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The Memory of My Greek Ancestors Waiting to Be Found

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

By Daphne Gregory-Thomas

Standing weary yet satisfied in the Athens airport, I wheel my suitcase toward the check-in and watch for typical boarding delays on the flight information sign. After traveling for two weeks with friends through Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini, I am ready to go home. Our trip does not disappoint: lovely hotels, a trip to the Parthenon, days on black beaches, evenings in well-appointed restaurants, visits to all the sights designed for tourists to enjoy.

My new husband, who I had known all my life through common relatives, bends over and whispers in my ear: “Let’s not leave.” I find his comment an endearing validation of a wonderful time, typical of someone who does not want a lovely journey to end. I squeeze his hand in response to what I perceive as a romantic gesture. But he has something else in mind.

He grabs my hand and walks me to the ticket desk. Our travel companions look at us quizzically. My husband asks the attendant what it will cost to change our return ticket to a later date, and where we could rent a car. I stand speechless and confused.

“What are you doing?” I demand.

He turns, saying, “We are here, and we are not leaving. I want to find our family.”

Both he and I, through our common relatives, have heard stories all throughout our lives of the place called Mani in the Southern Peloponnesus, the land of our ancestors. It has a reputation. Well known for its tough Spartan attitude, it’s the only part of Greece that the Turks never conquered. We grow up with stories of its rugged beauty, the fierce, loyal nature of the people, and the famous vendettas, starting as far back as Achilles. We both know we still have family there, and remember some of the names of their small villages that dot “The Mani.”

My new husband, who I have loved since childhood and finally had a chance to marry, is spontaneous and determined. After 35 years as an educator, I think in terms of structured lesson plans. “We have tickets,” I claim. “It has been a long trip already. Our family is expecting us back home.”

He turns again, answering, “That’s exactly my point. Our family is waiting. We are going home.” And our unplanned odyssey begins.

We rent a small car, purchase several maps and do our best to find our way on a highway that cuts through the high mountains of Sparta. After the luxurious hotels of Athens and Santorini, it feels like we are going back in time. Small white homes with cerulean roofs and open terraces scatter the hillsides.

I feel like I had been here before, that I was right where I belonged. This is a memory that will never let me go, because it has always been there, waiting to be found.

We finally find our way to Gythio, the small harbor town that opens up to the high mountain roads of Mani and our ancestor’s villages. We park the car and, in his best broken Greek, my husband asks a woman who is sweeping the sidewalk if she knows of a place where we could stay. He explains we are on an unplanned trip to find family. She asks his family’s name. He tells her. The broom stops mid-air. “My name,” she replies. She welcomes us with big Greek hugs. She insists on feeding us and cries tears of joy for our meeting when we leave.

The next day, we continue our drive up tiny roads leading to towns that hold the promise of more relatives. We stop at a small church where we learn my husband’s mother had been christened and light a candle. We discover a taverna on the beach owned by his distant cousin who feeds us freshly caught octopus, thick slabs of feta cheese, and stories of family scattering to America, Canada, and Australia.

We then travel to the village of his father’s birth, before coming to America, where he left behind a young wife and twin sons, hoping to bring them to a better life across the ocean one day. My husband weeps, knowing that dream had died along with the wife left behind and brothers he would never know.

We ask a man walking a dog if he knows my family’s name. “Up there.” He gestures toward a hill and giant stone tower, among the many in Mani built as ancient vendetta lookout stations. We wind our way up the skinny road filled with dangerous switchbacks, holding our breath as we pass men traveling on donkeys who know better about the safer way to go.

We find a small cottage near the tower and pull a string that rings an old bell. A man in a funny hat and his wrinkled wife emerge. We tell him who we are; why we are there. Once again, spontaneous hugs encircle us and tears wet his cheeks. “This for you!” His limited English exclaims as he shares old pictures of family and origin stories we work hard to understand.

Then, photos of paintings that hang in an Athens museum, depicting historic ancestors of my bloodline dressed as Evzones, sickles held high, warriors of The Mani, many with the face and piercing blue eyes of my grandfather who found his way to America as a boy, alone.

We drive on and see a man digging a ditch. We say a name. He points to a house overlooking the sea. We travel the road, and find an open porch full of people, gathering around glasses of Greek wine and mezzes. They look up as we get out of our small car. Reflected in their faces, I see the same faces of my cousins, aunts and uncles back home. We tell them who we are, and upon understanding, they rush from their seats to hold us, bringing more tears for us being there and for those who are gone.

They all speak at once, just as our Greek family in America does when we gather around the Sunday table. For three days, they won’t let us leave. Day and night, long tables are piled high with platters of fish caught that day, greens from their gardens, tangy cheeses, juicy olives, and jugs of homemade wine. New relatives keep coming, bringing more stories and grainy pictures.

On the last day, a withered old uncle grabs his walking stick and points higher up the mountain. “Now we go,” he says, gruffly. We follow him, climbing rocky paths through twisted groves of olive trees.

Finally, an opening, and an old stone house. One of the weathered stones is etched with the date: 1886. We enter through a small doorway, and on the crumbling wall hangs a picture of my great grandparents. “This their home,” he proclaims in broken English. “We keep to remember.”

It is one big room, the main wall a fireplace with a hook for a cooking pot. Another corner houses a giant stone wheel, used to crush olives for the thick, rich oil. My uncle beckons us with his stick to climb down a set of old steps where we discover the family altar, walls painted fresco style with the faces of saints to protect the clan. In this stone house, on this mountain in Mani, lived a mother, a father and their nine children, who worked the very earth where I stand, who prayed at this altar, who painfully sent some of their children to a new, unknown land when hunger, sickness, and danger threatened.

We light a candle at the altar. I touch the thin gold band that encircles my finger, which had encircled that of my mother before me, who died too young for a journey such as this. It had encircled the finger of her mother before her, who, as a young girl, once lived in this stone house before setting sail at 15, never to return. At that moment, I know I have returned for them both.

I can feel their spirit and the memory of those who had inhabited this place deep in my blood, right down to my bones, their legacy consuming me as my own. I feel like I had been here before, that I was right where I belonged. This is a memory that will never let me go, because it has always been there, waiting to be found. Standing on that mountain in Mani, I have, indeed, come home to a family that has been expecting me, and I thank my spontaneous and determined new husband for knowing.


Daphne Gregory-Thomas spent 45 years as a high school educator in New Jersey and New York. Her focus was on working with students with and without disabilities in their transition to the post-secondary world via her award-winning self-awareness, self-advocacy, and career-awareness internship programs. She believes her professional success was a direct result of everything her students taught her over many years. She was diagnosed with cancer soon after she retired, and then became a patient-to-patient volunteer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. She is also a participant in the Memorial Sloan Kettering Visible Ink Writing Program.