On November 25, 1997, I was given yet another reason to celebrate my Hellenic roots; the most compelling reason of them all. My father passed away peacefully, the very same way he lived his life. He was not a gregarious, bigger than life, Zorba-type Greek; rather, he was on old-world Greek who lived his life quietly, with inner strength, dignity and much wisdom.
Last November, on a crisp winter day, I happen to be in Astoria, Queens – the famous Greek Town of New York City. In one of the many stores there, my eye caught sight of a small package of decals; they were heart-shaped with the American flag on one half of the heart and the Greek flag on the other half. Impulsively, I reached out, picked up a few, and put them in my shopping basket. That very evening, I got the telephone call which told me that my father was admitted to the intensive care unit and that I should hurry home. A week later, I placed one of those decals on his final resting pillow, for he was the one who taught me how to love both countries.
With great care, we chose the plaque marking his grave; a Greek key adorns it. It is a message for all those who walk by to see – here lies an American whose spirit was Greek! He was the inspiration behind the words I use every month in my column: My country is America; my heritage is Greece.
As a child, I received the gift of attending Greek Parochial School from 8:00am to 3:00pm daily. In second grade, I had to draw a map of Greece. I waited for him to come home from work and after a long 14-hour day, he rolled up his sleeves and drew a beautiful map of his homeland. He carefully printed the names of the big cities and as a tribute to his tiny village he pinpointed a spot, high in the central mountains of Sterea Ellas, and wrote: MEGALO XORIO, KARPENISI. With a final flourish, he used a vivid blue crayon to color the beautiful Aegean Sea. Together, we beamed with pride. The map got an A+. He deserved it.
Once a year, on a hot summer Sunday, he would take a day off from work and together, our little family of four, would ride the subway to lower Manhattan. From there we would take the ferryboat across the river and visit the Statue of Liberty. On a cold winter Sunday, we would wait in a long line to see the annual Christmas Pageant with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, followed by a visit to the Rockefeller Center Ice Skating Rink; we would have hot cocoa and make plans that some day, I too could skate there. And one day, a few years later, our dream came true. How easy he made it for me to be American and Greek at the same time! By encouraging me to be both, I was set free from deciding to be one or the other. Thank you daddy.
He came to this country as an immigrant with a wife, two very young children, three suitcases and thirty-five dollars in his wallet. He died a very rich man. Rich in faith, in family and in friends.
Testimony to his faith was when the priests came to his hospital bed and began to pray; dad, with his eyes closed, lifted his arm, which was attached to the various IV’s, and made the sign of the cross. His family, surrounding him with love and respect, followed his direction once again and did the same.
At his birthday party a few years ago, 60 or so guests gathered around him as he blew out his 80 candles. Encouraged to make a speech, he raised his hand shyly and politely bowed his head. He did not thank anyone for their gifts nor for their good wishes. He simply said: “Thank you for bringing honor to our home.” How can a child who hears these words and many others like them, not make family and home the cornerstone of her life! He will be in our hearts forever, as he was the heart of our home.
Evidence of his friends were the 49 cars in his procession from the church to the cemetery, the hundreds of flowers and baskets of foods and breads, cards, letters and e-mails, donations to the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, a Jewish Synagogue and the planting of trees. A very rich man indeed.
On the day he died, my mother hung his cross around my neck. It is a cross I gladly bear for many reasons. In life, he taught me to love America and to love Greece, for I was part of both. In death, he taught me how important the responsibility was to continue this message to the next generation.
A+ again. A job well done. Bravo daddy.
My Country is America; My Heritage is Greece
In Loving Tribute To Her Father John Liatsos 1915 – 1997
“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.”
– Ecclesiastes 1:4
Photograph of our family at the Statue of Liberty from The Personal Collection of Helene and Zaf
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