Saturday, May 20, 2017
In 1908, my father arrived in America wearing his mother’s shoes. He had come to join his father, who was working at the Massachusetts Cotton Mill in Lowell.
He was wearing his mother’s shoes because he didn’t own any. When the officials at the port of Piraeus saw that my father was barefoot, they refused to let him on the ship to America. It was then that his mother took off her own shoes and handed them to her son. He never saw his mother again.
When my father arrived in Lowell, he discovered that his father had died from consumption, his lungs packed with textile fibers. Dad was 9 years old.
A year later, my father was hawking newspapers on the corner of State and Court streets in Boston. When he had earned enough money, he bought a shoeshine stand. At night he taught himself English using Webster’s New International Dictionary and the Boston Evening Transcript. I still have that dictionary.
At the age of eighteen Dad enlisted in the army and was sent to Europe as a medic, where he remained for the duration of the First World War. After the war, Dad began to pursue his dream of owning his own business. He entered the wholesale candy business, eventually coming to Gloucester where he and a partner bought Johnny’s Morgan’s Candy Company on the Boulevard. When the city took the properties to create an esplanade for Gloucester 300th anniversary in 1923, Dad relocated the business to the corner of Western and Centennial avenues, calling it the Boulevard Sweet Shop. In 1949 he sold that business and we moved to Rocky Neck, where Dad opened a luncheonette and S.S. Pierce gourmet grocery store called Peter’s. The store, which for many years became the social center for Rocky Neck life, exists today as Sailor Stan’s.
Years after he had come to Gloucester, Dad continued to speak English with a strong accent. I remember once when Eddie Bloomberg, whose father owned Bloomberg’s clothing store and the Strand Theater on Main Street, joked that Dad, like his own father, “murdered the English language.”
“I’d like to know what you would do,” Dad shot back. “Alone in a strange country and no one to turn to.”
My father never went beyond fourth grade in school, but he valued learning. He sent my brother and me to college, not because he wanted us to do better than he did, but because he wanted us to become “educated,” as he often said. When I was studying Greek in college, Dad and I used to translate The Iliad together. He hadn’t forgotten the Ancient Greek he learned in grade school and he could still recite from Homer’s great epics.
After Dad sold the store on Rocky Neck in 1964 and retired, he spent most of his free time collecting and reading books about Greece, where he and my mother traveled in 1966.
I have a photograph of my mother’s family. It was taken in front of the Fitz Henry Lane house, where they lived. It is dated April 6, 1914. The photograph shows the entire household, my maternal grandparents, all my aunts and uncles, except my uncle George Polisson, who wasn’t born yet. There are other people in the picture, relatives from Boston and a couple of the men who boarded with the family.
Everyone in the picture is Greek. Two men are seated playing “bouzoukia,” Greek mandolins; another holds a pitcher of wine and a tray with glasses. Still, another holds a whole leg of lamb on a skewer. It is Greek Easter. It says so in the lower corner of the picture. In the upper left corner it reads, “Christos Anesti,” which means “Christ is Risen.”
The people in the photograph are “different,” the men swarthy, the women exotic with long dark hair done up in buns. They are holding objects from their own culture, the wine and the lamb, the “bouzoukia.” The writing on the photograph is in Greek.
I didn’t think I was different until once, in Miss Parks’ second-grade class at the Hovey School, we were asked where our parents were born. When I told the teacher that my mother had been born in Gloucester but that my father came from Sparta, Greece, one of the kids (I’ve never forgotten her name) piped up: “Sounds like a can of grease.” After that my brother and I were called “Greasy Greeks” or “Greaseballs.” When I went home crying one day, my father said, “Tell them that you’re proud to be Greek. Tell them that the democratic system of government they live under was invented in Greece.” This happened during the Second World War and I cannot help but think that the war had colored people’s attitudes toward immigrant families like my own.
In the Gloucester of my childhood one heard many different languages and smelled many different kinds of cooking on the way home from school: Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Yiddish, French Canadian, Finnish, Polish and Russian, among others. Our grandmothers learned enough of each other’s language to converse over the backyard fences. Growing up down the Cut or at the Fort, we and our friends had a working knowledge of Italian, exchanging some pungent swearwords in Greek and Italian. The first African-Americans I saw were jazz musicians, who came to perform at the Hawthorne Inn Casino, in East Gloucester, beginning in the early 1950s, when my brother and I sneaked up the back stairs to listen to this wild new music, which we soon began to play ourselves. It wasn’t long before we heard Spanish on the street and even Vietnamese and Cambodian. Though it has always been a cosmopolitan city due to its many ethnicities and art culture, Gloucester has continued to change. Yet the incredible diversity that defines us has remained the same.
We are all superficially different, and we all came from someplace else. What brings us together are the stories we tell. The people in those stories may have different names or speak in languages we do not know, but the tales of arrival and loss, of recognition and assimilation, pain and joy, are uncannily alike. And so are we fundamentally.
Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucester, is a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.