All from Somewhere Else

Peter Anastas

Old Gloucester           Theresa Bernstein (1890-2002)

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 would never see 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.

Papou the Elder. Rocky Neck

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.

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.”

Polisson Family – Lane House. 1914.

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 Gloucesteris 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.

Telling Tales: A Gathering of Stories by Eric Schoonover

pod9781495129094_0

Telling Tales: A Gathering of Stories by Eric Schoonover

A Review by Peter Anastas

(Dogbar Publications, Gloucester, 2016, 142 pp.,  $15)

 

“We tell stories for as many reasons as we live. They celebrate the beginnings and endings of our lives. They are the hand that rocks the cradle, the hand that wraps the shroud. They give meaning to the long or short haul of our lives.” –from the Preface

 

In Telling Tales, Gloucester poet and novelist Eric Schoonover has given us a collection of essays as finely written as they are delightful to read.   Each essay explores an arresting theme and tells a particular story, so that in reading them we are doubly rewarded.

We experience the taste of dates in Egypt with their author, who shares his thoughts about the role of memory in our lives.  In an essay that dramatizes issues of class and companionship, we accompany Schoonover as a young college instructor, who travels from his Eastern American classroom to Washington State to join a fire fighting crew in the Palouse hills.  We’re with him in a car race in which a relationship is also explored, and we assist him in building “Tuva,” his Micro sailboat, which still plies the waters off Cape Ann (he also builds a bed for his grandson Jacob to whom the book is dedicated).  Most powerfully, we climb into the mountains of Switzerland, where Schoonover travels to scatter the ashes of his parents near the small Genevan village where the family spent several memorable vacations.

Yet for all their variety and Schoonover’s scintillating prose, these essays are seamlessly constructed, as befits the boat builder who wrote them.  The word essay comes from the French essai, which means “an attempt.”  In writing an essay one begins by setting down tentative thoughts about a subject.  In the process we may also be trying to discover what we actually think about that subject, and what we want to say about it once we begin to write.

Essays have generally been categorized as “formal” or “familiar.” Formal essays usually consist of an impersonal analysis of a subject, while familiar essays are generally written from a personal point of view and  tell us as much about the writer as his or her subject.

Our era may well be one in which we have witnessed the primacy of the familiar essay, through the popularity of personal essays and memoirs, the profusion of Op Ed columns, and, more recently, the explosion of individual blogs, in which writers write as much about themselves as they do about their subjects.  Yet the new digital technologies (not to speak of texting and Twittering) with their inherent demands to think and write fast, and therefore more superficially, have helped to create a literary culture in which care of construction and thoughtfulness of intent have often been eclipsed by the pressure to post or respond to other posts.  While this has arguably afforded more democracy of access and expression (everybody is now seen to be a writer), the inevitable consequence has been a sacrifice of depth.

For this reason Eric Schoonover’s Telling Tales is all the more welcome.   The personal voice is here in these wonderfully luminous essays, which are both autobiographical and a history of the sources and growth of a literary sensibility.  We come to understand who the author is through the gathering details of his life—fishing with his father as a child; experiencing his first misunderstanding by a teacher in the rural Western Massachusetts school he first attended, in a town where he was the only paperboy; teaching English and literature in a variety of settings; and traveling to remote places whose cultures fascinate him, with his family as a child and later as a mature traveler and writer

With this collection Schoonover has in effect restored the essay to its proper place as an invaluable yet ever flexible mode of expression and exposition, a means of coming at the world in multiple ways, while sharing with the reader what the writer has discovered during the journey.

In describing what he has set out to achieve in this rewarding book, Schoonover quotes Joseph Conrad’s own reason for writing: “I want to make you see.”   And we do see through Schoonover’s eyes some of the world he has experienced and remembered, just as we feel through language that rises to poetry what he has felt and wishes to share with us.

Telling Tales may be a slender book in terms of page length, but it is brimming with the kinds of wisdom, humor, insight and sheer intelligence that are certain to make a lasting impression on the reader.

 

eric schoonover

Eric Schoonover is a writer, boatbuilder and watercolorist, who lives in Gloucester in a small 1735 Cape Ann cottage with his wife, also a writer. He is the author of the award-winning The Gloucester Suite and Other Poems and a novel, Flowers of the Sea. His latest book, Telling Tales, has just been published.