by Ares Demertzis (January 2010)
It was an arranged marriage. His father having died when he was three, a solicitous uncle performed the obligatory function of proposing for his nephew to the father of a singularly attractive young woman; her complexion was as unblemished alabaster, her hair black as a raven´s wing, and her eyes, her eyes, the pale, ethereal softness of a vaporous, illusory gray. Surprisingly, notwithstanding her exceptional beauty she was unwed, the direct consequence of what was referred to by her relatives as a “spirited personality.” She had consistently elected to reject all previous suitors as trivial, and appeared undaunted by that approaching statistical age after which matrimony was considered unattainable within the steadfastly hermetic society to which she belonged. The uncle´s choice was motivated not so much by the young woman´s comeliness, but by a financial consideration: the prospect of a lucrative dowry for his nephew; the solicited bride was the daughter of an affluent family in that small, isolated mountain village where the probable future groom had also been born thirty eight years ago.
When he was seven, his mother, dressed in the traditional black garments of mourning that she had worn these last four years, and would continue to wear perpetually, took her only son by the hand for a stroll down the unpaved main street. As they walked over the hard packed, uneven ground, she informed him that their purpose that day was for him to choose into which one of the assorted trades there represented he wanted to be indentured as an apprentice in order to learn the occupation that he would pursue for the rest of his life. They walked by the butcher shop, the shoemaker, the blacksmith and greengrocer; as they passed the tailor shop, the owner looked up from his task and smiled pleasantly in greeting. The youngster turned to his mother and whispered, “here.”
For thirteen years he worked for the tailor every day, at night sleeping on a bed of accumulated rags under the worktable, seeing his mother and two sisters only sporadically. When he was twenty, at last regarded as a master tailor, he exiled himself voluntarily to the United States where he could find sufficient work, better compensated work, to support his mother and two sisters, and also provide the funds for their indispensable dowry. Finally, now at thirty eight, he was free to consider selecting a wife and raising a family of his own.
The strong willed young woman unpredictably accepted his uncle´s proposal. The future groom appeared in her judgment to be a temperate, dependable man who, she had been informed, selflessly abandoned family and friends to seek employment in America in order to provide economically for his mother and sisters. She surmised that he must have been more than reasonably successful, having additionally furnished the substantial resources for two dowries, considered indispensable in order to interest an appropriate suitor; furthermore, she concluded that he was observably prosperous, being always impeccably attired. It never occurred to her that the elegantly tailored garments were economically fashioned creations of his own manufacture; all his earnings having been surrendered for the benefit of his mother and siblings. Their appalling economic situation became unquestionably apparent shortly after the wedding; a distraught, albeit resolute spouse consequently proclaimed in no uncertain terms to her husband: “My children will not grow up to graze sheep in the mountains. The only thing of any value you have is an American passport. We will go there, where no one can witness my humiliation and mock my pride.”
And there they went. To America. Cleveland, Ohio. In 1929.
A diminutive store front was rented and converted into a tailor shop, at the rear of which a small, humid and windowless room served as the newlyweds living quarters. A table with two chairs at which to take nourishment, and a bed on which to rest comprised the entirety of their essentially Spartan surroundings. During the winter, the bare, undecorated walls of the room were covered with an opaque coating of ice, and although the bitterly frosty environment was insufferable, the cost of heating was circumvented by making use of more blankets. In the scorching summers, the atmosphere was transformed into a sweltering, infernally suffocating oven; from the scorching heat they could find no relief. Yet they lived and toiled there for ten years, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Saving every penny. Every nickel. Every dime. The occasional dollar.
There was what some may incorrectly consider to be a trivial and insignificant reminder of an almost forgotten spirituality that accompanied them throughout their crushing existence: in the summer months they tended with thoughtful tenderness several hearty tomato plants growing in clay pots by the large window at the front of the store, celebrating joyously the crimson fruits of their labor at harvest time.
In a rigorous attempt to minimize expenses, he refused to hire any employees, opting to perform all the work himself, although this required incessant labor. His wife would later disclose that her husband knew when it was necessary for him to lie down and rest only when the blood abruptly flowed from his nose to run down his chest, soiling his shirt. In all those years there was no closing of the business for a vacation, not a single meal, a slice of pie, or a cup of coffee was consumed in a restaurant; there was no radio, and they never went to the movies. Entertainment was superfluous. Nothing was purchased that was not strictly essential for survival.
His wife declared frequently that she couldn´t understand how there could be poor people in America, because anyone prepared to work hard could make a living. She had witnessed poverty; she recognized and acknowledged it as hunger and beggary, and it was brutally endemic in the Old Country.
Never having lost his sense of humor, her husband would retort: “You know, we were all given a choice before we were born; we could either be attractive or wealthy. Obviously, I made the wrong choice. I´m not wealthy. And you, my dear, aren´t either.”
Another of his favorite accurate witticism was that in actual fact, it was capitalism and not socialism that better demonstrated the tangible benefits of a “worker´s paradise.” He maintained that no worker in history ever lived as well, had access to as many personal possessions, and was as politically free as the worker laboring in a capitalist system.
Before the stockbrokers ceased jumping out of windows, and the lines at soup kitchens came to an end, the couple had remarkably not only endured, but also accumulated enough money to purchase a house and seriously consider having a child. Over time, general economic success and prosperity became achievable with the outbreak of the Second World War, which provided the vehicle for an astonishing increase in collective wealth and a heretofore unimaginable economic optimism. For several generations thereafter, economic affluence distinguished American exceptionalism, until the sartorially ostentatious, excessively perfumed, artificially jovial, and mendacious politicians once again, repeating with obdurate passion the blunders which produced the Great Depression, were emboldened enough to interfere with an economically viable, remarkable capitalist system, and irrationally generate the first universal economic catastrophe of the 21st century.
By the time he left Cleveland, and relocated his business in New York, he had acquired the well deserved reputation of being an understanding and considerate employer, always available to listen and be of assistance to those who worked for him. One day a recently hired employee stopped by to speak with him; I happened to be there, working by his side. He offered a chair, and, as was his habit, served two cups of thick, Middle Eastern coffee, one for himself, one for the visitor.
“You know, Mr. Mike, that God will punish you. You will go to hell,” the employee sternly admonished.
“Tsk, tsk,” he made his habitual, culturally understood utterance suggesting incredulity by forcing air through clenched teeth, and continued: “I will go to hell. Why is that?”
“Because you are a rich man, and I am poor. My wife is expecting our fourth child, and I don´t have any money. It isn´t fair!”
The man leaned his head forward, his features almost meeting those of his employee. A slender, enigmatic grin played on his lips; he always smiled like that when he was exceptionally irritated.
“You know,” he responded, “there is one thing I think I should make very clear to you. I don´t know your wife. I never met the woman. So I don´t think I have a personal responsibility for any of her pregnancies; however, you do.”
I never forgot that keenly incisive rejoinder from my father.
I called my son today. Some time passed before he answered the phone.
“Hey, whazzup, what took you so long?”
“Oh, I was out in the yard with the boys.”
“What are the kids doing?”
“Well, they´re helping me fix the stone wall around the flower bed, picking up stones, sorting them according to size, and piling them into the wheelbarrow.”
“Aren´t they a little young for that?”
“I think they can handle it.”
“So, you´re putting them to work, eh?”
“Yeah, well I learned that from you when I was a boy; now it’s their turn to be educated.”
I always insisted, from personal experience, that the best inheritance one can provide to one´s offspring is teaching them not to be afraid of work. And as I dabbed at a sudden, puzzling sting in my eye, I remembered that a grown man isn´t supposed to cry.
Kaliope Demertzis 1900-1984
Emanuel Demertzis 1890-1976
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