teacher arrived on the train from New York City to teach us the pluperfect and future perfect of Greek verbs, when elsewhere, in America, other children were playing baseball.”
During those years, my life was divided between Greece and America, and during Easter week, the country downstairs, Greece, took over my whole life. Anything I was doing in America had to be put on hold until Holy Week was over. I realize this is not the proper time to complain about that, but it was hard to leave the American part out of my life entirely for that long.
My parents took us to church every night. Since they had gone to church on those same nights throughout their childhoods, each service meant something to them. But to us they all seemed the same—there was a lot of singing and moaning and we had to stand up for so long that we thought we would fall down. My parents were not churchgoing people, at least for the rest of the year. But during Holy Week, they were as religious and dutiful as any of the little ladies in black who were always standing in the front row no matter how early we got to church. My father would bring his little book of the Iera Synopsis with cross on the cover, which I never saw except during that week. (Now it is in the front drawer of the servan which is inside the front drawer of my apartment in New York, and I will take it out this weekend for the first time this year.)
We had fasted all week, which meant certainly that we would not eat meat, but my mother did not eat eggs or dairy products either. My father didn’t fast because he ate out a lot and in the foreign culture of America, it would hard for him to order fasting foods. My mother tried to excuse him, saying, “Ασθενής και οδοιπόρος αμαρτία ουκ έχειν», although it was not clear whether she considered him to be ασθενής or οδοιπόρος, a traveller or an invalid.
Finally, on Saturday night, we would feel relief as we rode home in the car after the midnight service. We would cup our hands over the lighted candles to keep them from going out, for my mother wanted to bring the lighted candle home to our house and take the light of the Ressurection into every room, even the store-room in back where the old silverware was kept.
Going home after church on Saturday we would look at the people in the other cars passing us on the highway, and we wondered what those American people must think of us carrying lighted candles home in the car.
When we got home, my father would drive straight into the garage, and my mother would get out of the car holding her lighted candle. My mother was tall, and holding the candle over her head, the flame shone over her head like the Cherubim the acolytes had carried in the procession that went round and round the church. She could reach up with the flame and make a cross with the smoke on the white plaster ceiling. And standing in the dark and chill of the garage, we could have been among the early Christians in the catacombs making our secret crosses.
Every year there would be another cross, and now there were five or six or seven crosses on the ceiling, one for every year we had lived in the house.