As a kid, growing up in the 1960’s in a small southern New Jersey town where we were the only Greek family (the Tiniakos Family came later in the 70’s), was tough. The town was made up of predominately Irish and Italian Catholics. Not only weren’t we Catholic, but my parents had accents – Mom especially. I clearly remember the taunts the kids gave me when my mother called out my name to come home for dinner… Haaaarrreeeee (you must roll the “r” as you say it). The entire neighborhood would erupt in “Haaaarrreeee!” I guess it could have been worse. She could have called me by my Greek name, Argyri. That would have been a disaster.
Although my parents worked hard and our family was respected in the community, we were looked at a little differently because we were the “Greek Family”. Most of my childhood friends didn’t even know where Greece was. I can remember them asking if we still believed in the twelve Olympian Gods, and why we celebrated Easter on a different date. The only Greek they had heard of, at that time, was Telly Savalas, who played Kojack. Forget about trying to pronounce my last name! That’s a photo of me training for the family business)
It was different on the other side of the Delaware River in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. Over there, entire Greek villages were emptied and dropped into the town. Whole blocks of row homes were filled with Greek families. They didn’t have to worry about their friends mispronouncing their last names – most of them were related anyway and had the same last name! They surely had it easy.
I can remember when I opened my office in Upper Darby in 1985 and walking down Wellington Road. I heard Greek music coming from many houses and the yiayias outside talking Greek to their neighbors. I went back to my office, called my mother and told her… “They actually speak Greek outside. I heard Greek music. Unbelievable”.
You ask why I told my mother I heard Greek being spoken outside? Remember, in the 60’s it wasn’t “cool” to be ethnic. There was still a prejudice against foreigners. We didn’t speak Greek outside the home. If you did, people stared at you – it was certainly a different time. In southern New Jersey, there was no large concentration of Greeks, like Upper Darby in the 70’s and 80’s. The Greeks that came earlier, like my grandfather in the 20’s and my parents in the 40’s, wanted to assimilate into the American culture, as other ethnic groups did too. They left a war-torn Greece with nothing to offer them and they wanted to start new. They were proud of being Greek, but they wanted their kids to be American. Why do you think many of my generation born here have names like Harry, Bill, Ted, or Gina, and not Haralambo, Vasili Theodoro, or Evgenia, like many of today’s young?
Like I said, it was tough. When I played baseball (my brother played football), our last name didn’t exactly fit on the back of the jerseys. In my brother’s case, they thought his last name was both first and last and wrote it “Kara Palides”. In High School, where I was the only Greek, I was simply referred to as “The Greek” or “Harry the Greek,” like I’m sure other Greek-Americans in my position were similarly named. Funny, I never heard any other person called “The Chinese” or “The Italian” or even, “Jose the Mexican”. Must be something about the Greeks? (Yes, that is me in the photograph and I did save the goal!)
Today, most of us parents help our kids with their homework, meet with teachers, and get involved with the school. Back then, when it came to homework, we were on our own. Dad was working at the diner all hours, and Mom read a little bit of English but not enough to help, but she hovered over making sure we completed the homework. Who knows what she understood at the parent-teacher conferences and when it came to sports, Mom would sit on the wrong side… God bless her, she didn’t know, but she cheered the loudest!
There was one thing we did have going for us though… food. The neighborhood and my friends loved it when our family cooked or had a party. My friends’ fathers were plumbers, accountants, factory workers, but my Dad… he owned a diner. They loved that and all the Greek food my Mom cooked. My sister’s friend, Sue, use to just walk in the house, open the refrigerator and take out a chuck of feta cheese – she loved it.
At my law school graduation we had over 200 people at the house and when I told my friends dinner was being served they looked at me like I was crazy. They had been stuffing themselves for over an hour with mezethakia. I explained to them what mezethakia were. They thought that was the main course! Xeni… what do they know!
Oh well, come to think about it, maybe it was good to be the only Greek in town!
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