Sophia Mitrokostas ‘15
Sturgis Charter Public School, Hyannis, Mass.
Three hours rumbling up what seemed little more than glorified goat paths had left me tetchy and with a revolting stickiness behind my knees and neck. The heat was indecent, and I was one of twenty or so family members hiking up the side of a Greek mountain where my great grandmother’s ancestral home still stood. I was sixteen, and lost in the tragedy of having worn long sleeves that day. The village we were aiming for was Krapsi. It is situated too many miles from the city of Ioannina, where I had spent the preceding two months languishing in perpetual boredom and heatstroke. An inconsiderately placed thorn bush compounded my foul mood, and I resigned myself to a dull day of overbearing relatives and slapping away insects of primordial proportions.
Our weary party arrived just past blistering noon, collapsing into cracking plastic deck chairs sheltered from the sun by a canopy of grapevines, droopy with fruit and heat. The women retreated into the kitchen, and soon there came the muffled sounds of rolling pins against the pine boards, the spitting and cackling of olive oil in old pans and children’s hands being swatted away from open bags of sugar. The men minded the toddling little ones and produced backgammon boards out of the thin air.
I began disinterestedly wandering through the house, perhaps questing for something cool to press my cheek against. Thrusting out from a verdant cliff ledge, the house had a stone porch, of sorts, which wound like a necklace around the structure until it met a large courtyard shaded by walnut trees to the west. The rooms were plaster-walled and cool, the bedrooms sparingly furnished. There were no mirrors in the house, nor were there doors. I considered the mountainous vista with the curious sensation of being considered by mountains.
I thumbed through the deck of cards discovered in drawers along with bits of twine and bent nails. Their stiffness was long played away, and they folded like dollar bills in my hands. I imagined countless afternoons out in the courtyard, the kings and queens and aces laid flat against a burning table where small change was jovially won and lost through a haze of pipe-smoke.
I discovered a perplexing hole at the center of the courtyard’s flagstones. My uncle taught me about the pole that once grew out of that hole, and about the sleepy donkey that turned around and around the pole for hours, crushing the grain strewn all about the stone underfoot. I wondered at this, silent with respect for donkey and grain-strewer alike.
My grandfather’s faded sketches of great trees in the courtyard, brittle and humble as moth wings between my fingers. My grandmother’s half mended apron, stuffed between a wall and headboard when she was a broody sixteen and mourned afternoons spent out of the sun. The charcoal trees in my grandfather’s artwork were a little less great than the ones now hosting my clambering cousins, and my grandmother has long ago forgone aprons, cleaning her floury hands on the cheeks and noses of squirming grandchildren. Nonetheless, I handled both with the reverence accorded to captured ladybugs and a mother’s jewelry.
I met with a heavy wooden door in the foundations of the house, quite suspect and frowning. It gave way to a lightless, stale room choked with old farming equipment, dusty looms and barrels, and a section of bare wall that my grandmother revealed to be false. We pushed it aside, and I beheld the airless, breathless space where she and my family (my family?) had hidden from foreign soldiers looking to take her brothers into their war.
The house has since fallen into the mountainside below, the result of the frequent earthquakes that rock the region. I’m told all that remains is one wall and a handful of indomitable walnut trees. More than three-hundred years of Sunday mornings, new grand-children, and evenings silent save for the sounds of stars and crickets: now swallowed by ivy and the slow crush of tree roots.
Old houses are polite. They stand quite impartial and unblinking, however you might scuttle about in their bellies and tap their ribs and listen to their hearts. They do not insist. This was not merely an old house in the mountains, but home distilled, eternally new and alive and breathing great breaths. These people could not bear the stern, sterile title of “relatives” any longer. I had seen their lives undressed. In that place I lived, through things forgotten and left behind by other, a life I could not understand, and met again and again people I could never know. My people, my mountains, my walnut shells cracking like exclamation points beneath heels stained by their juices.
A place made of faded Turkish cushions and the strength of mountains taught me what it means to truly be home, and that plumbing is sometimes a matter of faith.