Who is this man?
A man was looking at a portrait. Someone asked him, “Whose picture are you looking at?” He replied: “Brothers and sisters have I none, but this man’s father is my father’s son.”
Whose picture was the man looking at?
We sit down for dinner, as we usually do most nights at 7 o’clock p.m. It’s a family tradition to sit around the dining table sharing, food, drink and stories. Our family is small, just myself, my husband and our eight-year old son. Our extended family is spread across states, oceans and continents; many have passed on from this world. Gathering like this is a way to learn about ourselves and our history. On this particular evening, I have asked my husband and son to talk about their fathers.
The boy, my son, starts by describing his father as nice, grateful, and helping. His father sometimes does things for him when he is struggling, like with his homework. The boy considers life would be very, very, very tough without anyone to help you.
My husband, Mr. Obscure, says he tries to make time after coming home from work to help The Boy with his homework and his questions. He hopes to teach him how to ride a bike next summer.
Mr. Obscure helps his son to learn how to tie his shoe laces, but this is not the kind of thing he learned from his father. As he explains it:
At that time, there were a lot of other people around, so I didn’t learn only from my father. I could learn from my grandfathers, I could learn from my uncles. So, certainly I learned things from my father. He taught me to swim, to bike, he taught me about the lemon trees. My grandfather taught me to tie my shoes. My grandfather was also doing my kites, he liked kites. He used to like to make round kites. I don’t know how he was making them, but he was making round kites.
More wine is poured and Mr. Obscure proceeds to talk about a well-worn subject: lemon trees. The Boy groans.
They had a lot of lemon trees back in the northern part of Cyprus. Mr. Obscure learned how to take care of them, how to water them, how to pick the fruit. He would go work out in the orchard and his father would pay him for it. Before the war, Mr. Obscure tells us, his father was very generous. Mr. Obscure had to work to get paid, of course, but he was very generous. His father was a very good employer and when Mr. Obscure wanted something he got it. Mr. Obscure had wanted an expensive bike. He got it. He loved that purple bike.
As Mr. Obscure, searches for the words to describe his father, I wonder if there is a problem translating from Greek to English. Mr. Obscure is originally from Cyprus, an independent island country in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. He grew up there until 1974 when the island nation was invaded by Turkey and ultimately divided into two parts: Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot. Mr. Obscure is a greek Cypriot who lived in the northern part of the island,the part which was to become Turkish Cypriot. His family then moved to Athens, Greece until Mr. Obscure came to the USA for college. His family emigrated soon after to the U.S. as well.
Now as Mr. Obscure searches for the right way to describe his father, his son interjects with –
I’ll describe his father – dead, was sick, and that’s it because that’s three words.
This is how my son knows his Papou. When The Boy was born his Papou, greek for grandfather, was already in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. Neither my son, nor myself knew him before Alzheimer’s took over his mind. He held on for a long time; too long, in my opinion. In the end, not only did he not recognize anyone, but he couldn’t do anything for himself, not even get up out of bed. He would lay there clutching a doll singing to himself. It seems the one constant in Papou’s life would be singing.
After Mr. Obscure sips his wine and settles his glass down on the table, he relates how Papou always liked to sing and say jokes when at special gatherings. Papou would recount stories about a character from Turkish literature called Nasreddin Hoca. The stories are from a few centuries ago and maybe he was a real person. They were stories that had a meaning behind it, some ethics, like Aesopus. That is Aesopus, as in Aesop the recognized author of the well-known fables.
I ask Mr. Obscure why he doesn’t sing like his father. He explains that Papou liked to sing Cypriot songs and you need two people for that . You have The Boy, I tell him. Looking for a way out, he says that you have to know the parts. Well, you got to teach him I tell him. The boy loves to sing. He is always making up songs. It’s like living in a musical. He must get that from his Papou.
Mr. Obscure finds the words to describe his father. As he says them my son whispers in his ear, his comments are in the parentheses –
Amusing (I didn’t know him as long as you)
Uhhhh – (The Boy whispers something to him)
Yes, he was helpful too and – (nice)
– and he was very opinionated.
What does opinionated mean, daddy?
Mr. Obscure explains to The Boy that this means his father had a big ego and never admitted he was wrong. The boy smiles slyly, perhaps recognizing his own self in that description of his grandfather.
Mr. Obscure concedes that he is opinionated like his father, but not as strongly so. So a lot of times they disagreed on approaches, generally towards life. After the war, Papou became depressed. Mr. Obscure was 12, at that time, but retrospectively he understands that his father was depressed. He now realizes his father was not the same man after the family moved to Athens. He became very conservative and maybe because he lost everything he postponed living. He was afraid and tried to accumulate as much money as he could rather than live better.
Mr. Obscure’s relationship with his father changed a lot with the move to Athens. Everything was postponed and nothing was done. His father didn’t want to take any actions really. He was kind of living day by day. He lost his zest for life and was no longer adventurous. Back in Cyprus, Papou was more adventurous. He built houses and bought land and he wasn’t cheap. But then in Greece he became very conservative with his money and with how they were living, without any particular reason he just did. Mr. Obscure reflects that they had money after a time, but he thinks psychologically Papou became afraid it would happen again and they’d end up without money. So he accumulated everything in the bank.
Listening to his father tell the story of his own father back in Cyprus and in Greece, The Boy is confused and thinks his father has two fathers: one back in Cyprus, and another in Greece. We explain there is only one father. That they lived first in Cyprus and that there was an invasion in Cyprus and they lost their home, property and money. After this, they had to move to Greece. If that were to happen to you, I explain to The Boy, you’d lose everything: your house and everything in your house, such as your Xbox, your legos….
The Boy exclaims he would shoot people down! He makes shooting sounds and says: You don’t touch my Xbox!
Well, I tell him what if those people had bigger guns than you? Find a bigger gun, he shouts. What if you couldn’t find a bigger gun and you lost the war? Find an even bigger gun. No, it was over and you had to move somewhere else, what would you do? Kill people. At, this my heart sinks. This is definitely not the view my husband and I share nor perpetuate. Together, we both say:
No, that is not an answer.
That is not what my husband’s family did. They just started over from the beginning. And what happened to the money in the bank? It was gone. There wasn’t too much money in the bank anyway, because Papou didn’t like to keep money in the bank in Cyprus. He bought land, built another house and invested all his money. And he lost it all, except for the land in Nicosia which was of zero value because the situation was not stable and land meant nothing if you didn’t have a job. Fortunately, Papou had a good job and that’s how they started again. His job sent them to Athens, Greece. They left everything behind. The bike, the kites, their home, family, the lemon trees.
I want to talk!
This is our family history, it is important.
Can we say how we are like our child. And how daddy is like me?
The Boy tells me that he and his father are both good at math, which is The Boy’s favorite subject in school. Papou, Mr. Obscure tells us, was also good in math. The Boy then says that his father is different than him because –
He is older and I’m younger. He is bald and I am not. He has his big molar teeth and I have my little teeth. And I don’t think I am opinionated. Daddy and I are two different people, but we both have some of each other’s DNA.
After nodding and agreeing with a small chuckle, Mr. Obscure continues telling us about his relationship with his father. Mr. Obscure grew up and didn’t agree with his father that one should wait to live and do things. His father didn’t yell at him or say anything to him, they just didn’t agree. Mr. Obscure says he didn’t have an influence to force Papou to do anything, but his father could influence him by not giving him the money to do things. They were living in a very small apartment in Athens and his father was refusing to change and live in a better place. Mr. Obscure doesn’t understand why they stayed in that small apartment. At first, it was all they could afford, but in later years his father was doing ok and could have moved to a bigger apartment and made their lives a bit easier. They certainly needed a bigger house as they were living in a small apartment one on top of each other: his parents, his sister and himself. Mr. Obscure didn’t have a place to sit down and study or anything. He didn’t have a room, but rather what sounds like an alcove and which he describes as a hole. His parents slept in the living room on a pull-out couch and his sister had a small room. In Cyprus, everyone had had their own bedroom and the house was big.
The boy interjects:
But, in Cyprus it’s an apartment
He is referring to the apartment that Papou and his wife bought and lived in after they retired and returned to Cyprus from the U.S. When we go to visit, this is where we go in Nicosia. It is the place that The Boy knows. I explain that this is where his grandmother lives now, but that’s not where daddy grew up.
At this point, The Boy starts singing christmas songs. I pour myself another glass of wine as Mr. Obscure continues to tell us about Papou, his father.
Coming to the U.S. helped his father a lot. After Mr. Obscure came to the United States to study at the university, his parents followed. It was a new beginning for Papou because he was getting away from everything. In Greece, it was very close to Cyprus and he was reminded a lot about the problem back home. Mr. Obscure doesn’t think he liked Athens very much or Greece in particular. He liked the United States, because here he bought a house and he was more happy here than in Athens. It was far enough away to be a new beginning. When Mr. Obscure’s family went to live in Greece they didn’t know if they would stay one day or two months. In the end, they stayed six years. Every month, in Athens it was a question of are we leaving or staying, staying or leaving? His father’s job was temporary, because they had to get permission to operate permanently in Greece. He was working as a telex operator for the US government. When he came to America he continued to be a telex operator. He worked for a couple of financial institutions, including Citibank. Every company he worked for would close down. Everyone of them, except Citibank. Mr. Obscure loves to joke about that.
I ask The Boy if he likes to tell jokes. He tells me yes, but that he is not good at it. When I ask him if he thinks he is like his Papou, he replies with a maybe and then asks if we can talk about the kitties now. His interest in other people runs short.
I tell The Boy that we can not talk about the kitties now. I ask Mr. Obscure, about whether he ever had any difference of opinions with his father. The Boy seizes the moment his father pauses to reflect, and in a sing-song voice says
Maybe, not maybe, yeah, probably…
Papou never gave him direct advice, Mr. Obscure says . I picture Papou as a zen master telling stories and jokes. These stories guiding my husband through his life decisions. Mr. Obscure feels his father didn’t interfere in his life, probably, because he did what his father expected of him. Mostly, this meant pursuing a higher education.
He tells us that his father was very supportive of his studies, that he wanted him to go to university. He feels his father was proud of him. Then trails off, as he pours more wine, saying –
Yeah, he wanted me to go for my PhD, but…
Going to college is something Mr. Obscure believes Papou wanted to do for himself, but was unable to because he didn’t have the money. And somehow through his children he felt that he accomplished something.
At this point, the boy blurts out:
Daddy gave me advice. Daddy gave me advice for school: To be quiet.
I turn to the boy and say:
That’s good advice. Do you follow it?
No, no, no.
Although Mr. Obscure did as his father wanted and went to university, there was one point of contention in their relationship. Mr. Obscure attended Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, NY, where he obtained two Masters degrees. His father deemed this too expensive. He wanted Mr. Obscure to go to CUNY, City College instead. His father did pay for the first semester at Polytechnic, but after that Mr. Obscure was able to get a lot of assistance from the university because he was doing very well. Money was not an issue then, because the money he needed to pay out of his pocket was very little. Papou later realized that going to Polytechnic was the better choice and apologized to Mr. Obscure. I am baffled at the idea of a father apologizing to his child. He apologized to you, I ask in utter amazement.
Before Mr. Obscure can respond, The Boy whines:
I want to talk! About bad advice I got from my father. Uh, he, um, once told me something for math and it didn’t really work.
I realize that the boy is getting bored and the dinner is getting long, so I ask him:
He shakes head:
I tried what he said but I didn’t get the equation I would’ve got. So I did it the way I would do it.
I have some things to add-on – to my father: He’s a never-ender and a continuer.
Stifling a laugh, because I know this to be true, I ask The Boy what he means by that.
It means he never ends what he says and he always continues, he always finds something else he can say.
I ask him if he doesn’t like this. The boy says he does not because he wants to talk too. Since he wants to talk, and it’s time to wind up the interview and the dinner, I ask him if there is anything he would like his father to teach him.
Yes, I would like him to take me kite flying, I would want him to teach me how to succeed.
Is there anything you want to succeed in, in particular?
College! That’s far off, can’t we just get through second grade first?
When asked how his father can support him now and all the way through college, the boy responds:
He can help me learn more at home, give me advice, basically that’s it.
Mr. Obscure tells us that if Papou was here with us now he’d be eating and drinking. He would still be eating after everyone had finished because he took his time. His drink would be either brandy or whiskey, his favorites.
He ends by saying:
I would like my son to know he was a nice guy.