Aug. 23, 2017

The Wise Olive Trees

When my father, Vasilios, was a small boy, he liked to  play quietly by himself at the bottom of the steps to his house, next to the ancient  olive grove.  Perched high on a mountain ledge, this humble dwelling  was one of the first houses on the way into the village from the main road. 

A  nondescript  whitewashed box with handmade red clay tiles for a roof, the  living quarters were on the second level, above an open-air space which served to  shelter  livestock. This  was the family  homestead, protection and warmth  for a family of five, mother, father, grandparents  and  elderly aunts; Vasilios shared  one bed with his younger brother and sister.  The central stone fireplace provided heat in the damp winter months, and the thick outer walls were  excellent  insulation against the oppressive summer heat.    Faithful  guardians  standing sentinel  close to the house, the olive trees were thick and gnarled, their  trunks twisted as though the hand of Zeus himself had reached down and given each one a turn.  Vasilios loved the  windswept olive trees;  stalwart and silent, as they had been for centuries. He felt a part of them, and drew comfort from their very presence.  

Vasili had been born in another part of town, in what had been  a tumbledown shack  behind the main Platia.   It was  1933, and soon after that his  father had built this new house, a proud statement of hope for the future, with two more children arriving in quick succession.  The olive grove  was part of  Vasili's great-grandfather's dowry when he  had married many years before, and it would one day be  Vasili's  own, a fourth-generation of  hard-working Greeks with fierce love for their families and country.  Olive oil was their lifeblood, and in every family the revered trees were passed down through the centuries, along with the knowledge of how to care for them.  For all those centuries the trees had stood firm, returning bountifully their blessed small oval fruit, seemingly thanking the people, a give-and-take  partnership through countless ages.    
As was the custom, the women cooked during the day and either sent food to the fields, or the men brought it along with them in the morning; usually it was bread and cheese, olives, paximathi (a dry bread), smoked fish, and for some who were more fortunate, a pork sausage called loukaniko, which was an easy thing to port along with them.  In some communities, a few families were lucky enough to have oranges.  Each family had a few goats, but they were for milk and cheese only; not to be slaughtered.  There were many days of hunger and meat was indeed a rare luxury. 
Vasili’s story unfolded on a hot summer evening, as we sat around the kitchen table in the now modernized family home.   After a delicious home-cooked meal of stewed lamb, my father’s gaze became wistful as he recounted how, on a hazy morning, before the whirring of the cicadas had risen to full volume, his younger sister had been sent to take the goats to the fields.   She tried her best to control them, but there was one stubborn goat who would not follow along and kept going in a different direction.   In frustration, she threw a stone at the goat, hitting it in the head.  It fell onto the road, and lay there twitching.   She went running back to the house and told father what she had done, and he promptly went back with her to the goat and put it out of its misery.  There was a feast that night and for several days to come, there was meat.   When our aged storyteller suddenly grew quiet, we held our breath, and he began to tell us about the war. 
Vasili was six years old when war was first declared between Britain and Germany in 1939.  By 1940, World War II was already raging in Europe, and was beginning to affect Greece.  Villages had loyalties that were split between those who may have supported the Nazis and their Italian allies, or at least complied with them, and those who began to form a resistance.   The treacherous mountains and ragged foothills around the villages in these areas quickly became hideouts for the resistance to stash weapons and to organize their guerrilla attacks.  The higher villages in particular, were where they found the safest places to hide, and often the men who were involved would have left their wives and children in the villages below.   My grandfather Aristomenis became one of these men, hiding in the highest reaches of the mountains, as he was now being sought by both the Nazis and by the local sympathizers who knew that he was part of the resistance.   
Forbidden publications were smuggled into the villages, in the form of wrappings for fruit and vegetables, and then were secretly circulated.  A fire lit in the hills would signal the arrival of new information and supplies.  A megaphone would announce the arrival of troops.  Enemy forces marched through the village by the hundreds.  Homes were emptied of their belongings and furniture, and it was hidden in the hills, inaccessible to all but the locals, lest the soldiers enter and destroy it all.  Grandmother was shrewd and knew to place her valuables inside the chimney for safekeeping.   
Now, as the young Vasili sat at the bottom of the steps, henchmen came and seized his mother and took her away, as a means to try to find where his father was.   She would be kept in the local jail, which was actually the village olive press, but the building was now being used to confine and torture those being held prisoner.  The prisoners were made to cook for the invaders, and if the women did not comply, they were beaten.  The boy was left caring for his younger siblings, with only his aunt and an uncle nearby to lend a hand or provide any food.   His mother  remained in this jail for many months, from May to September, then eventually was released. 
Suddenly aware of his great responsibilities, Vasili had to grow up quickly, fending for himself, caring for his siblings, and also looking out for incoming troops.   As a routine, he and his cousin were sent into the foothills to watch for activity below, and to signal if they saw anything unusual.  On one bright fall afternoon, the two were carousing in the hills when they caught sight of some Italian troops making their way up the road.   They signalled with their fragment of mirror, sending flashes of light upwards into the village as a warning, and giving their location away.   Bullets whistled by, one of them grazing the older boy’s chin.   They were lucky to be alive, but now, they had more skin in the game. 
It was not long after that, my father relayed, that my grandfather was found and brought down from the mountain.  The opposing locals had been searching for him and a few others.   They finally came across him in the fields and he came willingly, asking not to be handcuffed, and saying he would prefer to walk into the village proudly.  On this day, on the dusty road in front of his own house, at the foot of those same stairs, my grandfather was shot and killed, while my father watched in horror.   Aristomenis was executed for his involvement in the resistance, leaving a young family in the aftermath of a war, with only a mother caring for them.   She did not complain.  She held her head high and worked hard to provide.  With this, the young boy became the unofficial male head of the household, helping his mother with every task, and largely responsible for raising his younger brother and sister. 
These events shaped the people involved forever after.  One of the fortunate few, my father was able to obtain an education, and later emigrated to Canada, to start a new life.   
Now 85 years old, Vasilios hesitates for a moment, once again at the bottom of the familiar stairs, a flicker of painful remembrance passing by.  Despite these vivid memories, there is a joy that spreads over the old man's face when he is again able to return to his village and his original family home, to stay for a few months.  The light in his eyes is restored, the stories come flowing from his heart, and he will sometimes surprise us with a song that he fondly remembers.   Looking past his wrinkled face and wisps of snow-white hair, his hands shaking gently as they always do, I see a mixture of kindness and sadness in his eyes, as they carry the wisdom of the world; a world we can never fully know or understand.  Still deeply a part of him, the  same age-old olive trees remain, a solemn and majestic reflection of the resilience of the Greek people, watching silently as the world descends repeatedly into this chaos.