Letter to My Father

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You taught me that patience and stoicism have a kind of dignity; that self-respect is essential to respecting others. From you, I inherited my looks and my disposition, my love of Greece, of music and of art.”—Helen Noakes

Waking Point

By Helen Noakes

Theodore at 85.
Theodore at 85.

“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”—Umberto Eco, “Foucault’s Pendulum”

Helen Noakes

SAN FRANCISCO California—(Weekly Hubris)—6/6/2016—Whom should I thank for shaping you?

Your parents, Georgo and Athena, whom I know only through a fading wedding photograph?

Your bucolic early childhood in Tsarist Russia, with a German governess, six older brothers, a dog named Karishok . . . or the angry bear who chased you up a tree?

Should I express gratitude to the spirits of your two brothers who sent you away on a Greek freighter to what they hoped would be a kinder fate than the one they foresaw for themselves?

Should I mutter a reluctant thanks to your distant relatives in Athens, who slapped you into a military academy the moment you arrived?

Or should I grit my teeth and thank the Bolsheviks, who slaughtered five of your brothers and sent one to a gulag?

There is, too, your superior officer at the academy, who, upon delivering the news of your brothers’ deaths, ordered you to behave like a man and show no emotion? You were twelve.

Whom and what should I thank for your stories of adventurous Russian whales, perspicacious African elephants, and haughty Egyptian camels? You spun wonderful stories, and it is you who instilled the love of animals in me.

It is you who nurtured my facility with languagesyou spoke over a dozen; I’m struggling with seven.

I see you in my memory’s eye, sitting in the leather club chair I gave you, reading your stack of newspapers, “Ta Nea,” “Le Monde,” “The New York Times,” and “Pravda.” The latter, you reminded me, had no truth in it, but gave a perspective on the lies people are too frightened to refute. “Therefore,” you said, “an invaluable document of the human condition.”

It’s in my library, that chair. Every time I sit in it, I think of youof your caution that I not believe everything that passes for news, search for various points of view, and decide for myself; of your reminder that politicians are a treacherous bunch and should be scrutinized with care.

You taught me that patience and stoicism have a kind of dignity; that self-respect is essential to respecting others. From you, I inherited my looks and my disposition, my love of Greece, of music and of art.

I wish I’d asked more about your past. But then, I recall your reluctance to speak of the horrors you’d endured. With all the burden of the memories you carried, you still found joy in your music. And like a true Greek in whose soul dance is an anthem, you danced. From you I learned my sirtaki and hasapiko, from you the Greek songs of the 40s and 50s.

Although you’ve been gone for a very long time, you are keenly alive in my mind. And there you smile, peering at me over your reading glasses, riffling through another newspaper, humming along to “Athena kai pali Athena.”

Thank you, Papa, for your kind soul, for your wise words, and for your invaluable lessons of hope.

I love you.

Helen Noakes is a playwright, novelist, writer, art historian, linguist, and Traditional Reiki Master, who was brought up in and derives richness from several of the world’s great traditions and philosophies. She believes that writing should engage and entertain, but also inform and inspire. She also believes that because the human race expresses itself in words, it is words, in the end, that will show us how very similar we are and how foolish it is to think otherwise. (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)


  • Alex Billinis

    What a tribute to a man, and to an era. It reminds me of a book by Mariana Koromyla, “Happy to Have Taken the Voyage of Odysseus,” describing the fate of a Black Sea Greek family. The same voyages, losses, love of dance, facility with languages. This culture, like your father, faded into the ages, but for a moment in tribute to him, you brought it back!

  • Tara Creaven-Capasso

    A beautiful piece Helen – thank you for sharing.
    I love to hear the story of your family. The stamina and fortitude that he carried with him throughout his life is a lesson to us all.
    I want to say a special thank you to Theodore for the role he played in your life and his contributions in shaping you who you are today.
    You are much loved and appreciated.
    Tara (aka hot paws)…

  • Elyce Melmon

    Such a touching, memorable tribute. Makes me feel that I know you much better and wish I could have known your wonderful father “in whose soul dance is an anthem”! You wear his smile!