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Smyrna - The beginning

My grandmother and her husband were married in a small chapel on the outskirts of Smyrna in the fall of 1919. Smyrna was then a Greek stronghold; as myth and legend go, there were more Greeks living in Anatolia than there were in Athens.

My grandfather, Georgios, was handsome in the way most Greek men are handsome. Their courtship was brief because he was a soldier in Venizelos’ army.

They lived with my grandmother’s parents, helping to run the family’s small grocery store by the waterfront. Smyrna was thought to be the land of milk and honey and the Greek merchant class prospered.

Within the year, my mother’s sister was born. In August of 1922, word of the approaching Turkish Army reached my grandfather’s ears. It was right before the sacking of Smyrna that my grandfather, dressed in women’s clothing, was smuggled out of Turkey back to his homeland.

My grandmother was forced to flee Smyrna in the middle of the night, leaving everything and everyone she had held dear behind. With her small child clinging to her skirts, she began the terrifying trek back to her husband, back to Greece. The occupying Turkish Army wanted to cleanse ‘Infidel Izmir’ and began to set fire to the city’s Greek Quarter. The piece of wood that she tripped over during those treacherous dark nights turned out to be an Icon of the Annunciation from one of the small churches that the Turkish Army destroyed.

When my grandmother and her husband were re-united in Greece in the early months of 1923, one of the first things they did was place an embossed silver faceplate on the icon to protect it from further damage.

It was now 1924 and the couple finally settled in a small village, in a one-room home, outside of Athens. There were only three other houses remotely close to where my grandparents lived. My grandfather was working, six nights a week, as a watchman in a small factory about one hour away from his home. His days were spent laboring around his property received as compensation from the Greek Government for his efforts against the Turks. He had been seriously wounded in war, long before he met my grandmother, and had never fully recovered. He quickly discovered that this part of Greece was a rock garden of juniper, thyme and oregano – but very little else. The climate was dry and unforgiving but, through his determination and his uncompromising, unfaltering faith in God, his efforts bore fruit.

The long hours eventually took their toll and in August of that same year, he fell gravely ill. For three days and nights, he suffered terribly. The dangerously high fever rendered him unconscious. When the doctor from the neighboring village finally arrived, he told my grandmother there was nothing he could do. It was best she begin planning his funeral.

My grandmother fell to her knees in front of the iconostas and prayed to the Virgin Mary. Please, my beloved Theotokos, you who lost your only son, must know the pain I am feeling. I rescued you from the Turks, please do not let my husband die and leave my young daughter and I orphans in this unfamiliar place. Please, stretch out your veil and make my husband well.

It was then that my grandmother noticed a shadow leave the icon, fly out the window and enter through my grandparent’s front door. It circled the bed, three times, where her husband lay. And then, just as quickly, the shadow disappeared. My grandmother was trying to process what had happened when she felt a firm hand on her shoulder and a voice inside her head. Don’t worry Maria, your husband will get well. There is nothing wrong with him. Take a candle from the Anastasi service and place three drops in his nostrils.

Almost immediately after my grandmother followed the instructions she’d been given, my grandfather’s fever broke and he opened his eyes. Maria, I’m hungry, were the first words he uttered.

And then the second miracle happened. With her husband ill and a small child to take care of, my grandmother had pretty much subsisted on bread and water. Any milk, eggs or meat had been fed, long ago, to her daughter, who was by now, also clamoring for food. Neighbors starting arriving as if on cue, with fruit, eggs, bread, vegetables, meats, honey, cheeses, wine and olive oil.

It is our tradition that at the conclusion of Anastasi services, We take the lighted Paschal candle home. In Greek tradition, it is considered a good omen if one manages to do this without letting the flame go out. The man of the household upon arriving on his threshold traces the sign of the cross. He does the same to each of the windows and door-frames. In order to keep the Divine Light in the in house all year, the Paschal candle is then used to light the small votive light burning day and night in front of the family iconostas.

In my family, it was my father, using Canadian ingenuity, who modified this custom. We had long ago replaced our traditional votive candle for an efficient, economical 10-watt red bulb, so my father, in his best judgment, decided that an equally effective substitute would be our gas stove. This was his thinking: our gas stove was in constant use and provided warm, delicious food that kept us healthy. Besides which, our religious life centered on the kitchen. So each year, for as long as I can remember, until our last Easter celebrated together, upon returning from Anastasi services, we blew out the pilot lights and my father re-lit them using the Divine Light.

The Easter candles themselves are never thrown out. I too have a drawer full of such candles in my kitchen to use in case of a physical or spiritual emergency.

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What a lovely evocation of a terrible time that was so full of life for your family. Thanks for sharing! Great blog.