Sunday, January 29, 2006

Memories of a childhood

My mother's parents were Greek immigrants. My Grandfater came to this country alone, when he was twelve years old. His first job was as a shoe shine boy. Evetually, he met a family who took him in, and taught him the restaurant business, and in a few years he bought his first restaurant in New York. He met my Grandmother a few years later. She came to the United State through Canada, as an old woman. She was not quite twenty. They married, had five chldren, a beautiful home, and the depression struck. It hit them hard. In order to ensure that their children were taken care of while my Grandfather struggled to rebuild a love, they sent the older three children to live with relatives in the south. In less than two years they were all together again. My Grandfather purchased a new restaurant in Newport News, and this is where he lived until his death in March 1959. I never met my Grandfather. I was born that November. His death broke my Grandmother's heart, and from what my family tells me, she didn't smile again until she held me for the first time, a couple of days after I was born.

My Grandfather owned a restaurant in downtown Neport News, on Main Street, just a block and a half from his home. When he became ill with cancer in 1958, my aunt and uncle took over the restaurant. It was on Main Street, through the window of this restaurant, and in my Grandmother's home where I learned the most about life. I was born in the City of Newport News. Newport News is just 30 minutes from Virginia Beach, the city we moved to when I was four years old. Though we moved from Newport News, I continued to spend a good deal of my time there because my Grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins all remained in the city. Newport News is the place that made me who I am. It is the place that formed many of the beliefs I hold today. It was the place where I saw a world change.

I vaguely recall how a nation mourned the loss of a President. My Mom and Grandmother hushed us as they watched the funeral. It seemed as though it lasted forever. A few years later we watched as his daughter christened a ship named after him.

I can remember sitting in the window of the restaurant of my Aunt and Uncle and watching a parade of ghost-like men walking down the street. I remember them locking the door, and telling us not to go outside. I remember my aunt telling us that these men didn't like Greeks, and they especially didn't like their cook, Connie. I can still see the look of terror in Connie's eyes, when I went back to the kitchen to ask him to fix me a bowl of his chicken and dummplings. I was around six or seven years old, and had no understanding of the hate the ghost-like men had for Connie. Later that night my Mom explained it to me. She explained that those men would be very angry to see Connie sitting with us in a booth, and that's why he had stayed in the back that day, and also why the door stayed locked during their parade.

Downtown Neport News was home to three of those large, elegant movie theaters of the past. Theaters with balconies, fancy carpet, incredible drapes over the screen. There were often days where we were the only people in the the theater, and as kids, we loved it. The theater employees all knew us, and we were allowed to see any movie we liked. I learned about the war, the new generation of youth, social consciousness, the new sexual revolution and more through films like The Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (yes, I saw it as a child), Rosemary's Baby, To Sir With Love, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Eventually, my Grandmother became too old to live in that four level house alone. The Newport News Shipyard grew, and as it grew the company began to buy up all the homes that graced the James River. The large Department Stores wtih their teahouses and fancy clothes started to lose business, and evetually closed. One of the theaters closed, and another started showing strictly porn movies. I can remember seeing DEEP THROAT written across one of the billboards. The downtown area became a place for the shipyard workers to eat lunch or enjoy a quick bite and a beer after work. There was no more roaming the streets, shopping in stores, or going to the movies. My childhood, along with my childhood haunts, was beginning to disappear.

dena at 4:31 PM



at 6:53 PM Blogger OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

What a great post, rich with your family history and in turn, your history...I love readingabout other people's lives..It's so very interesting and moving and enriching! I hope you will write more about this wonderfully interesting family of yours. I would love to go to the Restaurant, right now! (LOL)

Here from Michele today, my dear.

at 6:54 PM Blogger margalit said...

I think all of our childhood haunts are disappearing. The 5 acres I grew up on is now cul-de-saks filled with tract houses. The field I rode my horse in is a condo townhouse complex. Nothing much is left of my grandmother's place either. We've grown and changed as a nation and with that growth comes urban renewal, not all of it positive.

Who were the marchers that hated Greeks?

Here via Michele

at 7:00 PM Blogger aka_monty said...

What a wonderful memory you've shared!

I agree with Margalit~it seems that so many of our childhood places are gone. Sad. :(

Oh, Michele sent me!

at 7:24 PM Anonymous deana said...

That was a beautiful post. Its nice you have such a rich history. It sounds like you learned alot about life in that restaurant.
I love the downtowns that survived...I like going to places that have diners and mom and pop stores that have been there for 100 years. Unfortunately you see very little of that now.

at 7:36 PM Blogger OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

Michele sent me back again and I love what you wrote even more, the second time through! More, More More!

at 8:02 PM Blogger The Mistress of the Dark said...

Part of your story reminds me of the tales my mum and gram tell me of my uncle Jock Yablonski that ran for the president of the Coal Miner's Union back in the 70's.

The day before he and his family were murdered they were in my grams house, the doors locked.

at 10:52 PM Anonymous colleen said...

I love family stories. My grandmother came over from Ireland on her own too.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Ah those were the days.

at 2:15 AM Anonymous Michel said...

I have relatives in Norfork and my greatest childhood memories are my family driving down through Newport News and stopping to get crabs to eat, then proceeding to take the ferry to Norfork. I miss the ferry and even though they have that nice bridge and tunnel, it was a fun thing to do on the trip. Alas, the ferry has gone the way of your movie theatre. But I suspect that its the reason I'm such a lover of the water and such and avid sailor.

at 8:10 AM Blogger MommaK said...

I loved reading this post. You are lucky to have such a rich history that you can still visit and share with your children. Does the restaurant still exsist?

at 8:23 AM Blogger Alisha said...

What a beautiful post, Dena!

Have you read "Remembering Blue" by Connie Mae Fowler? It is my all-time favorite book, about a family of Greek-Americans on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Growing up in Pensacola gave me a deep appreciation for Greek culture, I've always been mystified by the passion inside Greek people.

I also remember very vividly those "ghost-like men" marching the streets of the town I grew up in as a child, which is where I live now. Sadly, the last march here was around 5 or 6 years ago, can you believe that???

at 12:53 AM Anonymous Mayberry said...

Great post. It's nice how seemlessly you went from crotch scratching to this to wife swapping.

at 3:50 AM Anonymous Lou said...

This is such a neat post- what great word pictures!

at 8:39 AM Blogger soapbox.SUPERSTAR said...

It was a good post. We'll have to take a nice walk through downtown Newport News this weekend.


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