“But for today, these few words about a remarkable man who, despite enduring immense loss, despite having been a prisoner of war in a Japanese concentration camp, held fast to his wonder at the beauty of life and the universe we occupy.”—Helen Noakes
By Helen Noakes
SAN FRANCISCO California—(Weekly Hubris)—May 2017—Easter has come and gone. This holiday elicits a nostalgia for the things of my childhood which were magical, replete with tradition, joy, and love. The rarity of those moments rendered them precious.
At Easter, in Japan, my family gathered to celebrate and to share in a feast of food and memories. Stories of the past would be exchanged but, as if by tacit agreement, none of our clan’s many tragedies were discussed. They would tell of Easters in Constantinopole, in Russia, and China. My how we traveled! How fully we embodied the meaning of diaspora! How we loved to delve into the past. How I loved to listen, to conjure my ancestors’ crossing mountain ranges from Turkey into Russia, riding midnight trains from Odessa to Harbin—fleeing, always fleeing.
But Easter stories were about the quiet contemplation of Holy Week and its preparations for the Easter breakfast after midnight mass, the joyous songs and revelry on Easter day, with the men turning the spitted lamb, the women spreading white tablecloths over outdoor tables, the music, the dancing, the songs. I loved the songs. Still do.
And while every member of my family left an imprint on my soul, I hold my Great-Uncle Costas close to my heart. He shaped a major part of me, and to honor him, I include segments of a story I am currently writing about my first visit to Greece. During that journey, memories of Costas would rise at different times, in different places and for a variety of reasons. I believe that each was stirred by the deeper meaning of place, of the sacred earth on which ancient monuments were built, of what it means to belong to a land, a people, and a culture.
I hope to have finished the first draft by the end of summer. Then, another adventure will begin—finding an agent, an editor and, if I’m lucky, a publisher. But for today, these few words about a remarkable man, who, despite enduring immense loss, despite having been a prisoner of war in a Japanese concentration camp, held fast to his wonder at the beauty of life and the universe we occupy.
In the Tholos Tomb at Mycenae:
Gazing at the time-charred wall, I knew that at the core of my love of archaeology was my longing to delve into the thoughts, the feelings of people who created our world, who conceived of these structures for the first time.
Suddenly, I recalled my Great-Uncle Costas, the only one of my maternal grandmother’s brothers who survived the Russian Revolution. He lived close to our place in Japan, visited often, and would spend hours speaking to me of the past.
These were not stories of our family, but of great thinkers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, Christ. He never talked down to me, but assumed I would grasp the history, the philosophy he was discussing. And even though I was five when we first began our talks, I managed, in my way, to comprehend.
One day, when I was seven, he was telling me of Plato’s concepts about the creation and I asked, “Who was the first person to look up at the sky and say that there are gods and they live up there?”
Uncle Costas gazed at me for a long time before saying, “I can’t answer your question, but what I can safely say is that he or she had the same hunger to know as you. Never stop asking questions like that, Sweetheart. Never stop looking for the answers.”
I hadn’t thought of that moment in years. Gently touching the grey wall of the tomb, I knew why I was recalling it now. This journey was all about questions, a search for my roots, a search for myself. And Uncle Costas, although now long dead, was showing me, as he always had, that I was capable of seeing far beyond my self-imposed limitations.
From the moment we arrived in Yokohama, Costas and I formed an indelible bond. He spoke to me of God, of philosophy, of the mysteries around and within us, never doubting that I understood. Once, after my mother made a sarcastic comment that his high-minded rhetoric was lost on a child’s small mind, he responded: “It isn’t her mind that is small.”
When I was 14, we left Japan for the United States. Costas remained in Yokohama. We corresponded until he died. I was 28, and grieved deeply upon his death. How I missed his letters filled with wisdom, encouragement, and love!
Late One Night on the Deck of the Good Ship Samothrace:
How I’d loved the fact that the mythic heroes and ancient gods I’d read about took permanent residence in the sky, became stars, planets, remained glorious as they blazed down at Earth.
Seeing my glee at finding Perseus, Pegasus, locating Venus and Mars, Costas would tell me of the men who studied the heavens and discovered that the world was round, the earth was not the center of our galaxy—some at the cost of their lives.
When I was twelve and had read about her, we talked about Hypatia, murdered by Christians for being a woman who dared to seek truth in science and mathematics. He spoke to me of the courage required to be a woman who chooses intellect over subservience to social norms.
When he told me about the stars, Costas’s voice was filled with wonder. “Stars, Little One, remind us of our origins.”
On this quiet summer night, on my way to Crete, I looked up and whispered, “Are you up there, somewhere, Uncle Costas, in the river of the Milky Way?” I never told him how much he meant to me—that, without his love and wisdom, I would have had no respite, no breathing space, no hope in a childhood filled with dread.
On the way to a taverna for lunch, we were taken to see a memorial honoring Nikos Kazantzakis, who was born on Crete. I stood looking at the bronze medallion portrait of the writer, even after the group moved on to the taverna at the other end of the square. I’d read most of his books. Ο Καπετάν Μιχάλης, a story about his father, was the first book I’d read in Greek. I was 15.
As I stood gazing at the memorial, I thought of the first line from another of his books, Report to Greco: “I look down into myself and shudder.” I knew why it had stayed with me all these years and remembering it now affirmed the rightness of this journey I’d undertaken.
Another line, which I had written in a journal I’d begun three years before, came to mind. It, too, was from Report to Greco: “I feel my Great-Grandfather still fully alive in my blood; of all of them, he, I believe, lives vibrantly in my veins.”
I wrote it down and memorized it because my grappling to find meaning in life had begun then, and grew, reaching its current urgency. It was my grandfather, Achileas, and my Great-Uncle, Costas, whom I thought of as I wrote: “. . . they live vibrantly in my veins.”
Author’s Note: To dispel any confusion, I’ve italicized the locations at which each memory occurred. And if any of you are wondering about my family’s travels, they were necessitated by bloody political upheavals. My great-grandparents escaped the Turkish massacre and fled from Constantinople to Odessa in 1899; many of their immediate family were not as fortunate and perished. My grandparents and father fled the Bolsheviks in 1917: the former went to China and my father went to Greece. My father met my mother in Shanghai in 1942, they married, and we were forced to flee again when Mao took China. In 1950 we went to Japan, where I grew up. Our final journey was to the United States. Diaspora anyone?