They say you become a woman the day your mother dies. I say that I became a woman when I stopped at a red light and looked in the rearview mirror. I saw my mother’s face looking back at me. On that day, I finally knew who I was because I couldn’t be who I am, if she wasn’t who she was.
Maria Priovolos was born in June 1917 in Micro Chorio, a small, picturesque village in the high mountains of Roumeli, a province located right in the heart of the mainland Greece. A village so small, they gave it no other name than Micro Chorio – Small Village. The cobblestones and the well in the village square were her playground, but her childhood was short. Her father died when she was nine years old, leaving a young widow and three children, Maria being the eldest. She learned first hand the hardship of life without a father, living on the hard work of her mother and the generosity of relatives.
Although she often claimed to be an obedient and shy village girl, the stories she told us belied her very words. A true indicator of my mother’s lively spirit and daring self is the story about the Fascists who had taken her pet lamb prior to setting up their headquarters in the church courtyard. Running down the hill and waving her arms, she entered the courtyard and stomped her feet, demanding that the little lamb be returned to her, immediately! The soldiers burst out laughing and one of the kinder ones took her by the elbow and led her back to her crying, anxious mother.
As a woman of marriageable age, she was sent to the Athenian relatives who could arrange for a husband. They cut off her braids and bobbed her hair. Maria was so horrified she spent the next year wearing a kerchief 24 hours a day. Alas, the men in Athens were much too hip to be attracted to a skinny village girl with the kerchief that never left her head. At the ripe old maid age of 29, an unwanted suitor presented her with a ring…the entire village rejoiced – this was, after all, possibly her last hope! But Maria threw the ring across the room, where it conveniently fell through the wooden floorboards. She wanted to marry for love…and so she did. My father, coming from the neighboring village for the annual village festival, took one look at my mother and they were married for 52 ½ years.
A relative arranged for their migration to America…dad went first. Maria follows John to America, 18 days on a rocking ship with a toddler at her side and an infant in her arms. She lives in one small apartment after another in lower Manhattan…she walks 32 blocks in each direction to get to Central Park, so her children can play on grass.
John was the breadwinner and Maria was the heart-winner. She saved her money for the things that were important to her…sending her daughters to Greek Day School, so they can learn to read, write and speak Greek. Each month, the daughters wrote letters to their two grandmothers, in Greek, under Maria’s direction before she slipped a few dollars into the envelopes.
Fifty cents was spent each week for piano lessons for her daughters, because she remembered the piano music she heard from the neighboring windows of a more well to do family in her hometown. And as one daughter played, she danced the waltz with the other. She fought, in Greek, to get her daughter into the Girl Scouts of America, with a woman, who obviously couldn’t understand a word my mother was saying, but who did understand the meaning behind them and I became the first Girl Scout in our family.
She set aside time, each evening before we went to bed, to guide our little fingers into a three point shape, so we can learn how to bless ourselves while we thanked God and each Sunday afternoon, after church services and lunch, she would turn on the radio to the weekly Greek program and as the music played, she taught her daughters how to do the Greek dances in the living room, round and round the coffee table. Holidays were the opportunities for her to train us on the intricacies of making the tiropita or the baklava. I remember her placing her hands over mine to demonstrate the best way to roll the dough into koulouriakia.
When my father came home dejected from a battle at the bank, my mother gave him an envelope with the $1000.00 she saved from the weekly allowance; together they bought our first house. When I was planning to go to my first dance, she ran around the corner to the five and dime in the pouring rain, to get me a ribbon to match my dress. When I performed in plays and recitals, she came with flowers in hand, sitting in the front row, laughing and applauding when she saw others do it because she didn’t understand a word. When my heart was broken, she slipped her hand into mine, as we both watched a young couple with their arms around each other, walking down the street. When my home was robbed, she stroked my hair and promised that she and dad were with me and always will be.
When I was young and helpless, she fed, bathed and changed me…when she was old and helpless, I did the same for her. She took my hand and led me to church, to school and to the dentist. I took her hand and led her to church, to the doctor and to the cemetery to visit her husband. A mother’s responsibility. A daughter’s duty.
Maria Priovolos Liatsos died on February 3, 2003. There is so much that I remember; there is so much that I miss. But at the very top of that list is a simple phrase that she would say that was my indication that I had everything I needed to sustain me. It is what every child longs to hear even when we are grown adults. It is what she said when I first left home; it is what she said when I would take the time to visit with her so she can talk about the old days; it is what she said when I cleaned the accidents in the bathroom time and time again; it is what she said when I would tuck her in at night and we would nuzzle and giggle like little girls. The ache in my heart comes from knowing that for as long as I live, I will never, ever hear her say these words to me again: “May You Have My Blessing.”
Helene K. Liatsos
Los Angeles, California
My Country is America; My Heritage is Greece
In Loving Tribute To Her Mother Maria Priovolos Liatsos 1917-2003
“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.” Ecclesiastes 1:4
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