I WAS BORN in February 1938, during a period in my parents’ lives utterly inhospitable to bringing a child into the world. They had come into it in more peaceful times.
My mother was the eldest daughter of a man born to poverty who had become a wealthy landowner through marriage. I’m not implying that he married for money. On the contrary, my grandfather Giorgos Milonas had fallen madly in love with my grandmother Elpida Petmezas, all social and financial calculations be damned. They came from neighboring villages on the plains of Messenia, and I imagine they met at one of the village festivals where Giorgos played syrtos and kalamatianos on the bouzouki, and Elpida, like other young women of the time, danced demurely with close relatives. They claimed that it was love at first sight, and in terms of appearance at least, they were well matched: Elpida, a fair-skinned brunette, as pleasing to the eye as the tall, strapping, flaxen-haired Giorgos with his handlebar mustache. His was the first generation to wear European clothing; his father still favored the fustanella. Late nineteenth century in the Peloponnese . . . Giorgos had no hope of winning Elpida’s hand; even trying to woo her was out of the question. A gaping chasm stood between the thirty-year-old jack-of-all-trades and master of one—occasional hunter, horseman, and itinerant musician—and the Petmezases, who had forty peasants (sharecroppers, to be precise) at their beck and call. I doubt, then, that what followed gave him much pause. One day, when Elpida set off to see the dentist in Kalamata—back then, a bona fide journey from her village with two mares leading the way, another two bringing up the rear, and in the middle a donkey with the young woman perched on its saddle—Giorgos and his mates lay in wait behind a bend in the road. When the cavalcade approached, he leapt out and cut them off, rifle in hand.
“Will you give her to me for my wife?” he demanded in a thundering voice.
“You must be dreaming, man! Come to your senses!” the young woman’s keepers shot back.
The gunfire that followed left one dead and three wounded, and provided Giorgos with the cover to carry the young Elpida away to a cave for the night. At dawn he surrendered to the police and was tried and sentenced—some say for five years, others seven—to hard labor at Bourtzi. But it was no skin off his back: He had made her his wife and she could not be married to anyone else.
Almost as soon as he was released and the marriage solemnized, the children began to arrive. First, Achilleas and Kyriakos; then Anna, my mother; followed by Katerina (who died in infancy), Alcmene (ancient Greek names were all the rage), and finally Theone, all within the fifteen-year period from 1905 to 1920.
Were the boys especially gifted students? Or was it the noble aspiration of a well-to-do landowning family to send its sons to university? In any case, as soon as both finished high school, they were dispatched to Athens: Achilleas to study theology and Kyriakos, law.
They returned to the village every summer, but instead of helping with the work on their land, they would lie in the shade of a tree, ostentatiously reading Marxist tracts. Who had introduced them to communism? It’s a mystery. When Grandfather Giorgos asked them point-blank—glowering, probably, as he did so—Achilleas replied with what he believed was the perfect riposte, but to everyone else was arrogance pure and simple: “These days, if you’re not a communist you’re either blind or a complete idiot, like taking a position against the Revolution back in 1821.” In the face of such conviction, Giorgos only shrugged.
In the evenings, Achilleas would go to the village café to propagandize, while Kyriakos oversaw his sisters’ education. “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country,” Lenin had said. Kyriakos dwelt on the second leg of the aphorism. He described the electrification of the Peloponnese, the automation of work by state-of-the-art machinery, the layers of compressed air propelling modern trains to speeds that would shrink the distance between Kalamata and Athens to next to nothing. Eyes agog, the girls consumed science fiction as political catechism.
Anna’s journey to Athens via steam engine (that trusty coal-guzzler!) lasted almost a day and a half. It was preceded by three months of heated arguments with her father, or rather her father’s heated arguments with himself. He could not decide between keeping his little Anna (the girl was so like him—she had such pluck!) in the village or letting her go to discover the vastness of the world. “If you are going to hold me prisoner, then marry me off immediately! The sooner I have children, the sooner I can set them free.” At the end of the day, these two sentences had won the war for Anna.
She moved into her brother’s student den, a room in a house in the foothills of Lycabettus, and passed the entry exams for the School of Fine Arts with the helping hand of one of the other applicants (later to become a renowned artist). Infatuated with her, he had submitted both the live- model and still-life drawings in her stead. Despite all this, she did not attend a single class. Having hastened to join the Communist Youth, she was now already working in a textile factory, charged with the mission of spreading the good word among her coworkers.
Was she a great persuader, or did her silver-spoon upbringing betray her, despite her affectations of proletarianism? I can’t say. In any case, Anna was not the kind to be turned from her course once it was set. As soon as she signed on to the socialist cause, she served staunchly and steadfastly, no matter the cost.
Her brother Achilleas, on the other hand, was either less loyal or a more independent thinker, depending on your point of view. Upon his graduation, he was appointed to a theology position in a public school. His first words to the students were to admonish them to not believe in nonsense, there was no such thing as God. Needless to say, they fired him on the spot. So as not to end up in exile—where his conversion to Trotskyism was sure to put him in the cross-hairs of the KKE2—he fled Greece. For a number of years, he drifted around Europe doing odd jobs. After the Second World War, he ended up in Israel, where he sired ten offspring and cut a strange but well-known figure in Tel Aviv. Clad in a black suit, long hair billowing in the wind, he would stride up and down the seashore, a book conspicuously in hand, soliloquizing by himself. “I am a traveler of the mind” was how he liked to introduce himself.
In 1933, the twenty-two-year-old Anna must have been a most striking young communist: Tall, blond, and slim like her father, she possessed a rather austere demeanor that was as arousing as it was forbidding to the men around her. One day, a girlfriend told her that Comrade Armaos was eager to meet her.
“Our delegate?” Anna was impressed. “Yes, the very same!”